Can Music Help Your Cycling Performance?

If music is the soundtrack of our lives, it is also the lifesaver for indoor training. While everybody grooves to their own drummer, is there an actual ergogenic effect from playing music during intense efforts? And what can studying music and exercise tell us about how we psychologically cope with intense efforts?

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 is 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, 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)

More: 8 Indoor Trainer Options for Cyclists

Move to the Music

The experimental setup was as follows:

  • Sixteen active young adults, not specifically trained cyclists.
  • A 10K time trial test 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 10K time trial was done without music.
  • In the music condition, "trance" music with a consistent tempo of 142 beats per minute, 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 10K time trial, the nice thing about using a time trial 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 time trial progresses and fatigue accumulates, power should be higher while perceived effort remains the same.

More: Workout Playlists: Music to Boost Your Exercise Routine

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