As the UK gears up for the London marathon, soundlounge investigates what roles music and sound play in helping us achieve our sporting goals and why few joggers would dare leave the house without their trusty mp3 player.
With the epic London marathon just weeks away and the spring sunshine gently teasing us with the odd glorious day, Brits up and down the country are lacing up their running shoes and taking to the streets. Early morning commuters are being confronted by herds of lycra-clad joggers – some perfecting their beach bodies, some preparing for upcoming weddings and others trying to rid themselves of the last remnants of that winter stodge. But while each of them differs in their reasons for keeping fit there is one thing that unites almost all of them. Music. Whether in the gym, the park or the street, these exercise enthusiasts are being motivated by what’s coming through their headphones and for some, it is all that’s keeping them going.
In 2008, research by Dr Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist at London’s Brunel University, suggested that listening to music can increase exercise endurance by around 15 per cent. He said that as well as impacting on effort, music can also make the task more pleasurable, with those working out at a very high intensity still feeling more positive when exposed to a certain track. “Music inspires movement,” he said. “Like smell, it can penetrate areas of the brain that language alone doesn’t reach.” Dr Karageorghis added that applying music to exercise “resulted in much higher endurance, while the motivational qualities of the music impacted significantly on the interpretation of fatigue symptoms right up to the point of voluntary exhaustion”.
So what is it about certain music that helps us feel positive, motivated and willing to push ourselves harder? Perhaps the best place to start is analysing tempo. One would tend to assume that a song with more beats per minute (bpm) would be better suited for a sprint, while a slower track more appropriate for a light jog or walk. In many cases this theory is sound. Popular workout songs such as Glen Frey’s The Heat is On has 150 bpm – which seems about right for faster exercise. Indeed, Ethiopian Olympic runner Haile Gebrselassie famously requested that the 90s techno song Scatman – which has 135 bpm – be played over the sound system when he ran. But can bpm really be the whole story? Perhaps not. Take Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. This has 152 bpm but is hardly a song you would pick to sprint to. Similarly, the Rocky theme Gonna Fly Now – which is widely regarded as the ultimate workout track – has just 96 bpm.
So if it’s not all about the tempo then what makes different songs suit particular forms of exercise? One theory is the impact on the emotions which certain music is likely to trigger. Similarly to music in advertising, sound can serve as a way of connecting to people on an emotional level and be used to motivate us into action. The Rocky theme is one track which, as Dr Karageorghis states, “evokes a state of optimism and excitement in the listener”. This goes beyond matching the rhythm of the music with the thud of our trainers. The song actually touches us on an emotional level causing us to feel more positive about our task and thus more willing to complete it. Indeed, Gonna Fly Now has even been used in commercials for UK directory enquiries service 118 118 featuring people of all ages joining in a race.
Lyrics within a track are also likely play a major part in influencing our efforts with encouraging, optimistic words helping to push people further than would otherwise be possible. A recent poll of 3,000 British marathon runners by health website realbuzz.com in many ways gives weight to this. The group voted, Eye of the Tiger into the number one spot followed by Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and Spencer Davis Group’s Keep on Running. Each and every one of these feature lyrics which from day one of the music production process were designed to inspire and motivate.
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