Music and Exercise Performance

The connection between music and exercise is by no means new or surprising. In fact, the ancient Romans famously played simple rhythms on large drums to synchronize the strokes of the rowers on their ships. This makes perfect sense when you think about all the times that you’ve unconsciously found yourself tapping your toes to the beat of a song playing the background. Centuries of experience make it plain that the human body just naturally wants to move along with the rhythm of a given song. Understanding this connection and how to capitalize on it can give you a powerful tool in improving your workouts.

The Research
Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a leading researcher on music and exercise told the American Council on Exercise that “Music is like a legal drug for athletes.” He also went on to explain that a properly selected playlist can both improve your endurance and lessen the perceived exertion during a workout. These assertions have been backed up by numerous studies which also shed light on various things to consider when selecting your workout music.

One 2004 study published in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation played various genres and tempos of music for the subjects who were asked to perform their normal cycling workout while their power output was measured. The study had some fascinating results in that the subjects’ output increased relative to the speed of the tempo regardless of the genre. The researchers paid specific attention to genres that the subjects were either unfamiliar with or didn’t enjoy at all. So, don’t be afraid to explore other genres of music when building your playlist.

This is emphasized by 2010 study in the same journal which tried to dissect the music into its various aspects to determine which had the greatest bearing on athletic performance. The entire group of subjects was played a complete, unedited song and then split into three groups. The groups were then asked to exercise while they heard either the percussion track, a matching metronome track or a track with no rhythm elements. The subjects all performed the same whether they heard the full song, the percussion or the metronome. These results show that even though we might enjoy the musical aspects of a song, it’s really the percussion section that makes it an effective workout tool.

Just like any other aspect of your fitness routine, you should use caution even when picking your music. Another study in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation increased the tempo of music used in an aerobics class by as much as 33 percent. The patients increased the speed of their own movements in response to the music, even though their heart rates reached potentially dangerous levels. This study illustrates the importance of not underestimating the powerful influence that music can have on your workout. Make sure that you don’t push yourself beyond your current fitness level and choose appropriate music.

The Right Music
When you run, you do so at a certain number of steps per minute, also called your pace. This pace is easily comparable to the beats per minute (BPM) at which songs play. By selecting songs that have a BPM equal to your desired steps per minute, you can employ music as a much more entertaining and motivating coach.

You should also try to pick songs that have a very strong, distinct beat so that you can easily match your steps with the rhythm. There are programs available that will find the BPM of songs you already have so that you can use those to build your playlist. But this has already been done for you by several free podcasts. The most popular of these podcasts is PodRunner. Each episode of Podrunner has a specific BPM so that you can follow along with the beat as you run. There is also an interval training program that will adjust your speed throughout your run.

Try experimenting with different kinds of music until you find something that you really enjoy. The right music selection can make a drastic difference in your workouts.


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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.