The Effect of Music on Workout and Recovery

The effects of music during physical activity was first documented in 1911. Since then, researchers have been attempting to understand what relationship music has with endurance during a workout and the recovery period following a workout. Music influences both physical and mental aspects of workout, helping us to exercise longer and recover faster than without music. Let’s take a look at some of the studies surrounding this phenomenon.

Music and Endurance

The first study was conducted in 1911 and examined what happened when bicyclists pedaled to band music and when they pedaled without music. The result was a remarkable increase in endurance with those who pedaled to band music. So began an investigation into the relationship that music and exercise have when done together.

Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, a leading expert on the psychology of exercise and music commented, “Music is a type of legal performance-enhancing drug. Several characteristics of music influence our endurance when we exercise.” The reason has to do with both the body’s response to music and the brain’s ability to use music to override the normal functions in the body to keep us from quitting exercise.

The tempo of the music, namely the speed and rhythm, can determine how your body moves in sync with it. We've learned that we instinctively move in conjunction to the tempo and that people have an innate preference for rhythms at a frequency of 2 hertz (120 beats per minute) when walking. However, when running on a treadmill, they preferred 160 bpm. There is a ceiling effect, researchers also point out, at around 145 bpm when running longer than a few minutes.

Oxygen Uptake

The astounding part of all of this relates to the endurance of the athletes who exercised with music like in the original 1911 study, but also what happened physiologically to the participants. In a 2012 study, the participants who cycled with synchronic music to their pace required 7% less oxygen to do the work than cyclists who had a slower tempo than their pace.

The reason, according to theory, has to do with how the brain interprets music during exercise. Apparently, the reflex circuit-- what makes us jump when there is a loud sound-- is active even when there are pleasing sounds too. The reflex circuit controls muscle movements and this, in turn, affects how our bodies move. So music, especially music we enjoy, can create synchrony between our muscles, brain and the music.

So, why did the participants in the 2012 study needed less oxygen? It all has to do with how that muscle synchrony affects our lungs and oxygen transportation. Our lungs are powered by muscles in the diaphragm that help them expand and contract, bringing in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

Getting the correct flow of oxygen in and transporting that to the heart muscle puts oxygen on the superhighway of the circulatory system. The circulatory system brings oxygen to the muscles, and the cycle starts all over again. It has been theorized that synchrony helps make movement more efficient and that, in turn, reduces the amount of energy expenditure.

This concept is vitally important in boxing. A study concerning the actual heart rate, blood pressure and breathing during an Olympic Boxing match showed that boxers require more oxygen to promote lasting performance.

Musical Motivation

According to the results of the 2012 research, music during sparring or workouts could benefit boxers as well. It does double duty by training the body to use energy more efficiently while also training the muscles to synchronize faster.

Think about the music to “Eye of the Tiger” for a moment. The guitar intro and verses mimic the movements of a boxer jabbing. Whether this was intentional or just coincidental, the fact remains that the body instinctively will move in conjunction with the music.

Another characteristic of music has to do with the favorability or emotional connection with the music. What we like to listen to actually motivates us to continue exercising.

Researchers discovered that music doesn’t override our feelings of fatigue, but it does change how people respond to those feelings. Music provides motivation by distracting our brains from what we would normally feel without music.

For example, some people might need hard rock, metal or rap to exercise. It makes them feel aggressive and strong. Listening to pop or adult contemporary might not give them that same emotional response. For others the opposite may be true. You may respond better to pop and dislike rock or rap. Feel free to try different types of music until you find what motivates you.

Music increases normal brain activity, but the reasons why are still being debated. Some think that our ancestors would travel longer or work harder to music, either sung or by using a percussion instrument of some kind. Whatever the reason the result is the same: we work or exercise longer and more efficiently, and experience increased brain activity even when sitting still.

Music and Recovery

A study showed that both men and women recovered faster to music after exercise than those who did not listen to music. It can return blood pressure and heart rate back to normal if done post workout. Researchers also found it increases serotonin and dopamine hormones that are known to foster recovery.

Another study of ten men, 26 years of age, had their maximum sustained running speed measured on a treadmill. A series of tests were then done as they ran their maximum speed for six minutes. After finishing, the participants were asked to walk freely around the gym. Researchers were at the same time monitoring their vital functions and took blood samples before and after their walk. Then they did the same test while introducing music during the walk around the gym.

They found that listening to music caused the participants’ blood lactate levels, or the lactic acid buildup in the blood and muscles, to drop more rapidly, clearing the body of lactic acid. Participants also walked a greater number of steps to music than without it. Lastly, participants reported recovery felt less demanding after having listened to music.

Music has a powerful effect on human beings. As such, it is not surprising that music has such a profound physiological effect during exercise. Next time you workout or spar at Gloveworx, strategically pick music that mimics the movements that you do. See for yourself how beneficial it is for coordination, endurance and recovery. You may be surprised how it enhances your performance.