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Why the Wrong Music Will Kill Your Workout

The ancient Romans had a drummer in every boat. His job was to pound out a rhythm for the rowers to follow—not just to keep them in synch but also to motivate them to row their butts off.

“That worked for the Romans, and it still works for us now,” says Dr. Carl Foster, Ph.D., a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL). Foster is director of the Human Performance Lab at UWL, an he and his students have spent a lot of time studying the way tunes affect your runs, rides, and other workouts. Here are his and other researchers’ most useful insights.


Listen to music with a quick, pronounced beat and you’ll naturally synchronize your movements with that tempo. “It can help drive intensity and performance,” Foster says. That’s great if you’re listening to up-tempo music, but not so hot if the beat of your tunes lags behind your natural running or exercise pace. So ditch ponderously paced jams in favor of fast-paced music. Foster says apps like Tempo (Android, iTunes) allow you to speed up the beat of your favorite tracks without otherwise messing with their sound.


If the beat is too fast for you to keep up with, it can actually hurt your performance, according to a recent review study from UK and Aussie researchers. For example, if you’re lifting weights, a slower (but still strong) beat may be a better choice. You want to make sure the rhythm of your repetitions aligns with the music. “That synchronization helps regulate you, which seems to improve performance,” Foster says.


Music you enjoy and that synchs with your movements also seems to dull the pain of exercise, shows research from Costas Karageorghis Ph.D., of England’s Brunel University. By “reducing the perception of effort,” music can improve your endurance by up to 15%, his research suggests.


When a group of cyclists listened to the same piece of music either with or without a lyrical component, the riders listening to the singer-less tracks tended to lag behind the riders rocking to vocals, found a recent study from Psychology of Sport and Exercise. While the study’s authors say more research is needed to clarify these results, you may be better off listening to tracks with vocals.


The top-40 soundtrack playing at your health club? It may actually be hurting your workout. That UK and Aussie review study found “asynchronous music”—basically, stuff playing in the background that you’re not really into—can sap your energy in ways that make cardio seem more arduous or the weights you’re holding feel heavier. If you can’t get into the music that’s playing during your workout, you need to supply some of your own to block it out, the research suggests.


Athletes who spend time before a competition listening to “self-selected” music—that is, the tunes of their choice—tend to feel calmer and perform better, the UK/Aussie review study found. That was the case regardless of whether the music was fast or slow. The study authors say the performance benefits were even greater when the athletes visualized themselves excelling in their upcoming competition. So whether you’re gearing up for a race or heading out to play pick-up, listening to your favorite tracks and imagining yourself executing at your best can boost your performance, the research indicates.

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