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Music plays an interesting role in the way we exercise, from its ability to motivate athletes prior to a performance, to its impact on athletic recovery.
According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, who has conducted countless studies on this particular subject and is considered an international expert in the combined field of sports psychology and music, music can have a rather specific influence on the brain:
“Music stimulates the ascending reticular activating system,” Karageorghis explains. “It can elevate heart rate, and make us more focused on the task at hand.”
This is particularly effective, he clarifies, when the music conjures the “right kind of image,” or includes lyrical affirmations that relate to what an athlete is attempting to do. Factors including lyrics, rhythm, and tempo impact the way we digest music during exercise, affecting both asynchronous and synchronous listening.
When we listen asynchronously, we do not consciously attempt to align our movement with a song that plays in the background. By contrast, synchronous use describes the conscious coordination between the participant’s movement and the rhythmical qualities of the music.
In a study conducted by Karageorghis, who is currently a reader in Sports Psychology at Brunel University in London, athletes who engaged in synchronous exercise actually performed more efficiently than those who listened to a tempo which was slightly slower than their rate of movement.
Dr. Catherine Bacon, who worked on this study alongside Karageorghis, highlights the “natural rhythm” that tends to emerge in many of our fundamental movement patterns.
“Though previously existing studies focused on the benefit of music in endurance performance, we noticed that none had investigated the role that synchronization would play in this regard,” she says.
The team wondered if the synchronization of movement to a specific musical beat would “improve the economy of activities such as cycling.”
In fact, the results of this study presented evidence which points to synchronous movement’s role in lowered oxygen consumption and improved efficiency.
Dr. Jim Waterhouse, who also tested the effects of musical tempo on cyclists in another study, concluded that study participants actually worked harder and experienced an increase in enjoyment while listening to faster tempo music as opposed to lower tempo music.
While cycling to both slightly faster and slower versions of the same music, athletes were conscious of the level of effort exerted but preferred the faster versions.
“Given that speeding up the beat of the music tended to improve things, in that participants worked faster and any increased perception of effort was acceptable to the subjects,” says Waterhouse, “the question must be raised of whether such a speeding up of the music would enable individuals to do more work, rather than simply completing the same amount of work in a shorter period of time.”
These studies play a major role in determining how athletes respond to increased or decreased tempo during exercise, but music can contribute to this kind of environment in an alternate and equally beneficial sense.
One study conducted by Dr. Christopher Mesagno, senior lecturer in Exercise and Sport Psychology at Federation University, Australia, explored the role of music in alleviating “choking” during athletic performance.
In this instance, Mesagno and a team of colleagues defined choking as “a critical deterioration in the execution of habitual processes as a result of an elevation in anxiety levels under perceived pressure, leading to substandard performance.”
This describes the situation in which an athlete feels too much pressure building on their performance, and makes a critical mistake. They “choke” at the worst possible moment.
“Choking occurs when a skilled performer experiences increased anxiety,” explains Mesagno, “and because of that anxiety, a considerable sub-optimal performance occurs.”
Under normal circumstances, that performer would be “expected to execute this act well.”
Participants were chosen, according to Mesagno, because they were “choking susceptible” or were “high in self-consciousness, high in trait anxiety, and used mainly approach rather than avoidance coping to deal with the anxiety situations.”
During the study, athletes played basketball in both a low-pressure and high-pressure environment.
Once these two initial stages were complete, the participants once again engaged in high and low-pressure activity, but with the addition of music playing in the background.
Songs used included “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the movie “Life of Brian,” because of the positive affirmation from lyrics, and other anxiety-reducing elements including humor.
Results from post-study interviews with subjects concluded that music decreased the self-awareness that leads to a choke, thereby improving overall performance. Participants concentrated on the distraction of the song, rather than the mounting pressure and the mechanics of their shot, and were therefore able to gain a temporary relief from their anxiety.
“Although this hasn’t been researched yet for in-game performance during a sport,” Mesagno notes, “I believe music can be used for overall performance or in high-pressure situations.”
Many athletes, he says, use music pre-game to “psych up” and some use it to “relax before competitions.”
In his upcoming book, “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport,” Karageorghis explores these topics in detail. “I wanted to discuss the potential benefits of music use, particularly when the music is selected effectively with personal factors and situational factors in mind,” he explains.
Within the book, Karageorghis mentions the “range of psychological benefits” of well-selected music, including an elevation in mood, reduction in tension and confusion, and even an increase in overall happiness.
“I remember that Michael Phelps prepared using a particularly rap-heavy playlist at the London 2012 Olympics,” recalls Karageorghis. Phelps listened to Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me,” which features lyrics that reinforced or enhanced his confidence before the competition.
However, Karageorghis also calls particular attention to the role music plays after the spectacle ends, explaining that ”the right kind of music can expedite recovery process after a strenuous physical performance.” He believes that the use of recuperative music is “the new frontier” in terms of music research.
Music can also increase exercise-program adherence, motivating us to continue exercise plans and athletic endeavors.
Karageorghis points to songs such as “Chariots of Fire,” which, due to external association with its eponymous movie, enables us to observe the impact of music pre-, during, and post-performance.
“Songs like this can conjure heroic images, inspire athletes, and lead people to a higher plane of superior performance levels.”