The psychology of training with music

Ever wondered why it is that a workout just doesn’t seem quite so hard when you’re jamming to your favourite tunes? It’s not just in your head. Well, sort of…




There’s an enormous body of research on workout music, a significant proportion of which have shown positive effects on performance when participants listen to music. In fact, research dates back at least as far as 1911, when American investigator Leonard Ayres found that cyclists pedaled faster while a band was playing than when it was silent. Since then psychologists have conducted around a hundred studies on the way music changes people’s performance in a variety of physical activities.


One possible reason for the effect of music on athletic performance could be its ability to distract the body from deciphering and picking up on cues that it’s reaching physical exhaustion. It distracts from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. Results of numerous studies have shown that when people listen to music, they are able run farther, cycle for longer and swim faster than usual, sometimes without even noticing it.




But it’s not just about picking the fastest beat: emotional connections with and associations to the song should also be considered, as these can affect the level of motivational power the songs can have. For instance, the extent to which one identifies with the singer’s emotional state and viewpoint determines how motivated you feel… remixing Adele’s Hello is hardly a cure for the sad lyrics she croons.


Another reason for enhanced performance may be due to music providing a sort of external cue to the body’s movements, since we tend to sync with the rhythm of the music and move to its beat. In a 2012 study by C. J. Bacon of Sheffield Hallam University, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, and their colleagues, participants who cycled in time to music, required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who did not synchronize their movements with background music. The conclusion drawn from this is that music functions similarly to a metronome, helping athletes maintain a steady pace.


Here’s what Tour de France pros Team Sky are listening to while training according to their Spotify playlist: