There is no horror quite like that of the moment your iPod/phone runs out of power ten minutes into your exercise routine and you’re left in silence. If you’re at the gym – and your gym is anything like mine – this means you are stuck watching subtitled news, cricket or music videos by early 90s bands that weren’t even famous in the early 90s (I think they buy them in bulk from a warehouse where good music goes to die). There is nothing to listen to but the sound of my gasping breath, and the ticking of my brain as it tells me I. Really. Really. Really. Don’t. Want. To. Be. Here. It’s not nearly so bad if my music cuts out when I’m running outside, since there’s humanity, in all its magnificent weirdness, to distract me. But it’s still not the same as running with a beat, or that little lift you get when a great track comes on, the urge to push faster and farther than you thought possible.
It’s not just about distraction, as sports psychologist – and expert in the psychological, psychophysical and ergogenic effects of music - Dr Costas Karageorghis informed me. “Music takes attention away from the fatigue-related part of exercise, it also has motivating qualities, it’s stimulating, it's interesting, it enhances the overall enjoyment of the exercise.” Even, and especially, at high intensity levels of exercise , music provides a proven physical, as well as mental, boost. Listening to music while you work out creates chemical changes in your body.
Fitness First’s Lee Drabble says, “A big beat or heavy bass can drive us on by producing a hormonal response in the body - increased testosterone - or a cardio-respiratory response - increased heart rate. And if the music is loud it stops us getting distracted by the surroundings or focusing on perceived negatives (noise we make when we breathe, or the sound of our feet hitting the ground). This lack of awareness of external factors allows us to focus and concentrate on ourselves and what the body is capable of.” (Fitness First are an official partner of Sure Run To The Beat, a 10k race around London with DJs stationed around the course, taking place on 14th September.)
In fact, the influence of music upon performance is so effective, says Karageorghis, it’s become an essential aspect of the training of professional athletes. “Virtually every athlete was using music at the London Olympics and using it in a systematic way, as part and parcel of their training, for motivation and to prevent burning up psychological energy.” Karageorghis used music in a targeted way when he worked with Athletics champion, Dai Green, in preparation for the 2012 games. “I found out about his goals, his aspirations, his musical upbringing, we went through his music library, and worked with a music producer to come up with a unique track for him to use at key points during the run up and at the games themselves. We were meshing music, psychology and sport.”
For the rest of us non-professionals, Karageorghis recommends regularly updating our playlists. My own scattered method is to Shazam songs from TV or the radio, building up a library to download every couple of weeks. “The theory that says familiarity breeds contempt? It’s the same with music,” says Karageorghis. “We become so habituated to it, it loses its positive effect and we begin to dislike what we’re listening too. To get the most out of it, use it judiciously.”
But what exactly? Rock? Hip hop? Cotton-Eyed Joe? “A track that one athlete finds inspiring is dirge for another,” he adds, recommending, “Music with 120 - 140 beats per minute; this tempo is associated with the best motivational and physically activating benefits.”
It's common sense. Fast, uplifting beats raise your thinking and your aptitude. I’d rather run to Rihanna than rock 'n’ roll. But that’s just me. The Japanese novelist and ultra-marathon-er, Haruki Murakami, runs to a mixture of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Mellencamp and The Beach Boys. The only thing that matters is that you take your playlist seriously. Music just might be as fundamental to your workout, and as important to your best performance, as a good pair of trainers or a sports bra. So let the beat go on.