by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
In 2007, the USA Track & Field, the national governing body for distance racing, banned the use of headphones and portable audio players at its official races, creating the rule “to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.”
Many runners protested the rule (it does remain in effect today, but in an amended fashion) because they know how essential it is to turning on performance and even providing a rewarding workout.
That alone speaks volumes for the power of music.
How much are you “tuned into” the fact that some really good music can actually improve your enjoyment and performance in a sport or activity?
As we’re about to find out, it’s true!
Maybe it’s your performance or perhaps your client’s, but regardless, listening to music before, during, or even after sport and activity can contribute to motivation, performance, and skill learning in a very broad way.
Yes, music can enhance athletic performance!
Time to open up your ears, let me show you.
Is music a performance-enhancing drug?
The world-leading researcher on music for performance, Dr. Costas Karageorghis, who has authored over 100 studies, says that one can think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Music enhances athletic performance and it can be a very compelling intervention for improving how one relates to both their actual performance and their end result.
In this article, I want to share with you some very poignant and positive research pieces about the beautiful relationship between the role of music and how it can enhance one’s athletic performance.
How exactly does music improve performance?
Good question. I’m actually going to choose four key ways how music can influence and enhance performance, power and strength.
Let’s begin with mind diversion, also called dissociation.
1. Dissociation through music diverts the mind
Dissociation refers to diverting the mind from sensations of fatigue that creep up and in during performance.
Research has repeatedly shown [here’s the full PDF] how music can improve performance by drawing one’s attention away from feelings of fatigue and pain when engaged in endurance activities such as running, cycling, or swimming.
In fact, sports scientists at Brunel University in the UK, a world-leading research hub on music for athleticism, have demostrated that music can reduce your rate of perceived effort by 12% and improve your endurance by 15%.
This benefit isn’t exclusive to beginner exercisers: elite athletes use this strategy all the time!
Did you know that one of the greatest distance runners in history, Haile Gebrselassie, synched his stride to the song “Scatman” when breaking the 10,000 metre world record?
It’s been shown that listening to music during exercise increases the efficiency of that activity and it postpones fatigue. This especially holds true if there is a synchrony between the rhythm of the music and the movements of the athlete themselves.
In terms of muscle strength, music that is perceived to be motivating can lead to bursts of intensity. This increases your work capacity and can bring about ultra-high levels of explosive power, strength, and productivity. Think of its influence on sprints, high jumps, weightlifting, plyometrics, and even high intensity interval training!
2. Music promotes flow states for internal motivation
Flow involves an altered mental state of awareness during activity. Even though it is a feeling of energised focus it seems the mind and body function on “auto-pilot” with minimal conscious effort.
Some coaches and athletes refer to this as being “in the zone”. It sometimes has been referred to as a spellbinding state and can actually feel trance-like.
So can you imagine how music can pair with flow for a stimulating and enhancing performance for yourself or client?
Some athletes describe utilising music to aid with their mental imagery during the routine part of their activity as allowing them to be “in the zone”.
Many athletes use music in diverse ways in order to achieve a certain level of focus and concentration before a game or competition as well. Music enables them to put aside all other outside distractions in order to concentrate and envision what they want to accomplish during the game.
3. Synchronised music movements can shift your level of workout
Synchronising your music with repetitive exercise is linked to increased levels of work output. Research supports the synchronistic aspect of rhythm as an important piece in skill and performance. For example, music can balance and adjust movement, thus prolonging performance.
Have you ever had that experience where listening to a faster tempo moved you along at a faster pace which enhanced the activity your were engaged in?
Conversely, we then can apply this to the slower (tempo) that may be conducive to a slower or more graceful pace or need for focus. A news release out of Stanford University reports researchers assert specific pieces of music could enhance concentration or promote relaxation. Think what’s needed in figure skating, the skill in archery, a free throw in basketball, or even a golf putt.
Similarly, sedating music can be particularly helpful with pre-competition anxiety and nerves.
4. Music evokes emotions that enrich your enjoyment
Several studies have linked music with positive feelings and memories.
Music can boost internal motivation by triggering good emotions, helping you experience much greater pleasure from the activity.
This is magnified when a piece of music reminds you of an aspect of your life that is emotionally significant.
Why does it matter?
Researchers believe that these factors have the power to increase your adherence to an exercise programme in the long run.
Stickiness is crucial for unconditioned individuals and for those who are in a rehabilitation programme that involves exercise, such as physiotherapy, the treatment of chronic pain, or a heart condition.
So if music can be intentionally added as part of a training programme, think how much more inclined a person will be to come back!
So what do you think about music in relation to performance improvement?
As you can see, listening to your favourite tunes can definitely improve your enjoyment of competing in sports, enhance and improve your performance, and it can certainly affect your mood by eliciting a certain emotional response whilst listening to a meaningful song.
How have you been influenced or affected through music? Do you find it an essential piece to activity, sport, or competition?
If you have been influenced or affected by music in a positive way during your performance in any way, please join in on the conversation below in the comments! We’d love to hear about your experience, as it may shed some light for someone else. If this is a useful practise that you can envision using yourself or with a client, try it out. Come back and let us know how it worked out for you. And please share this with someone who might enjoy discovering the remarkable effects of music!