Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
There are many ergogenic aids that athletes use to improve exercise performance. These include nutrients like carbohydrates, drugs including caffeine and steroids, and invasive techniques like blood doping. Many of these performance-enhancing substances are illegal, banned, or dangerous, so ergogenic aids often have a negative connotation. And, while many of these aids may work for highly trained athletes who have already maximized their training, they don’t really benefit the rest of us.
However, there is one ergogenic aid that has been shown to safely, effectively and legally enhance performance for almost everyone. In fact, it is so widely used there is a good chance you already benefit from it when you exercise. That ergogenic aid is music!
Music is a psychological ergogenic aid that is known to affect mood, emotion, and cognition. Music played at a fast tempo can make you exercise harder and at a slower tempo music can help you relax. Let’s explore some of the psychological and physiological effects of music that can improve exercise performance and make your workouts more effective and enjoyable.
In most gyms, there is music playing in the background and many people listen to music using headphones while they exercise. A practical reason is that listening to music makes the exercise more enjoyable by providing a mental distraction from sensations of intensity and fatigue. This means that your exercise session may feel easier or shorter, even if you are working harder.
This is the same reason why talking with someone, watching a video, or listening to an audiobook can make an exercise session seem to go faster. As far as music goes, the benefits may vary based on the type of music. Music that you don’t enjoy is unlikely to elicit any positive impact on performance, so if you don’t like the tunes your gym is playing, grab your headphones and pick something you enjoy listening to, that fits your intensity goals for the workout.
Not only can listening to music make exercise more enjoyable, it can also help you get a better workout. Research suggests that when exercise is coupled with motivational music, people tend to exercise at a higher intensity. They also tend to fatigue at a slower rate leading to longer exercise sessions. This is because people report a lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE), a subjective measure of feelings of pain and fatigue. This means that the exercise may feel easier even at a higher intensity!
Tempo is an important aspect of music that contributes to performance. People tend to prefer a tempo that matches the exercise intensity. Fast tempo music fits well with higher intensity exercise, like running, and music with a slower tempo is better suited for lower intensity exercise, like yoga. Music tempo can also influence the intensity of exercise. Music with a faster tempo can promote more vigorous exercise, as measured by a higher heart rate, and a longer distance covered when walking, running, or cycling for a set time. If your exercise routine involves a series of periods of high intensity training followed by slower paced exercise, match your music to the intensity of the intervals to enhance your performance.
Another factor of music that can influence performance is whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous is when a person matches their movements with the music they are listening to. This is particularly effective for running, cycling, and rhythmic exercises like aerobics. Asynchronous is when the music and the movements of a person do not match, which may still provide benefits as background music.
Listening to music before exercise can also affect performance. Studies have shown that listening to music prior to exercise can improve motivation, arousal, and focus. This is why you often see athletes wearing headphones while they warm up before games or races. Research also suggests that listening to music during cool down can decrease recovery times by speeding clearance of blood lactate, a waste product produced during intense exercise. This is especially important if you are doing multiple bouts of exercise separated by short rest periods.
If you already listen to music during exercise you probably have your own favorites to play. If not, most streaming music services have exercise playlists you can try, some of which are even tailored to the specific type of exercise you are doing. For safety reasons, be sure to pay attention to your surroundings when you use earphones, especially outdoors. What if you prefer to exercise without music or other distractions? Like all ergogenic aids, the additional effect of music is small compared to the great benefits of the exercise itself, so keep doing what you are doing, with or without your jam.