4 Remarkable Ways Music Can Enhance Athletic Performance

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
music enhances sports performance

Photo Credit: pixabay

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!

Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.


  • Frank Donnelly

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    Never heard of this before, but will get my students to try it. I,m a squash Coach so this will be great for me to get students to try it out. I play golf myself, maybe play a cd on my way to the golf course. Music that I like and makes me feel good. Cant wait to try it out, will let you know the results.

  • Gill Smith

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    As a badminton player and coach, I do find if I’m not moving well, if I get the song “Cotton Eye Joe” in my head, and it seems to be about the right BPM to get me on my toes and moving well. I’ve heard of other badminton players saying if there’s music in the sports hall, the pace of the game ends up fitting to it.

  • Gill Smith

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    Also, I suspect this is the reason nurseries and pre-schools use a “tidy up time” song. Training the brain to certain (speedy, hopefully!) activity to certain music.

  • Peg Molter

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    As a strength trainer and runner, I have used music extensively to increase my own performance, both for my own benefit and as an experienced training tool to share with clients. Particularly in running, I am NEVER without music; in fact, I’ve been known to cut my run short if the I-Pod runs out of juice. I have multiple playlists, all the way from “inspirational” (Handel’s Messiah and Halleluiah Chorus)to classic rock (I’m old – Def Leppard’s “Undefeated”) to recent hip-hop (Pink’s “U & Ur Hand”). I began running only in sync, but found that under certain conditions, running out of sync allows my own natural steady state to supersede the music’s rhythm. I still enjoy the music, just in a different way. The results are phenomenal. I went from smoking 2 packs a day 10 years ago to running 20+ miles a week with 100% oxygen uptake. And a MUCH better attitude.

  • Damien

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    Music does wonders for my workouts,I could not workout without music.Listening to a playlist of certain songs I’ve chosen gives me a great buzz,when I’m starting to lack energy half way through a workout and a favorite track comes on it lifts you to push through and gives a massive boost

  • Peg Molter

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    Damien, I couldn’t agree more. “Massive boost” is the perfect term. Pulls me through like a trainer saying to me, “C’mon, C’MON you’ve GOT THIS ONE” on the very last, pain-filled rep. I wish more people understood this effect and used it to its full potential. I was going to take tonight off, but just heard a song that I know will turn on the buzz. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

  • Mike Broomfield

    Reply Reply September 25, 2014

    Hi, I have always used music to help keep me focused and also to remind my body of the routine with a playlist, from slow warm up to ecstatic highs which put you in the zone.
    I have recently stopped using music so much when running because I was regularly injuring myself by pushing myself too hard during these highs.
    Now once I have got into the zone I try to engage with the landscape and sounds around me ( why miss a chance to hear birdsong or waves?) as well as listening to my body more and the rhythm of my breathing.

  • Marzia Reeb

    Reply Reply September 26, 2014

    Nothing gets me started like good up beat music for my workouts, I particularly enjoy river dance whilst running the last 10mins. Its just gives that extra refreshing endurance. However my husband and I train each morning together, we do the instanity training, he on the other hates training with music apparently it distracting.
    Then again he is a tennis coach I never seen any coach training or playing tennis on the court listening to music… However he is a professional head chef and he enjoys cooking with good theatrical Italian Opera, it fair say that the meals have always been rich in body, deep colours and pleasing to the palate :)

  • Enya

    Reply Reply October 14, 2014

    From my early days of running 1 km around a park in Billericay to my first half marathon nine months later – I often trained listening to music. In fact my first half in Greenwich, London was sponsored by Run to the Beat – so positively promoted it. I would listen to Green Day albums back to back – and would notice my stride rate increase when the song changed to a faster beat.
    It needs to be a challenging beat rate, though – and there are pod casts by Podrunner, for example, where you can select ‘techno’ music with a measured beat rate – because, obviously as a 5’3″ female, my stride rate is going to be within a different range to that of a 6’3″ male!

    In triathlon things are different though. With headphones banned from most/all competitions, I use music less and less to train by these days; the exception being training on a static turbo-trainer.

    It would be interesting to see whether re-introducing training to music would have an impact now my training is more structured and intense – but living in rural Ireland, I would be reluctant from a road safety point of view.

  • Joanne

    Reply Reply January 1, 2015

    I discovered the value of music a long time ago, I go faster when on the treadmill…gotta watch that at my age. I learned that playing music at work made me more productive and gave me a lot of satisfaction when I heard a song I really liked.
    The best thing about playing music at work…was that music relaxed me and made the day go faster !!! so many wonderful advantages of music…life would not be the same without music.

  • Kelley

    Reply Reply February 23, 2015

    As a runner music is my saving grace, training for marathons and 1/2 marathons can be very grueling, even with music at times. But music definitely is a positive influence. However it is important to refresh your music as I find that if I listen to the same music, after a while I find myself in a zone where I am not even listening anymore!!! But all in all I find music makes everyday a bit better!!!

  • james

    Reply Reply April 4, 2015

    I’ve always listened to music during workouts, certain tracks of a specific album go together with certain activities, for example the rocky soundtrack is a great punchbag routine

  • Darryl

    Reply Reply June 10, 2015

    Music has always been a great stimulant to me.
    I competed individually. I am now a Coach and personal trainer, but I fought ‘Full Contact’ around the world. I am an Ex- World, European and x6 British Champion.
    Before competition, it took me away from the stresses and focused me.
    In training, the strong beats kept and still keep me going through the strides and pulls and pushes of training. Motivating me, particularly when tiring on a piece of equipment e.g. Rowing.
    It motivated me when I felt like not training – sometimes in the gym ready for a session, but feeling a little tired. It picks me up and indeed helps to invigorate me, always.

  • nick

    Reply Reply September 20, 2015

    Music is a great way to get more out of individuals in a HIIT session especially when you know the type of music they like.

    For me 1 thing about music is the timing.
    – I know that when i train with house music i can time my reps to the beat and usually just focus more on the timing (either a rep every clap or second kick drum etc) rather than counting the amount of reps i’ve actually done.

    But the Number 1 thing is the focus!
    People tend not to distract you when you have earphones in training. And I tend not to speak to people. Great for when you’ve got little time.

    100% believe in music as a performance enhancer for resistance training.

    Thanks for the write up!

  • John

    Reply Reply September 30, 2015

    I wonder if podcasts or audiobooks have the same effect. I listen to music but I would like to learn something while I exercise. Will have to give it a try at least, but I don’t think it will be quite as effective as music.

  • Yvette

    Reply Reply February 12, 2016

    This most definitely works. I use music in the bootcamps I run. I use different beats per minute songs for cardio or strength exercises and for the ultimate sprinting sessions I use a real fast beat! It does keep you going longer.

Leave A Response

Please enter a valid number to confirm that you are human. *

* Denotes Required Field