A few years ago, I met 2010 Olympic gold medalist and world champion figure skater Evan Lysacek. He was recovering from an injury and training to go for his second gold. I expressed how much I appreciated the precise integration of music into figure skating’s rich choreography. I once had the privilege to have Olympic champion Ekaterina Gordeeva perform to my music, and was curious about how music impacted him.
When I asked Evan how important music was to his training and performance, he told me it was essential. He claimed it helped him with timing, motivation, and focus. Evan described how he spends countless hours selecting, testing, and editing the soundtrack to which he will practice and perform until it is in perfect sync with the energy and state he needs to achieve. For an Olympic skater, especially because the audience is also experiencing them through the music, the music and the performance are inseparable.
Around the same time, I met Eric, I also met sports doctor and integrated-health practitioner, Dr. Ira Schneider. Once again, the subject of music came up.
Music for the Long Run
Dr. Schneider had worked with the US cyclist team in preparation for the Tour de France. Like in many world-class sports, a small percentage of improvement in time and performance can make the difference between winning the top prize and failing to make the finals. Schneider thought about the music the riders would listen to while they trained. Like many athletes dependent upon peak energy, they listened to upbeat and adrenalizing music.
The Tour de France, however, is no fifty-yard dash. It is a twenty-three-day race that covers a staggering 3,500 kilometers—roughly the distance between Washington, D.C. and Tucson, Arizona—averaging more than 105 miles a day. Schneider realized that the last thing he wanted his team to depend on for that level of endurance was adrenaline. If the body pumped out the neural chemicals associated with adrenaline for that period of time, while cutting them off from the more sustainable energy required for a focused and steady-state, they would burn out.
Schneider discovered a 1960s study on music and performance that suggested that music that calms the mind and helps with healing can also help with endurance sports. After much resistance from the team, he was finally able to convince the cyclists to give the new musical direction a try. Following a new training regime that included inspiring movements by Beethoven, their performance improved.
Most of the world’s great athletes know that the key to outperforming the competition is their mastery over their energy, thoughts, and emotions. Their psyche, body, and energy must be in complete sync. Leading ultra-endurance coach, Dr. Philip Maffetone, has been known to have his champions train at slower speeds than normal; only increasing as much as they are able to maintain an optimal and more regulated heart rate. What has come to be known as the MAF Method ultimately helps endurance athletes achieve higher levels of performance. The key here is to master energy and stay in an optimal aerobic zone, which is far more dependent on arousal regulation than overstimulation. And music can help.
That is not to say some athletes, especially those less dependent on endurance and subtle energies, won’t benefit from using music to pump them up. They may need higher-octane music to motivate them at the start, until they reach a plateau.
Whether you are a professional athlete or use sports and exercise to have fun and stay fit, music can significantly impact your performance, both in training and in competition.
Training with Music
Even if music is not allowed in a competition, when athletes consistently train to a musical set, they can embed the playlist into their memory. In this way, they can still take advantage of the same neurochemical triggers just by “hearing” the soundtrack in their head. Two-time Olympic champion and Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, set a world record at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot. Bikila is said to have had a song in his head to help him keep pace throughout the race.
In a July 2008 edition of The Sport Journal, Dr. Costas Karageorghis and David-Lee Priest of Brunel University London concluded, “In the hotbed of competition, where athletes are often very closely matched in ability, music has the potential to elicit a small but significant effect on performance. . . Music also provides an ideal accompaniment for training.”
Based on 15 years of studies, Karageorghis and Priest identify five key ways in which music can influence training preparation and competitive performances.
Music can lower the perception of effort or struggle, narrow focus, and divert the mind from sensations of fatigue. Listening to music while working out the level of perceived exertion by as much as 10 percent.
2. AROUSAL REGULATION
Music has the ability to alter emotional and physiological arousal. It can be used both during training and as a primer prior to a performance to calm and offset the negative effects of anxiety.
Music with an optimal tempo for an athlete’s performance can help them perform more efficiently and for longer periods of time.
4. ACQUISITION OF MOTOR SKILLS
Scientific studies have shown that the right music can aid in the learning of motor skills, have a positive effect on stylistic movement, and improve coordination.
5. ATTAINMENT OF FLOW
From thrill seekers in extreme sports to Olympic athletes to precision trainers working with the Navy Seals, flow is considered the zenith of intrinsic states for peak performance. Music can affect neurochemicals in the brain that help induce those highly desirable flow states.
The Musical Advantage
Sports and music are often aligned, whether it be to enhance the performance of an individual athlete or to rally an audience or team. In fact, many athletes would be resistant, if not afraid, to give up their music. When the 2007 New York Marathon banned listening to music during
the event, hundreds of runners risked being disqualified rather than giving up their favorite tunes when they needed them most.
While you or I may not be in the same league as the aforementioned athletic icons, we all have experienced the power of music. Whether you’re a weekend marathoner, a casual tennis player, or just looking to enhance your performance during a morning power walk or workout at the gym, music can assist you.
Time to Play!
One notable quality that music and sports share with music, even among the athletic elite, we play them. Music can transform often arduous, and sometimes tedious, workouts and exercises into the most inspiring part of your day. Beyond competing, music and exercise are both fundamental to winning at the game of life, with an intentional emphasis on “fun.” Music is a great way to amplify that fun while improving your mental state and unleashing your potential to perform at higher levels.
You can learn more about music and sports, as well as how music can help you amplify your performance and fulfillment in all the areas of your life, in my new book Amplified: Unleash Your Potential Through the Power of Music.
Learn more about Frank at Frankfitzpatrick.com