“No pain, no gain, it’s embedded in the brain.”
50 Cent Featuring Kendrick Lamar, “We Up

When people learn that I run ultramarathons, they frequently ask, “What do you think of when you run a 100 mile race?” My answer: I’m usually talking to friends. But admittedly, that usually lasts for only the first four or five hours. Then, I start to feel the burn. That’s when I turn on the music, and everything gets better.

Music and athletic performance are like Beyonce and Jay-Z…perfect together.

phelps_jeezyPlenty of research demonstrates that listening to music during athletic activity improves performance. It’s no wonder you often see footage of Olympic athletes with their headphones as they prep to compete. During the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps was rarely seen without his headphones, prompting plenty of fans to wonder about the music he listens to. As it turns out, our American Olympian listens to rap. Phelps has stated he’s a big fan of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne — so much so that during an NBC interview after he won the gold medal, Phelps reported that the congratulatory tweets from Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne were among the highlights of his Olympic experience.

Now, for the science behind music and sports. One of the most prominent studies, conducted over two decades by Brunel University’s Dr. Costas Karageorghis, concluded that music allows for greater athletic performance in three ways:

1) Music reduces perceived exertion

2) Music lifts the participant’s mood

3) Music encourages the listener to coordinate his/her movements to stay on beat

Dr. Costas Karageorghis found that listening to music while performing an activity of low-to-moderate intensity (e.g., light jogging or cycling) will reduce your perceived exertion by 8 to 12 percent. Furthermore, synchronizing the tempo of movement to music, i.e., “synchronous music,” can lift performance by 8 to 20 percent.

Based on Dr. Costas Karageorghis’ compelling research, I ran my own experiment with music and performance. I’ve competed nine times in the Way Too Cool 50k through the California Sierras. I ran the first seven races without music and the last two with music. Sure enough, my last two 50k races were about 15% faster.

Unaccompanied by music and left with only my thoughts, I find that I slow down during my runs. But with 50 Cent or Niki Minaj in my ears, I get a spring in my step and run faster.

Here is a snapshot of my current playlist:

Your playlist may be a bit different than mine, but here are some tips to consider when selecting your motivational playlist:

  • Include songs with a strong, energizing rhythm to which you can match your movements
  • Find songs with positive lyrics associated with movement, sports, exercise, triumph, overcoming adversity, etc.
  • Choose tracks with different tempi to coincide with alternate low, medium, and high-intensity training
  • Cater to your own musical style, taste, and cultural upbringing – you gotta like the music you’re listening to

The research shows that music can be most effective when played at the point when athletes reach a plateau in work output. So when devising your own music playlist for training, it’s important to consider the type of mindset you want to achieve for a particular workout. For example, British rowing Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell used the persistent rhythms of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during training and his pre-event routine. If your movements are steady and rhythmic, the music should not have fluctuations in tempo; rather, it should parallel the speed of your own movements. For example, if you are warming up on a gym bike at a pace of approximately 65 rpms, commercial dance music (typically in the range of 120 to 130 bpm) is ideal as you make half a pedal revolution to each beat of the music (source: Karageorghis & Terry, 2011).

In order to compute the beats per minute of a track, check out Song BPM. For planning a music program to sync with your chosen activity, try jogTunes.

Whether your workout intensity is low, moderate, or high, create a playlist of synchronous songs and track your performance. I’d love to hear about your results.