What’s Your Power Song?

Michael Phelps used it to focus before high-stakes competition, and Haile Gebrselassie uses it to rev up while on the course. Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, and Longfellow called it the universal language of mankind. Can it help you? And how?

Almost everyone experiences music’s myriad emotional effects, and we are learning that its power reaches even further. Researchers have showed that it distracts people from fatigue and improves endurance and performance — often without the athlete realizing it. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London has gone so far as to suggest that Phelps’s gold medals are tainted by this “performance-enhancing drug.”

How does it help?

People tend to synchronize their movements with music. We nod, we tap our feet. Runners have long noticed that songs with the appropriate beats per minute can help them maintain a consistent cadence (steps per minute).

This “synchrony” can make it easier for the body to operate. In a 2012 study of cyclists, those synchronizing to music used 7% less oxygen to cycle at the same level of effort as cyclists not synchronizing.

Music creates a focus point. People listening to music are less likely to be aware of aches and pains, or even fatigue.

Music elicits strong emotions. Running apps invite you to choose a “Power Song,” and some weightlifters swear by music that annoys them — a song you love (or hate!) can provide a surge a emotion that aids performance.

Detractors, particularly in running, cite the meditative experience of being fully present in the world, and experiencing it directly, and point to research that says music “loses its effect” over time. These are important considerations for people preparing for competition — not only as they manage performance, but because some races ban users of music players from awards of top places and prizes. But for most of us, music can simply be a beautiful, inspiring, relaxing, evocative, and supportive part of our regular activity.

Image from “iPod Ad Variations”

Do you listen to music when you exercise? What’s your Power Song?


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