Music is an elemental and integral form of human expression that has been around since the hunting-gathering days of yore, since about the time our caveman forebears regaled his buddies around the campfire about how he survived a tussle with a sabre-tooth tiger. And since the advent of portable music devices, they have increasingly become a part of the athlete’s wardrobe. So while we do not officially condone or endorse it, music is a common companion for many cyclists when riding outdoors.
Ask most riders, and they will tell you that music is fun to have while exercising. But does it just provide a psychological lift, or is there an actual physiological or ergogenic benefit from cranking the tunes? As if often the case in sport science, a lot of research ideas come about from observing what athletes are up to, and then designing a study to prove whether there is an actual scientific basis for it. In this case we’re going to talk music (no that doesn’t mean we’re going to rap!), but the same athlete observation and subsequent scientific testing applies to many other examples, from legal but scientifically invalid (e.g. using Breath-Right snoring nose strips to improve ventilation) through to illegal but scientifically valid (e.g. blood doping, EPO)
Get out the Ghetto Blaster
In a study in the UK from Loughborough University and the Liverpool John Moores University, Atkinson and colleagues set out to investigate the ergogenic effects of music on time trial performance (Atkinson et al. 2004). Previous studies on music and cycling have employed riding at a set workload to voluntary exhaustion, but my own research back in the mid-1990s demonstrated that such tests had a very low reliability (McLellan et al. 1995). In other words, the results varied greatly in the same person across different trials when using such tests, making it difficult to tell whether a manipulation was actually effective or an error due to the test being so variable.
Therefore, over the past decade, many studies on different manipulations, ranging from caffeine effects through to sleep deprivation, have moved away from using these “constant pace” types of tests in favour of time trial tests, which have demonstrated a much higher reliability (Abbiss et al. 2008). Time trial tests also gives us a chance to explore pacing strategies, rather than forcing the athlete to arbitrarily maintain a constant pacing, which is rarely the case in real-life competition. Of course, from the perspective of both athletes and sport scientists, an additional benefit is therefore having much more real-life relevance or direct application from such research.
Move to the Music
The experimental setup was as follows:
• 16 active young adults, not specifically trained cyclists.
• 10 km time trial tests on a cycle ergometer in typical room temperature and humidity conditions. All subjects familiarized themselves with the time trial effort in order to remove the “learning effect”.
• In the “control” condition, the 10 km TT was done without music.
• In the music condition, “trance” music (don’t ask me what it is, my iPod only plays 80’s music, much to the annoyance of my lab members) with a consistent tempo of 142 minutes, at a volume of 87 decibels, was played throughout the 10 km TT. Importantly, the music was mixed by a DJ specifically for this experiment, such that the subjects, though familiar with the genre of trance music, had no direct prior knowledge or anticipation due to actual familiarity with the music itself.
Besides the direct effects of music on overall time to completion for the 10 km TT, the nice thing about using a TT is the ability to explore pacing strategies. So we might see the exact same overall time and average power output, but the pattern of pacing may be completely different.
And with this study, the authors hoped to explore the mechanisms by which music may improve performance. Namely, one theory is that music helps by dissociating or distracting the individual from the sensations of effort and fatigue. If such a mechanism is valid, what we should see is that, in the music condition, as the TT progresses and fatigue accumulates, power should be higher while perceived effort remains the same.
We’ve Got the Beat
So what did we see in the data?
• Mean power output (243 vs. 232W) and race speed (35.0 vs 34.1 km/h) were both significantly higher with music than without.
• Not surprisingly given the above, the TT was faster (1030 vs. 1052 s) with music.
• Interestingly, mean heart rate was higher (172 vs 165 bpm) with music, and the mean rating of perceived exertion (RPE) was also higher (14.9 vs. 14.1 on a scale from 6-20) with music.
• Breaking down the pattern over the 10 km TT, most of the improvements from the music came about in the first 3 km, with higher speeds and heart rates. Following the first 3 km, speed was pretty much identical between the music and control conditions, and this suggests that music mainly stimulated or primed the subjects for higher starting levels, possibly by increasing their arousal. In contrast, the lack of difference in the speed or power output in the latter stages of the TT would go against the theory that music benefits performance by distracting the subjects. The higher ratings of perceived exertion and heart rates in the early stages of the TT also suggests that the subjects were fully cognizant that they were working harder right from the start of the TT.
Taking the Show on Tour
So what are the things we can take away from this study? First off, I hope this demonstrates that science can be pretty light-hearted and fun, while at the same time useful!
• Remember, we do not condone wearing earphones while cycling, given all the loony drivers and other road obstacles out there. But if you’re riding a time trial and have radio communications with a support vehicle, or if you’re indoors riding a hard interval workout or a fitness test, then crank it loud!
• The subjects self-reported their perceptions of the music, and rated the rhythmic qualities of the music as the most notable factor, ahead of other parameters such as “musicality” or the harmony or melody. This suggests that, unless you really get a dig out of ballads, music with a strong and fast rhythm are preferred over the singer’s actual vocal ability or even whether the lyrics make any sense.
Have fun and ride safe!
Abbiss, C.R., G. Levin, M.R. McGuigan, and P.B. Laursen. 2008. Reliability of power output during dynamic cycling. International Journal of Sports Medicine 29: 574-578.
Atkinson, G., D. Wilson, and M. Eubank. 2004. Effects of music on work-rate distribution during a cycling time trial. International Journal of Sports Medicine 25: 611-615.
McLellan, T.M., S.S. Cheung, and I. Jacobs. 1995. Variability of time to exhaustion during submaximal exercise. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 20: 39-51.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at email@example.com .