You can’t go 30 seconds at the gym without bumping into someone wearing headphones or earbuds. For most people, the workout music they listen to is a distraction—just something to get them through the workout. But did you know that exercise physiology research suggests that listening to the right kind of workout music can boost your performance, allowing you to run harder or cycle faster?
It’s long been known that music can provide a motivational boost during exercise, making your workout feel easier and go by quicker. A scientific paper in 1997 by Costas Karageorghis and Peter Terry at Brunel University College in London reported that listening to upbeat, motivational workout music reduces perceived exertion levels, making a given effort feel easier. Further, if you select music that has a beat that synchronizes with your workout (e.g. your stride frequency when you run, or your cadence when you bike), you can actually improve your power output.
Researchers at the Queensland Academy of Sport in Australia demonstrated this in a 2012 experiment which involved eleven elite triathletes running on a treadmill either to motivational music (catchy hooks, uplifting lyrics, etc.), “neutral” music (neither uplifting nor depressing), or no music. The scientists selected both motivational and neutral musical tracks whose tempo was exactly half the cadence of each of the triathletes’ running stride—since trained athletes typically run with a cadence of 160-190 steps per minute, it can be hard to find music with a beat this fast, so the researchers settled on matching two steps per musical beat.
The athletes completed three progressive treadmill runs to exhaustion: one while listening to no music, one while listening to neutral music, and one while listening to motivational music. During both music trials, the triathletes were able to last about 20% longer on the run to exhaustion when compared to no music at all. The researchers hypothesized that the tempo of the music was more important than the lyrical or emotional content of the song—that is to say, when your body moves with the music, it does so more powerfully and efficiently.
Indeed, similar findings were reported by another study published in 2010 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports with a similar design. Twelve men completed a 25 minute cycling trial at a self-selected effort while listening to music at a fast tempo, a medium tempo, and a slow tempo. To prevent the content of the music from skewing the results, the subjects actually listened to the same songs during all three trials, but the tempo was either sped up or slowed down by ten percent in the fast and slow tempo trials. The results were clear and straightforward: faster music produced faster cycling. When the tempo of the music was increased by ten percent, the study subjects cycled about two percent faster; when it was slowed, they cycled nearly four percent slower.
The Best Songs to Workout To
What does this mean for your workout? If you want to power through your next gym session, the best songs to workout to should match your cadence on the elliptical, the treadmill, or the bike. If your cadence is too quick for your favorite songs, you can also match half-beats, picking a song that’s at 85 bpm if you run with a stride frequency of 170 steps per minute, for example. Don’t have an ear for music? No worries! Websites like songbpm.com make it easy to look up the exact tempo for any song in your music library. Finally, if you don’t want to worry about cadence and beats per minute, just pick something fast and upbeat.
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John Davis is a Minnesota-based writer, scholar, and coach. He graduated from Carleton College with a degree in chemistry and an interest in the intersection of science, health, and fitness. His research interests include long-distance running, injury treatment and prevention, and lifestyle habits for long-term health. In his free time, he is an avid runner, keen reader of scientific research, and a high school track and cross country coach. His website, RunningWritings.com, provides detailed analysis of elite training, injury treatments, and coaching philosophies for runners. His first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, was published in 2013 and is available at Amazon.com.