We asked sports psychologists to analyze 5 Olympians' favourite pump-up songs

Music impacts the human brain in incredibly unique ways, giving it an optimal effect on athletic performance.

Music impacts the human brain in incredibly unique ways, giving it an optimal effect on athletic performance

Freestyle skier Marion Thénault won bronze at the Winter Games in Beijing, and she shared some of the tracks that she listens to while training. (Marion Thénault/Instagram, graphic by CBC Music)

Some athletes have songs that they swear by, that they play before each competition or during training to help get them into the zone. Whether you're training for the Olympics or just working out at the local gym, the right song can make all the difference in motivating us to run that extra lap or beat a personal record. 

CBC Music reached out to some Canadian athletes competing in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games to find out their pump-up playlists, then asked sports psychologists to weigh in on the athletes' choice of songs. While training, athletes tend to choose high-energy songs with fast tempos, but in the heightened situation of competition they might opt for music that helps them concentrate, shield out distractions and reduce stress. 

Costas Karageorghis is a professor of sports and exercise psychology at Brunel University London who has been researching the psychological, psychophysiological and neurophysiological effects of music in sport for 25 years. He said an athlete might choose a song with a tempo close to resting heart rate  at a moment of high anxiety: a snowboarder throwing themselves off a half-pipe, for example.

"Sometimes in those sports in which life and limb are risked, rather than the music having the function of psyching us up, it has the function of psyching us down … so that [the athletes] can counter those dangers and put themselves in an optimal psychological state."

Elements like tempo, syncopation, lyrical content and emotional messaging all play a role in how music impacts the brain. The optimal psychological state for athletic performance is unique to each athlete, and music works like a cheat code to help them get there.

Below, two sports psychologists walk us through what's really going on in the brain when we listen to music, and how it works as a motivator to reach peak performance. 

Beats per minute

Aerial skier Marion Thénault's "getting hype" playlist includes songs that range in tempo from 86 to 135 beats per minute. It's safe to say that her selections are tried and true because, along with her teammates, she helped win Canada a bronze medal in mixed team aerials this year — a historic feat, since it's the first time the event has been included in the Olympics.

According to Karageorghis, songs between 120 and 130 bpm will invoke what psychologists refer to as a high level of arousal, whereas songs between 70 and 90 bpm invoke low levels of arousal. In this case, arousal can be described as how our brain reacts to music and the subsequent emotional and physical results of that reaction. 

"Whatever it Takes" by Imagine Dragons, one of Thénault's selects, has a bpm of 135, meaning it's likely to induce a high level of arousal.

"Tempo is often associated with other features of music," said Jessica Grahn, a music neuroscientist and associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Western Ontario. "Music that has a fast tempo tends to have a lot more going on, more changes of notes, a lot more rhythm, and you're just getting the musical information coming in faster because of the rate of the beats per minute." 

Grahn has often found that fast music will make people speed up, even if they can't synchronize with it. It's why listening to a high beats-per-minute genre like techno (usually between 130 and 140 bpm) while running would motivate someone to run faster for longer, even though they can't match the rate of what they're listening to. 

Music can also propel the body to keep going past the point of exhaustion. In Karageorghis's research over the past six years, he says he and his team have increasingly discovered that "when we use music while training or working out, the areas of the brain that are responsible for communicating fatigue seem to be dampened somewhat by the presence of music."

Another track on Thénault's playlist, "Hall of Fame" by the Script featuring, has a tempo of 85 bpm and works in the opposite way. Karageorghis found in his research that music can influence our hemodynamic outcomes, meaning it can impact our blood pressure and heart rate. While one song might help push the body beyond what an athlete thought capable, another could initiate a return to a normal resting state after extreme exertion. 

Syncopated rhythms 

Hip-hop music, which has a fairly slow tempo (typically between 75 and 95 bpm), is often used by athletes to help them get amped before competition. The genre hits what Grahn refers to as a "sweet spot of rhythmic complexity." 

"We like music that's got a beat that's fairly easy to detect," she said. "But if it's too easy, you know, we don't like to just listen to a metronome, that feeling of beats that simple isn't very exciting. We love just enough complexity where there are things happening off the beats, we call this syncopations, it makes music more interesting, and it actually makes us want to move to it more." 

This essentially makes the music feel faster than it is. The complexity in the lyrical delivery (think of how fast Busta Rhymes raps), the accentuated beats and the nonlinear rhythms keep us engaged. 

Hallie Clarke, a member of Canada's skeleton team, listens to a lot of hip hop while training, particularly Drake and Kanye West.

Drake's "Started From the Bottom" is 86 bpm, but in the first 35 seconds alone, the beat switches up three times. He plays with the cadence of his voice and the speed of his delivery, and, of course, the whole song is about overcoming adversity with his "whole team." 

Controlling the field 

Grahn explained the importance of context-dependent memory, which is an idea that when we learn things in a particular context, it's easier to perform at the same level when the context is similar. Music can help recreate a sense of control in unfamiliar environments, as athletes often have very little control over the arenas they're competing in. A luger, for example, might be accustomed to training on their home track, then get to the Olympic arena and have to learn how to adapt to a whole new playing field. When you're launching yourself down an ice track at 145 kilometres per hour, feeling in control is crucial.

"Some people might use music to help reinstate their mindset when they're going to perform," said Grahn. "The idea being, if practice is going well, let's try and make everything as similar as possible when I'm doing the performance."

Blake Enzie, a member of Canada's skeleton team, listens to the same song before every competition: "Ginseng Strip 2002" by Yung Lean. The sad boy rap track may seem like an unconventional choice, as it doesn't have the uplifting lyrics or emotional messages of the previously chosen songs, but sometimes unexpected things put our minds at ease. 

"Music appreciation is very individual," said Karageorghis. "It comes down to family influences, peer group influences, our personality and the sort of music that we were exposed to during our formative years. So, we can't say that because people perform the same sports and even need to attain a similar level of arousal that they would like the same music," 

Appealing to emotions

Let's get nerdy for a second. Music seems to impact the emotion sensors of the brain, such as the amygdala. Music can touch us emotionally without necessarily requiring processing in the upper parts of the cortex, meaning it seems to speak to us on a very basic, almost primal level.

Karageorghis suggests that this is one reason why music has such a potent effect on athletes. In 1998, he was training with Peter Terry, a British sports psychologist who was working with the British bobsleigh team leading up to the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The team placed sixth and fifth consecutively in the two previous Olympics, and 1998 was the year they wanted to finally end up on the podium (the U.K. hadn't medalled in the event since 1964). 

As they drove to their training sessions, as well as on the way to both days of competition, Terry would play Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" on the bus speakers. "They would quietly visualize themselves, calmly and decisively seizing the moment … and that's exactly what the Great Britain team did, in a storming last run, in which they won the bronze medal by the narrowest of margins. And anecdotally, of course, they put down their success to the use of that track."

Houston was commissioned to sing "One Moment in Time" for the previous 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, so it was an anthem already fused with the Olympic ideal, giving it extra personal meaning for the athletes. 

When asked what helps get her in the zone before competition or during training, Dawn Richardson-Wilson, a member of the Canadian bobsleigh team, said she likes to listen to motivational speeches. Designed to appeal to our emotions, motivational speeches inspire us to act, to move, to win in the same way some music can conjure positive imagery and affirmations. 

While training, Richard-Wilson is a fan of playing "Alone" by EDM DJ/producer Alan Walker, a song with lyrics that include, "Anywhere, whenever/ apart, but still together/ I know I'm not alone," and a swelling beat. 

It's all in the lyrics 

It's only natural that the lyrical content of songs would also play a huge role in an athlete's performance. They can inspire emotion and help make goals seem more achievable. 

Jane Channell, a member of Canada's skeleton team, is a big fan of the Killers and listens to them a lot while training. "All These Things That I've Done'' is one of her go-tos, and it brilliantly displays the importance of motivational lyrical content. From the first verse, it's clearly a song about not giving up:

When there's nowhere else to run
Is there room for one more son
One more son
If you can hold on
If you can hold on, hold on.

When the beat picks up during the bridge and the refrain "I got soul but I'm not a soldier" repeats 10 times, something magical happens. 

Karageorghis is a fan of "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen, which is a rip-roaring 156 bpm and "alludes to nobody being able to stop you, you're like a Duracell Bunny."

Thénault's choice of "Whatever it Takes" is also a great example of strong messaging in lyrical content, as the chorus goes:

Whatever it takes
'Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do whatever it takes
'Cause I love how it feels when I break the chains.

It also highlights that a number of factors need to present for a song to inspire action: the lyrics, the tempo and the emotional effect all work together.