Last summer, I was making my way through the final miles of the marathon leg of Ironman Canada and was not at all pleased with my performance. I knew, if I just ran a little faster, I could finish in under 13 hours, but I couldn't seem to muster up the will to do so. Then I passed a water stop where the volunteers had set up a boom box. An old favorite from the '80s, Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts," started blasting from the speakers, something clicked in my mind and legs, and I was able to pick up the pace.
Music is powerful. That's why you'll see Olympic athletes spending their last prerace minutes with iPod headphones stuck in their ears. It's why your spinning class seems to fly by if you like the instructor's all-Madonna soundtrack—and seems interminable if you don't. René Murphy, an associate professor at the School of Recreation Management and Kinesiology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, got interested in the topic of music and performance when one of the cross-country runners he coached missed a tough group interval workout and made up the same workout herself while listening to music. "She said, 'When I do it with everyone, I'm exhausted and it hurts, but when I do it myself, it's easy,'" says Murphy.
His research suggests that the music is essentially providing a pleasant distraction from the pain of going all out. The mind can process only a limited number of things at once, so if you crank up some tunes, "you're focusing on the music rather than your breathing or what you're doing," he says. In one study, women instructed to run for as long as they could on an inclined treadmill were able to run longer when listening to music, he says.
Of course, the degree to which you focus on the music and ignore your achin' dogs (or lungs) depends on a lot of factors, including, presumably, whether or not you like what's playing. While some songs are pretty much universally inspiring (like the theme from "Rocky"), what some people may find motivating and exciting, others won't, says Vince Nethery, chair of the Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Health Sciences at Central Washington University in Ellensberg, Wash. It all depends on your taste and emotional associations with a given piece or genre of music.
The beats per minute, or tempo, of the music are also probably important, Nethery says. Studies by Costas Karageorghis, a psychologist who researches music and exercise at Brunel University in London, found that exercising in time to music can boost efficiency, which means doing the same work with a smaller amount of effort. He suggests matching the music to the tempo of a workout. For example, if you're warming up, start with music that has about 80 beats per minute and go up from there. To work out at the lower part of your aerobic zone (say, a brisk walk), music should be in the range of 115 to 125 bpm. The faster or more intense the exercise, the higher the bpm. (I found this tool that helps you measure the bpm of any piece of music; just start tapping any computer key to the beat.) Karageorghis's research team is helping to prescribe music for a London half-marathon in October that will have live music along the route that is scientifically selected to boost performance. (Runner's World has a great selection of mixes for different aspects of a workout.)
Music isn't preferred by every athlete, says Murphy. His cross-country team broke down about half and half between runners who welcome the distraction and those who prefer to focus on things like their breathing, effort level, and heartbeat. That might hinge on a personality trait—perhaps some people are motivated by external cues, while others prefer internal ones, he theorizes.
Steven Wininger, a sports psychologist at Western Kentucky University, says more serious athletes are likely to use music only as a precompetition psych-up, while those of us merely trying to improve our fitness tend to use it to make an exercise class more enjoyable or to make the time go faster. "If you're just making sure you get 45 or 60 minutes of aerobic exercise in to burn calories, you want to distract yourself. You're not even thinking about exercise, and all of a sudden you're done," he says.
The time didn't really fly in Canada last summer, but I can say that I never would have finished in 12 hours, 58 minutes, and 21 seconds without Juice.
For more: My colleague Matt Shulman recently wrote about how music is used to treat diseases of the brain, such as depression and Parkinson's.