During the last two decades, advancements in technology have allowed music to grow into being an effective intervention to achieve a range of desirable psychological and performance effects among athletes. Lead researcher in the field of music in sport and exercise, Dr Costas Karageorghis has primarily explored the psychological, psychophysical, psychophysiological, and ergogenic effects of music:

  • The Psychological effects refer to how music influences mood, affect, emotion, attitudes, cognition and behaviour.
  • The psychophysical effects of music involve sensory responses to physiological processes. In music related research, this involves the perceptions of physical effort and is most often measured via the ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) scale.
  • The psychophysiological effects of music relate to the influence of music on a range of physiological factors, such as heart rate and respiration rate.
  • Music exerts an ergogenic effect when it improves physical performance by either delaying fatigue or increasing work capacity. This often results in higher than expected levels of endurance, power, productivity, or strength.

In support of theoretical research, many famous athletes have been seen using music to enhance their performance. For instance, the American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won 7 gold medals and set 5 world records at the 2007 FINA World Championships, reportedly listened to hip-hop music before his races in order to get focused and psyched up (‘More questions with Michael Phelps’, 2007). This involved narrowing his attention to focus on rapper Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics “Yes, I’m the best, and no I ain’t positive, I’m definite I know the game like I’m reffing it”

When accompanying training and workouts with music, researchers have suggested assembling a wide selection of familiar tracks that meet the following six criteria in order to achieve benefits to performance:

(a) strong, energising rhythm; (b) positive lyrics having associations with movement (e.g., “I’m gonna make you sweat” by Snoop Dogg); (c) rhythmic pattern well matched to movement patterns of the athletic activity; (d) uplifting melodies and harmonies; (e) associations with sport, exercise, triumph, or overcoming adversity (e.g.. Heather Small’s ‘Proud’, used in the London 2012 Olympic bid); and (f) a musical style or idiom suited to an athlete’s taste and cultural upbringing. Choose tracks with different tempi, to coincide with alternate low-, medium-, and high-intensity training.

Research has shown that music can be most effective when played at the point when workers reach a plateau in work output. When devising your own music playlist for training, it is important to take into consideration the type of mindset you want to achieve for a particular workout. For example, British rowing Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell, used the persistent rhythms of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during training and his pre-event routine. Thus, if your movements are steady and rhythmic, the music should not have fluctuations in temp; rather, it should parallel the speed of your own movements. For example, if you are warming up on a gym bike at a pace of approximately 65 rmp, commercial dance music, typically in the range of 120 to 130 bmp, is ideal as you can take half a pedal revolution to each beat of the music (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011).

The table below highlights the main components of a training session or gym workout, and combines the best type f music to accommodate the activity. In order to work out the beats per minute of a track, websites such as http://songbpm.com can tell you instantly, and useful websites for planning a music program to sync with your chosen activity include http://jogtunes.com/jtc/jtcplaylists1.php.

Musical Selections for the Components of a Typical Training Session

Workout component  Track title  Artist Tempo (beats per minute)
Mental Preparation  Thrift Shop Macklemore Feat Wanz  95
Warm-up activity  Proud  Heather Small  103
Stretching  You Know You Like It  AlunaGeorge  92
Strength component  Bounce Calvin Harris  130
Endurance component  Louder  DJ Fresh  138
Cool-down activity  Fine China  Chris Brown  104

 *Adapted from C.I Karageorghis and P.C Terry, 2011, Inside sport psychology (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics).

Sydney Olympics rowing gold medalist Tim Foster, now a respected coach, uses music to regulate all of the indoor workouts he leads. He finds that this increases the motivation of the rowers as well as making sessions much more enjoyable.