02 April 2014

Music and ultramarathon running – can music enhance running performance? And has the human ability to run created our rhythmical talent and musicality?

The effects of music on exercise

The sun was back today this morning when I ran to work and so were the birds singing in the trees. Influenced by their song I felt stronger and probably ran a little bit too fast. It also made me think about the strong effect I think music can have on athletic performance. However, what is the scientific evidence that music really can improve running performance and in particular ultramarathon endurance? One of my strongest personal memories of how music could affect my mood and perceived rate of exertion when running was when I left Rifugio Sogno di Berdzé on the second evening of Tor des Géants 2013. The race had been going on for approximately 36 hours and I had been running for 117 kilometers and just climbed over 1000 meters from the last life-base in Cogne. Leaving the Rifugio I worried about some pain in my calves and Achilles tendons and I felt quite alone in darkness and cold that surrounded me. In my misery I decided to put on some Italian pop music and suddenly it felt like a surge of power hit me and in a blink I was at the Col Fenetre di Champorche, having actually run up the last part of the climb. It was probably the first time I really discovered the power of music when running.

Looking into the literature I found a vast amount of scientific articles on the effects of music on exercise. That music may have an effect on athletic performance has been studied for over 100 years and the probably first publication on the topic was published already in 1911 (Ayers “The influence of music on speed in the six day bicycle race” Am Phys Educ Rev 1911; 16: 321-325). A good recent comprehensive review of the research in this area is Karageorghis and Priest “Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Parts I & II)” Int Rev Sport Exercise Psychol 2012; 5: 44-66 and 67-84. The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) has recently published an expert statement on the use of music in exercise (Karageorghis et al “The BASES Expert Statement on use of music in exercise” J Sports Sci. 2012; 30: 953-6 Also available online at http://www.bases.org.uk/Music-in-Exercise). They determine that research evidence (which mostly is generated by themselves so this is obviously a weakness of the statement) demonstrate that music has consistent and measurable effects on the behaviour and psychological states of exercise participants. When music is selected according to its motivational qualities, the positive impact on performance (e.g. increased endurance) and psychological states (e.g. enhanced affect) are even greater. Their salient recommendations are that music should be:

   Congruent with the socio-cultural background and age group of listeners (i.e., reflect familiarity and preferences).

   Functional for the activity (e.g., rhythm should usually approximate motor patterns involved).

   Selected with the desired effects in mind (e.g., loud, fast, percussive music with accentuated bass frequencies as an arousal-increasing intervention).

   Selected in consultation with participants using some form of objective rating method (e.g., Brunel Music Rating Inventory-2; Karageorghis et al., 2006).

   Characterised by prominent rhythmic qualities and percussion in addition to pleasing melodic and harmonic structures for repetitive aerobic and anaerobic exercise tasks. Harmony refers to sounding multiple notes together, giving music its emotional “colour” (e.g., happy, sad, ruminative).

   Within the tempo band of 125-140 beats per minute for most healthy exercisers engaged in repetitive, aerobic-type activity (slower music is appropriate for warm-up and cool-down).

   Imbued with motivating associations, conditioned either through the media or the personal experiences of the listener.

   Accompanied by lyrics with affirmations of movement (e.g., “run to the beat”) or generic motivating statements (e.g., “the only way is up”).

   Used in ways where safety is not compromised (e.g., exercisers should not use music when running or cycling on the roads). 

Conceptual framework from Terry & Karageorghis "Psychophysical effecs of music in sport and exercise: An update on theory, research and application" in M. Katsikitis (Ed) (2006)

The effects of music on running and walking

To summarize the effects of music specifically on running and walking most studies show beneficial effects. The running experiments have, however, mostly been conducted with healthy volunteers running short distances on a treadmill (see articles below).

·         Baldari et al “Effects of music during exercise in different training status” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010; 50: 281-7.

·         Barwood et al “A motivational music and video intervention improves high-intensity exercise performance” J Sport Sci Med 2009; 8: 435-442

·         Bood et al “ The power of auditory-motor synchronization in sports: Enhancing running performance by coupling cadence with the right beats”. PLoS ONE 2013; 8: e70758.

·         Brownley et al “Effects of music on physiological and affective responses to graded treadmill exercise in trained and untrained runners” Int J Psychophysiol. 1995; 19: 193-201

·         Copeland & Franks “Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1991; 31:100-3.

·         Crust “Effects of familiar and unfamiliar asynchronous music on treadmill walking endurance” Percept Mot Skills 2004; 99: 361–368.

·         Debarnot & Guillot “When music tempo affects the temporal congruence between physical practice and motor imagery” Acta Psychol 2014; 149C: 40-44 [Epub ahead of print]

·         Edworthy & Waring “The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise” Ergonomics 2006; 49: 1597–1610.

·         Karageorghis et al “Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of synchronous music during treadmill walking” J Sport Exerc  Psychol 2009; 31: 18–36.

·         Lima-Silva et al “Listening to music in the first, but not the last 1.5 km of a 5-km running trial alters pacing strategy and improves performance” Int J Sports Med; 2012; 33: 813–818

·         Savitha et al “The effect of vocal and instrumental music on cardio respiratory variables, energy expenditure and exertion levels during sub maximal treadmill exercise” Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 2013; 57: 159-68

·         Szmedra &  Bacharach “Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running” Int J Sports Med 1998; 19: 32–37

·         Terry PC et al “Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes” J Sci Med Sport 2012; 15: 52-7.

There are not many studies of music when not running on a treadmill and I only found a few, again mostly looking at the effects on shorter distances like 400-meters (Simpson & Karageorghis “The effects of synchronous music on 400-m sprint performance” J Sports Sci 2006; 24: 1095–1102) or around in a circle with 15-meter diameter in a sports hall (Leman et al “Activating and relaxing music entrains the speed of beat synchronized walking” PLoS One. 2013; 8: e67932). There was one study investigating the effects of music on mood and emotions during normal running exercise (Lane et al “Effects of music interventions on emotional states and running performance” J Sports Sci Med. 2011; 10: 400-7), and another investigating in 19 healthy runners whether peak locomotion frequency of ~3 Hz during outdoor running is synchronized with different intrinsic and extrinsic frequencies using accelerometer and  electroencephalography measurements (Schneider et al “Exercise, music, and the brain: is there a central pattern generator?” J Sports Sci. 2010; 28: 1337-43).

The effects of music on other exercise forms

Most studies of music as an ergogenic aid to facilitate physical performance has been performed on aerobic exercise and with predetermined music. Above I have mentioned some of the studies with running, but there exists many similar studies of indoor cycling on a trainer. There have also been some studies on strength training recently published and one cross-over study of twenty healthy males performing resistance strength and explosive exercise in the form of bench press and squat jump showed that self-selected music improved in particular the explosive squat jump performance and lowered RPE and improved the mood state (measured with the profile of mood states [POMS] scale) (Biagnini et al. Effects of self-selected music on strength, explosiveness, and mood J Strength Cond Assoc 2012; 26: 1934-1938). These findings are supported by a recent study by Fritz and colleagues of 52 volunteers showing that musical feedback, so called musical agency, during use of exercise machines improved mood (Fritz et al “Musical feedback during exercise machine workout enhances mood” Front Psychol  2013; 4: 921).  A similar study also by Fritz and colleagues was recently published in the prestigious journal PNAS where they also showed clear beneficial effect of musical agency, compared with passive music listening, on rate of perceived exertion (RPE) in 62 participants performing strenuous exercises on fitness machines. For instance, very interestingly, oxygen consumption as acquired with spirometry showed that, although exhibiting no differences in total force under both conditions, the oxygen consumption was lower during musical agency than during passive music listening. It thus rather appears that participants were able to apply a comparable amount of force using less oxygen. An effect with music on oxygen consumption has previously been shown on treadmill running  (Szmedra &  Bacharach “Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running” Int J Sports Med 1998; 19: 32–37).

The effects of music on ultramarathon running

There are no published scientific articles on music on ultramarathon running performance. However, I came around a great PhD dissertation thesis from 2012 entitled “Effects of synchronous music in sport and exercise: a meta-analytic review and field studies of ultra-distance athletes” on the topic by Michelle Louise Curran from University of Southern Queensland in Australia in Professor Peter C Terry’s laboratory. It is freely available at http://eprints.usq.edu.au/23670/ . In the thesis she performed a meta-analysis of 86 published research studies of general effects of music on athletic performance showing, albeit small to moderate, clear statistically significant positive effects of music on performance, feelings, heart rate, oxygen utilization (VO2) and rate of perceived exertion (RPE). In the thesis there is also an interventional study specifically of two ultra distance runners completing a 20 km training session on four occasions listening to synchronous motivational music, synchronous neutral music, an audio book, or no music. Motivational music provided the two runners with significant benefits compared to no music and audio book conditions. In a second interventional study in the thesis the same interventions was studied in nine ultramarathon runners completing ultra-distance races of 6, 24 and 48 hours duration and showed, quite interestingly, superiority of motivational music over other interventions during in particular the 18-24 hour period. In general, that music can influence fatigue is supported by the central governor model advocating the effects of not only biochemical reactions in the muscle, but also the central nervous system in endurance activities (Noakes “Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis” Front Physiol 2012; 3: 1-14).
From Noakes 2012. The central governor hypothesis of fatique

What music to listen to during running?

The BASES recommendation states that synchronous music  (i.e., when an exerciser consciously moves in time with a musical beat) in particular has been shown to provide ergogenic and psychological benefits in repetitive endurance activities. For example, motivational synchronous music used during treadmill walking improved time to voluntary exhaustion by 15% compared to motivationally neutral and control conditions in 30 participants waling on a treadmill (Karageorghis et al “Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of synchronous music during treadmill walking” J Sport Exerc  Psychol 2009; 31: 18–36). BASES also suggest that synchronous music may increase rhythmicity of movement, resulting in an efficiency gain that is associated with lower relative oxygen uptake. However, in the metaanalysis performed in Curran’s thesis there was limited difference in outcome benefits between synchronous and asynchronous music. Other findings indicate that, among young adults, preferred music tempo generally falls within a narrow band (125-140 beats per minute) regardless of exercise intensity (Karageorghis et al “Revisiting the exercise heart rate music tempo preference relationship”  Res Quart Exercise Sport, 2011; 82: 274-284). Contrary to theoretical predictions, the relationship between exercise movement and heart rate and preferred music tempo was found to be nonlinear, characterized by a series of inflections.

A very interesting recent study investigated the relative effects of auditory-motor synchronization and the motivational impact of acoustic stimuli on running performance (Bood et al “The power of auditory-motor synchronization in sports: Enhancing running performance by coupling cadence with the right beats”. PLoS ONE 2013; 8: e70758). In this cross-over study, 19 participants ran to exhaustion on a treadmill in 1) a control condition without acoustic stimuli, 2) a metronome condition with a sequence of beeps matching participants’ cadence (synchronization), and 3) a music condition with synchronous motivational music matched to participants’ cadence (synchronization + motivation). As expected, time to exhaustion was significantly longer with acoustic stimuli than without, but unexpectedly, however, time to exhaustion did not differ between metronome and motivational music conditions, despite differences in motivational quality. Thus, acoustic

stimuli may have enhanced running performance because runners worked harder as a result of motivational aspects (most pronounced with motivational music) and more efficiently as a result of auditory-motor synchronization (most notable with metronome beeps). The authors conclude that the findings imply that running to motivational music with a very prominent and consistent beat matched to the runner’s cadence will likely yield optimal effects because it helps to elevate physiological effort at a high perceived exertion, whereas the consistent and correct cadence induced by auditory-motor synchronization helps to optimize running economy. Similar findings that the motivational qualities of music may be less important than the prominence of its beat and the degree to which participants are able to synchronise their movements to its tempo was also recently found in a study by Terry and colleagues of 11 elite triathletes running on a treadmill (Terry PC et al Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes J Sci Med Sport 2012; 15: 52-7).

Quite interestingly, some music appear to be activating as it can entrain the speed of beat synchronized walking, supporting the hypothesis that recurrent patterns of fluctuation affecting the binary meter strength of the music may entrain the vigor of the movement (Leman et al “Activating and relaxing music entrains the speed of beat synchronized walking” PLoS One. 2013; 8: e67932). This may be attributed to an attentional shift, a subliminal audio-motor entrainment mechanism, or an arousal effect, but further research is needed to study this further.

In summary, there is still no clear evidence that one type of music is preferably over another when running. Quite interestingly, looking at the playlists of elite ultrarunners, compiled by Daniel Rowland, it is indeed a great variety of music.

The motivational effects of music versus video on exercise performance

There have recently been some studies looking at the effects of both music and video during exercise. A small cross-over study was performed on six healthy male volunteers by Barwood and colleagues investigating the effect of motivational music plus video intervention on running distance during a 30-minute exercise bout on a treadmill in warm (~26°C) and moist (~50% RH) conditions in the presence of motivational music and video, non-motivational intervention, or control conditions with no intervention (Barwood et al “A motivational music and video intervention improves high-intensity exercise performance” J Sport Sci Med 2009; 8: 435-442). Despite the small number of participants, they found that motivational music and video increased the running distance and led to higher blood lactate concentration, but that the peak rating of perceived exertion (RPE) did not increase (P < 0.05). The motivational ergogenic music used in the experiment rated high on the so called Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI)-2 and -3 by the participants and included a high beat (>120 bmp) and a strong rhythm. In order to “psych up” (arousal regulation), shift attention focus (association to dissociation) and to encourage psychological skills usage (positive mental imagery) videos of influential sporting feats that the participants were likely to have seen in the media previously was also shown. The non-motivational intervention consisted of 30 minutes of public speaking from a recent political trial in the USA.  The study opens up for more research with regards to the relative importance of the music and the video intervention. It becomes little of a theoretical question as when running a mountain ultramarathon I am absolutely convinced that breathtaking scenery and the mountain surroundings in itself is highly motivating.

Has the human ability to run created our rhythmical talent and musicality?

Lastly, when I reviewed the scientific literature for the effects of music on running I came across a set of recent articles forming a very interesting hypothesis that running, or more correctly the bipedal locomotion of humans, has influenced our evolution of rhythmic abilities. It appears rhythmic entrainment (beat-based timing) is specific to humans among primates and not found in for instance macaque monkeys (Merchant & Honing “Are non-human priamtes capable of rhythmic entrainment? Evidence for the gradual audiomotor evolution hypothesis” Front Neurosci  2014; 7: 274). These findings based on new cross-species research generates a challenging view questioning Darwin’s hypothesis that our capacity for musical rhythm reflects basic aspects of brain function broadly shared among animals (Patel “The Evolutionary Biology of Musical Rhythm: Was Darwin Wrong?” PLoS Biol 2014; 12: e1001821). One very interesting hypothesis, formed by the Swedish physician Matz Larsson, is that human locomotion and ventilation generates sounds that needs to be masked by synchronization of locomotion when humans walk and run in groups and that thus bipedal gait and the associated sounds of locomotion influenced the evolution of human rhythmic abilities (Larsson ”Self-generated sounds of locomotion and ventilation and the evolution of human rhythmic abilities” Anim Cogn 2014; 17: 1–14). This is a virgin research area that I think will be very interesting to follow in the coming years. I like the idea very much though and I will when running home today try to listen to not only the birds but also the rhythm and music of my own body when moving.

From Merchant & Honing 2014. Auditory stream in the brains of non-human primates and humans

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