Should Listening to Music During Exercise Be Considered a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Research suggets there's more to the relationship between music and physical exertion than a simple "distraction"

February 3, 2021 9:44 am
runner listening to music
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Fran Lebowitz takes issue with many, many things in her new Netflix show, the Martin Scorsese-directed Pretend It’s a City. She doesn’t like subway art. People who stop in the middle of the sidewalk. Going outside.

Still, there’s one blissful moment of praise, in the second episode, where Leibowitz confesses her love for Motown music. She says: “[It] was very popular when I was a teenager. Whenever I hear it, I instantly become happier. This is true of almost nothing! Music makes people happier, and it doesn’t harm them. Most things that make you feel better are harmful. It’s very unusual. It’s like a drug, only it doesn’t kill you.”

I thought about Leibowitz’s words while completing a “30 min 60s Ride” on my Peloton the other day, primarily because the workout included old jams by The Supremes. But also because the phenomenon she’s describing is most apparent to me during a difficult bout of exercise. Whenever my back’s against the wall and the right song comes on, music boosts my mood — and, by extension, my performance. To be sure, this isn’t confined to the Peloton. The brand is just one of the most visible current iterations of the relationship between music and fitness. Each bike features crystal-clear speakers and extensive streaming options thanks to partnerships with music-rights holders.

Before I dare run anything for time — a tempo run, a mile trial — I queue up a list of songs that I know will coax out my best effort. Whenever I’m in the gym, I press play on a workout mix that I’ve noticed, over time, seems uniquely suited to help me push heavy things into the air. And on the rare occasion I forget my headphones, the gym speakers are pumping uptempo 21st-century hits all day anyway.

It’s easy to not think much of this; Jazzercise was invented 50 years ago and every kid grows up running around to music in gym class. Working out with music is second nature. Why, though? Lebowitz was being flip when she compared music to a drug. But if listening to music during exercise so consistently leads to better results, could it perhaps be considering a performance-enhancing drug? The answer to that question, if there is one, has implications for personal confidence, competitive balance and the future of the connected fitness industry.

nyc marathon running
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Head to the code of conduct page for the New York Road Runners, the governing body that oversees the city’s marathon, plus other prestigious races in the region, and you’ll find a few notes on headphone use during races. The practice is “strongly discouraged” by NYRR. The stated reasons revolve around safety. You should be able to hear the calls of passing runners, announcements from race officials and potential alerts of emergency.

Of course, few runners actually follow this rule. Friends of mine who ran the marathon in 2019 knew what they’d be listening to months ahead of time. Upbeat tunes heading over the bridges at the start. Audio books or podcasts to eat up mileage in the middle. Heavy, dramatic anthems for the final push through Central Park. So many runners rely on music to conquer marathons, half-marathons and even 5Ks that it’s hard to believe there was a time when thousands finished those distances with only their own thoughts, the pants of their peers and the din of the crowd to keep them company. Updates in Bluetooth technology, with the advent of near-weightless, unobtrusive AirPods, Jaybirds and Powerbeats, have helped bring about this revolution.

Fascinatingly, though, it’s largely an amateur revolution. As early as 2008, USA Track and Field decided that long-distance race organizers “may allow the use of portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication; however, those competing in championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.” If you’re really good, basically, you’re probably not racing with headphones. It’s not just because it isn’t allowed. Top-line runners need to tap into pacing instincts; they need to react to a surge from a competitor just off their shoulder; they need to hear advice from their coach at mile markers.

And what they don’t need, more often than not, is more motivation. In the fitness world, music is truly the opium of the masses. Trainers know this better than we know it ourselves. Bill Daniels, a California-based personal trainer of 20 years, credits music’s ability to influence a trainee’s state of mind. It’s easier to have a good workout, he says, if you walk into the gym after “you just got a promotion, someone asked you out on a date, and you found a $100 bill on the ground.” Your muscles are literally engaged (re: not slouched over) in response to the positivity going on in your mind. Short of practices like meditation and visualization, which require an extra level of time and expertise, music is the easiest way to flip the mood on the gym floor.

Virtual trainers are well aware of this, too. Wellness industry experts are already educating rising “fitness influencers” on how to improve their DJing abilities. If you can deliver better music, you can deliver a better workout. (And keep customers.) Peloton instructors famously curate their own playlists. They’ll pair specific songs with climbs, downhills and HIIT training. Sometimes, when debuting a new “Artist Series” — which could be anyone from The Beatles to Post Malone — they sort through the musician or band’s entire discography to find styles of song that fit with each level of cycling intensity.

Unsurprisingly, music is a point of focus for all the newcomers to the connected fitness world. In order to differentiate themselves, some of these machines actually let exercisers play their own music. Tonal, the wall-mounted weightlifting apparatus that looks like MIRROR with a pair of limbs attached to it, has a “Free Lift” feature that syncs to an Apple Music plug-in. For some, that opportunity for self-selection is critical. James de Lacey, a strength and conditioning coach who works with the Rugby League and Union, tells InsideHook, “There is a growing body of research regarding self-selection during exercise and its positive effects on performance.”

He points out that certain trainees thrive on establishing control during their workouts. One study indicated that when kickboxers self-select punching combinations, they increase punching speed by 6-11% and impact force by 5-10%. Another demonstrated that when lifters are able to determine load changes during a squat test, they’re able to generate more power. This doesn’t square with teachings from the many coaches of my youth, who taught me I always needed to be uncomfortable to get better. But incorporating comfort, and even a bit of predictability, into training (like, say, a familiar song) can have a tangible impact on performance.

Stephanie Boll, a bikini bodybuilder, knows her self-selected music down to the BPM. During runs, she opts for ’90s alternative rock (100-120 BPM). During lifts, she dives into “slamming” death metal. “Going from 200+ BPM to a really slow breakdown is a welcome distraction from the hard work,” she says. Sam Laird, an amateur rock-climber, feels the same way about scaling rock walls to beats in his ears — even though many in his community are against the practice, either because they’re “purists,” or worried about safety. “For me, tuning the world out with my favorite workout playlist hones my concentration, minimizes distractions and makes me climb that little bit harder.”

That word — “distraction” — is thrown around a lot. Is that, ultimately, music’s role in exercise? To take the mind elsewhere? Or is it revving the body up for the task at hand? According to the research, it might not really matter. Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a professor at Brunel University London, has published what is arguably the most prolific research on the topic. In his book, published in 2010, he estimated listening to music while running can improve a performance by 15%. He told The Guardian two years later: “Music is a legal drug for athletes.”

In 2018, meanwhile, Dr. Jasmin Hutchinson, the director for sport and exercise psychology at Springfield College, told Runner’s World: “It’s pretty definitive that music is performance-enhancing in terms of ergogenic effect.” The Founder and Director of the Atlanta Human Performance Center, Dr. Keith Evans, echoed these conclusions. Speaking to InsideHook, he characterized music as an “indirect performance-enhancing drug.” He says: “Music help elicit endorphins and enkephalins, two opioids that are naturally made within the body. This process elevates mood, then increases the enjoyment of whatever activity you’re performing.”

Clearly, music isn’t a conventional PED. Robert Herbst, a drug supervisor at the Rio Olympics who will reprise his role in Tokyo, is firm on this point. “Like crowd noise, encouragement from a coach or loved one or even a color, mnemonic or sunny day, music is an environmental cue. It’s not a foreign substance ingested or injected into the body to improve performance.” Still, music does seem to wield a stunning impact over fitness, and that’s saying something in an arena where many tend to feel at their most intimidated, lost or insecure. For those of us not accustomed to running two-hour marathons or climbing El Cap, music can be a true difference-maker.

At a time when so many of the “routine” aspects of our workouts have been uprooted, it might help to keep this knowledge front of mind. Engage with machines or trainers that prioritize music. Get yourself a new pair of headphones. Make notes on how music impacts all forms of fitness — not just lifting and running, but mental health, too. Calming music and a lit candle can move mountains at the end of a tough day. The intersection of music and exercise is legitimately too much of a good thing. That’s all there is to it.

As Lebowitz said, “It’s like a drug, only it doesn’t kill you.” Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In this case, it could help make you a lot stronger.

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