How music benefits training and sports performance

Cast your mind back to the London 2012 Olympics when Greg Rutherford competed for (and eventually won) the gold medal in Men’s Long Jump. He asked the audience to clap, at a pace he set, counted to 4 and began to run. This is a well-established practice in long jump but, in that moment, you could feel the connection between Rutherford and his adoring crowd as if it was the very first time.

Marianne Rizkallah – Music Therapist, for music licensing company PPL PRS

Listening to music is another way to get your head in the game. Professional athletes of all kinds –footballers, swimmers, track athletes and basketball players – are often seen with headphones in before they perform.

If you’re a runner or you like to hit the gym, perhaps you listen to music during your workout too. Music is all around us, at all stages of sporting activities.

But why is music so important to sport… and how much of a difference can it really make?

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The power of music BEFORE sport

Michael Phelps is one of the most famous examples of a professional athlete praising the significant impact of music on his performance, divulging to The Guardian that he has “walked out to race with my headphones on throughout my whole career and listen to music until the last possible moment. It helps me relax and get into my own little world.”

Both British and Canadian athletes have reported using music to help them focus during away time, especially on race days which often involve a lot of waiting around. Moreover, music helps to soothe their minds during imperative, repetitive rehabilitation tasks.

Studies have shown us that music is often used by athletes immediately before starting activity to “psych up” their required mentality for the task ahead. It has the power to boost their mood or stimulate a relaxed focus on the task ahead. The properties of music – rhythm, tempo, pitch, volume and so on – create these effects.

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Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky

For gym-goers, the tempo of the music listened to during a workout can make a significant difference. For example; in a spin class, warming up at a rate of 60 revolutions per minute (rpm) while listening to a song at 120 beats per minute (bpm) – the tempo of many dance tunes – means we can perform one cycle per two beats of music, providing a regulating system for our brain to hook onto. If we increase or decrease the rpm of our bike, or the bpm of our music, this will impact how fast (or slow) we go.

We also know the collective power of hooking up to a joint rhythm. Whether it’s everyone’s arms and legs moving in the same way in time to the music during a group workout class, or the New Zealand rugby team performing the haka – symbolising unity and strength within their team – the connection is felt on a liminal level between the group and all who witness. It’s powerful.

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Credit: Ufabizphoto

The power of music DURING sport

Using music while training is down to personal preference. Some studies show that “calming” music (with a steady tempo and soothing timbre) can aid relaxation and focus. That said, just because a Mozart piece fits the bill, it doesn’t mean Mozart is for everyone!

The best music to listen to while training is by an artist, or within a genre, that you know and love. Plus, it’s important to choose a tempo that suits your activity. The beat you run to will probably not be the same speed as the beat you lift weights to, so consider switching up your playlists and choose tracks you think you can keep on the beat with.

Leading music in sport researcher Costas Karageorghis jokingly calls music sport’s “legal drug” because of the notable effect it can have on our performance. His research highlights that music can reduce an athlete’s perception of effort by up to 10% and, in turn, increase performance by as much as 20%. This is possible due to music’s ability to help sustain focus and get athletes into the state of “flow”, keeping energy levels consistently high and maintaining motivation.

That’s why group workouts can be effective. The collective experience of being in rhythm with everyone else in the room helps to maintain attentiveness and encourage continued participation. Because our ears know the song will come to an end, our brains know that we have a concentration period of about four minutes before that time (and a little break) comes.

The power of music AFTER sport

As with warming up, we can also listen to music at a slower tempo to cool down post-fitness. While it hasn’t been as explicitly researched as other areas of music in sport, a study has shown that our heart rate can match the bpm of the track we’re listening to. Therefore, our heart rate can rise and slow down according to what we’re listening to.

To complete your cool-down, play music that motivates you. Ideally, this will be connected to positive memories and associations. It’s wise to pick tracks with a slower beat than those enjoyed during a workout, so the music carries you through to a relaxed end to your exercise regime. In turn, your mind will unwind so you can tackle the day ahead afresh or enjoy a restful evening. 

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Credit: Cottonbro

About Marianne Rizkallah

Marianne Rizkallah is Vice Chair and Trustee for the British Association of Music Therapy, Director of North London Music Therapy and Music Therapy Outreach and Enterprise Tutor for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Marianne qualified as a music therapist from the Guildhall in 2013.

As a music therapist, Marianne has worked with children, adolescents, adults and the elderly, working with clinical groups including mental health, SEBD, psychosis, autism and dementia. She has worked in the NHS, the education sector (including work in a PRU), the third sector and in private practice. Marianne specialises in setting up new work and in service evaluation.

Marianne also works as a professional singer and vocal coach. She plays flute, piano, ukulele and drums.

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