Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Music is an important part of our lives. We use it to express culture, lighten up our birthday party or focus on whatever task we have. In particular, many people listen to their favourite tracks, or audiobooks, whilst they perform any form of exercise. I listen to music mostly when I’m undertaking my gym programs. But is it something that we should complete to improve our running performance? Will we be able to produce faster splits in training/racing if we put our earphones in and crank those tunes? By looking at some of the literature investigating this phenomenon we can assess whether it is beneficial to listen to music or not. I will also be sharing my personal opinion on this topic at the end.
What the science says:
For the last 30 or so years, it looks like this has been a widely studied topic in the field of Exercise and Sports Science. This might be because of the development of more accessible music devices, such as the iPod, around the mid-to-late 90's. For the purpose of this blog I am going to investigate the effect of music on anaerobic and aerobic performance, as most sports, including running, fit into one, or both of these categories.
The literature is conflicting when observing an improvement in anaerobic performance whilst listening to music. For example, Brooks and Brooks (2010) were able to find statistical significance when listening to music in a Wingate Anaerobic test for average and peak power. To add, music was able to improve 400m performance on the track, but no significant difference between the use of synchronous or non-synchronous music (Simpson and Karageorghis, 2006). However, there is also literature showing music cannot improve performance. One study was able to conclude that the use of music did not enhance not only Wingate Anaerobic performance, but Running-based Anaerobic Tests (RAnT) as well (Atan, 2012). Pujol and Langenfeld (1993) concluded that there was no significant difference between listening to music or not for peak power output, minimum power output and fatigue index during a Wingate test. So it can be hard to see whether it is beneficial to listen to your favorite tunes or not for anaerobic performance. However, a study by Louizo and Karageorghis (2014) concluded that priming one-self through the use of videos and music before a Wingate test can improve performance measures usually assessed in this test. So based on the science, it might be a good idea to listen to music before an anaerobic competition in order to achieve a personal best.
Whilst the evidence is conflicting for anaerobic performance, it is clear that listening to music can aid your aerobic performance. However, the evidence around music’s effect on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is conflicting. For example, Szmedra and Bacharach (1998) found significant differences in heart rate, RPE, lactate and norepinephrine when listening to music for 15 minutes on a bike at a sub-maximal intensity; whereas Bonnette et. al (2012) found that, whilst there were significant differences in 1.5 mile times when listening to music, there was no significant difference for RPE. This could be explained by the speculation that your internal locus (control of oneself) predominates over external cues once the intensity of exercise goes beyond 70%. Therefore, as we get close to maximal intensity, listening to music might not be as beneficial as previously thought (Szabo, Small and Leigh, 1999).
What is my judgement?:
Personally, I don’t recommend listening to music when training for competition. This is for two reasons:
(1) You will be going harder in training than you need to be - Listening to music whilst going for your run might distract you from those fatigue sensations, however, you will be running at higher intensities than what is written on the program. When I listen to my tunes during an easy run, I always find myself not keeping track of my heart rate zone and running at a much faster pace than I should. For a new or moderately experienced runner, this might impact how you run come race day. You could be so used to having music as a distraction that when you participate in your first 10k, you respond quite differently to the fatigue than what you might be used to with your earphones in. So by listening to music whilst running it could be detrimental to your individual performance, even if the evidence might suggest otherwise.
(2) You should be focusing not only on yourself, but what’s around you - In a race, particularly if you haven’t participated in the course before, you will need to be aware of the surroundings. Even when training, it is always good to explore new routes around your area; and when you do this you’ll need to be that extra aware of what’s in front and around you. There might be a pothole on this new path, or there might be a truck depo with an exit that cannot let the driver see who’s running passed. Whatever it is, you need to be aware of what is around you in order to avoid accidents or injury. We usually focus solely on our running when we put our headphones in, and not what we might be feeling or thinking, in a way we get distracted. Instead, runners should focus on all aspects of the run, such as the wind gushing along the trail, or the 200 steps you have to run up a steep hill.
However, on race day, listening to music prior to competition might not be a bad idea in order to enhance your performance. But be careful with respect to other psychological factors that influence your performance on race day. For example, it might be really easy for you to get aroused and motivated for the race. So listening to music might over-motivate you and potentially hinder you achieving your goal. On race/competition day, you need to be aware of what’s going on in your mind, and adapt to allow you to optimise your performance.
My opinion will differ depending on your running goals. If you are just running to keep fit, then by all means listening to your playlist or audiobook, just be aware of your surroundings (we wouldn’t want you to trip over a pothole or run into someone on your path). However, if you enter competitions regularly, then I’d recommend not listening to music, maybe if you are doing a treadmill run to keep the run entertained or during a cool down with your training friends, but apart from that you should take in all your surroundings.
Keep up the running,
PS: A Wingate Anaerobic Test involves using a bike with resistance, (relative to your body weight, and asking participants to go all out for ~30 seconds. From this you can see objective measures, such as peak power output and difference between your peak and your minimum power in the test.
Atan, T. (2013). Effect of music on anaerobic exercise performance. Biology of sport, 30(1), 35.
Bonnette, R., Smith III, M. C., Spaniol, F., Melrose, D., & Ocker, L. (2012). The effect of music listening on running performance and rating of perceived exertion of college students. The Sport Journal, 14, 440.
Brooks, K., & Brooks, K. (2010). Difference in Wingate power output in response to music as motivation. Age (years), 23, 21-25.
Loizou, G., & Karageorghis, C. I. (2015). Effects of psychological priming, video, and music on anaerobic exercise performance. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 25(6), 909-920.
Pujol, T. J., & Langenfeld, M. E. (1999). Influence of music on Wingate Anaerobic Test performance. Perceptual and motor skills, 88(1), 292-296.
Simpson, S. D., & Karageorghis, C. I. (2006). The effects of synchronous music on 400-m sprint performance. Journal of sports sciences, 24(10), 1095-1102.
Szabo, A., Small, A., & Leigh, M. (1999). The effects of slow-and fast-rhythm classical music on progressive cycling to voluntary physical exhaustion. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 39(3), 220.
Szmedra, L., & Bacharach, D. W. (1998). Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. International journal of sports medicine, 19(01), 32-37.