At some point in my life I used to be a solid runner. But then I stopped running entirely for a huge handful of years. I gave it several half-assed attempts to start again, and I failed every time.
A suggestion from a friend that sounded far too simple turned out to be my silver bullet. I needed the company of music on my runs to blur my mental receptors that told me running sucked and it was too hard. I ended up running further while focusing on lyrics, beats and ended even trying to finish a chapter in my audiobook. Music was the external fuel my mind and body needed to find the runner in myself that I’d abandoned.
And I’m not the only one. To dive into how tunes can alter our mindset and fuel performance, I checked in with a few Gnarly athletes and a healthy lifestyle coach to see how music impacts their training routines.
Music’s connection to fueling performance
For athletes, music can pump up the psych, be a welcomed distraction during Type II fun, it can calm the mind before a big event. Regardless of the reason, music has a direct link to impacting mindset and, in turn, fueling our performance and output.
Gnarly athlete Kyra Condie is a professional rock climber, representing Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. She prefers to train with music on and uses it as fuel while she’s in pre-competition isolation.
But for her, training music to fuel psych sounds much different than pre-comp music. While in train-hard mode, Kyra listens to a dance-able beat and cadence. Reggaeton fits that bill. With Puerto Rican roots, the music is known for its fast rhythms. “It’s just great for training because it makes you want to be active,” Kyra said. “ Some people like really angry music, but that doesn’t put me in the right mood to train. Reggaeton is kind of happy, dancing music, which I love.”
On the wall, Kyra executes problems and routes with dedicated precision. If you get distracted by another climber on a different problem next to Kyra for two seconds, you may have missed watching Kyra find the top. She’s quick.
For this exact reason, Kyra tones down the music she listens to pre-comp, using it as a calming technique to quiet her natural agility. Prior to qualifying for the Olympics, she chilled out to opera music.
“I was listening to basically straight opera for the entirety of isolation,” Kyra said of the qualification comp. “It was just epic enough that it felt appropriate for how big of a moment it was, but it wasn’t something that was increasing my heart rate or making me more nervous. I’m already kind of a fast person, so I needed something that was gonna calm me down, but also make me feel kind of epic.”
Epic is truly the only word to encapsulate Kyra’s performance as she punched her ticket to climb for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.
And the beat goes on
If you’ve ever noticed how working out to music produces different results for your performance than listening to the wind or your own huffing and puffing, you’re in good company. A small study took 11 elite triathletes and had them run until exhaustion under three different circumstances: listening to music they themselves selected as motivational, listening to neutral music chosen for them, and no music. The time to exhaustion while listening to music was 18 percent higher when listening to motivational music compared to no music. Rated perceived exertion from the elite athletes was highest in the no-music control experiment. The experiment went on to point out the importance of finding music with a tempo that athletes can sync their movements with.
Gnarly athlete Joslynn Corredor is a strength coach, climber and runner. In her college days, she ran competitive D1 track and field at Oregon State University. Listening to music while training with her team wasn’t an option, but more recently she’s tuned into using music on her runs. Just like Kyra, Jos’ preferred training music is reggaeton.
“I’ve specifically tried to find music that hits certain cadences,” Jos said. “When I run, I try to have a certain beat so once I feel warmed up, I can hold a pace and I will not drop it since I’m trying to hit the beat of each step to the song.”
On long, slower runs, Jos prefers to run without music and uses it as a time to process her thoughts. But she says her favorite combination of effort, speed and distance come when she runs with her husband. Both wear one wireless earbud and connect them to the running playlists Jos has loaded on her watch. With both listening to the same music, they synchronize their steps and push each other to keep the pace and tempo of the music.
lengthen and strengthen
One study that dove into the effects of music on physical performance found that listening to music, whether motivational or neutral, significantly increased endurance. Another study found that listening to fast-tempo music increased overall exercise tolerance and extended the duration before the subjects decided they had reached their max output and stopped running.
When I was struggling through my beginner runner syndrome, music changed my endurance. Whether it was dissociation or sticking with the tempo of the music, running didn’t feel quite so crappy anymore.
Music as calming fuel
Not all music has to be high-tempo “pump up the psych” tunes to feed us. Brianna Bonney is a certified healthy lifestyles coach and often finds herself recommending clients use music to not only find fuel and motivation, but to de-stress.
“Music allows us to tap into powerful emotions by triggering thoughts, emotions and imagery,” Brianna said. “One of the best and quickest ideas I suggest to clients for decreasing stress, and increasing motivation, is a good playlist. I ask them to embrace the polarity of the calm experienced when they’re listening to a carefully constructed meditation symphony, and the energizing feeling they experience from a motivational song. If you want a fast track to a mood switch, break out an intentional playlist.”
Brianna suggests having a catalogue of playlists for different fuels: a calming playlist for meditation, a motivational playlist for feel-good vibes and a playlist that makes you feel like a badass to slay workouts.
Pump up the jam(s) on toast
Fueling for optimal performance is a trial and error endeavour. I fuel myself with jam on toast before a run, and I hit the pavement armed with a playlist of club music that was cool back in 2007, and some equally awesome 80s pop songs. Your optimal fuel will likely look very different from mine, or from Kyra’s mix of reggaeton and opera, or Jos’ fuel of one earbud runs with her husband.
Internally and externally, finding the fuel that works best for your body is essential to unlock its full potential. From taking care of your body’s baseline needs to eating enough protein for recovery, to finding music that fuels your training sessions, it’s all part of the process.
- Terry, P. C., Karageorghis, C. I., Saha, A. M., & D’Auria, S. (2012). Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 15(1), 52–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2011.06.003
- Karageorghis, C. I., Mouzourides, D. A., Priest, D. L., Sasso, T. A., Morrish, D. J., & Walley, C. J. (2009). Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of synchronous music during treadmill walking. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 31(1), 18–36. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.31.1.18
- Centala, J., Pogorel, C., Pummill, S. W., & Malek, M. H. (2020). Listening to Fast-Tempo Music Delays the Onset of Neuromuscular Fatigue. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 34(3), 617–622. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003417