Earphones

Ice or a hot bath, orthotics or not…and listening to earphones…just some of the topics which are certain to pop up in conversation among runners at some point which are sure to spark debate.

Like so many things in life, all of the above are neither right or wrong, depending on the circumstances, though until very recently I would never have supported the idea of running to music myself. It can be dangerous, anti social, and if too fast, leave you puffing like a steam train encased in a blanket of sweat.

Some races have already banned the wearing of personal stereos/MP3 players/iPods with the organisers being either applauded or condemned by fellow runners.

But like it or not, when my watch broke and I hit a hill at mile 19 in my first marathon, it was only the dulcet tones of New Order (among others) which got me through. And I wasn’t alone.

And it seems this is not simply a placebo effect.

Appliance of science

A study published last year asked 12 healthy male college students to ride stationary bicycles while listening to music. Each of the six songs chosen differed somewhat in tempo from the others.

The volunteers were told to ride the bicycles at a pace they comfortably could maintain for 30 minutes. Then each rode in three separate trials, wearing headphones tuned to their preferred volume. Each had his heart rate, power output, pedal cadence, enjoyment of the music and feelings of how hard the riding felt monitored throughout each session. During one of the rides, the six songs ran at their normal tempos. During the other rides, the tempo of the tracks was slowed by 10 per cent or increased by 10 per cent. The riders were not informed about the tempo manipulations.

But their riding changed significantly in response. When the tempo slowed, so did their pedaling, their heart rates and their mileage. They reported that they didn’t like the music much. On the other hand, when the tempo of the songs was upped 10 per cent, they covered more miles in the same period of time, produced more power with each pedal stroke and increased their pedal cadences. Their heart rates rose. They reported enjoying the music — the same music — about 36 per cent more than when it was slowed. However, they didn’t find the workout easier, but it seemed to motivate them to push themselves. It freed the body to do what it knew how to do without interference from the brain.

This diversionary technique, known to psychologists as dissociation, lowers perceptions of effort. Effective dissociation can promote a positive mood state, turning the attention away from thoughts of physiological sensations of fatigue. More specifically, positive aspects of mood such as vigor and happiness become heightened, while negative aspects such as tension, depression, and anger are lessened.

Research has consistently shown that the synchronization of music with repetitive exercise is associated with increased levels of work output. This applies to such activities as rowing, cycling, cross-country skiing, and running. Musical tempo can regulate movement and thus prolong performance. Synchronizing movements with music also enables athletes to perform more efficiently, again resulting in greater endurance.

The Scatman

The celebrated Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is famous for setting world records running in time to the rhythmical pop song “Scatman.” He selected this song because the tempo perfectly matched his target stride rate, a very important consideration for a distance runner whose aim is to establish a steady, efficient cadence.

An athlete searching for music to incorporate in training and competition should start by considering what is the desired outcome of the session?

Research has uncovered the tendency among athletes and exercisers to coordinate bursts of effort with specific segments of a musical track they find to be especially motivating, so it’s beneficial to match the tempo of music with the intensity of the workout planned.

It’s music’s dual ability to distract attention (a psychological effect) while simultaneously priming the heart and the muscles (physiological impacts) that makes it so effective during everyday exercise.

The resulting interactions between body, brain and music are complex. It may be that your body first responds to the beat, even before your mind joins in; your heart rate and breathing increase and the resulting biochemical reactions exhilarate and motivate you to move even faster.

Scientists hope to soon better understand the various nervous system and brain mechanisms involved. But for now, they know that music, in most instances, works.

Kerryanne Clancy is a VTCT Level 3 Sports Massage Therapist and a keen runner

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