British Columbia

Tune in, tune out: psychologists say music helps athletes perform

Music is a big part of the training and competition regimens of many of the world's top athletes, including at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Pump-up or cool down, researchers say the 'zone' is real and music helps athletes get there

The music athletes listen to before, during, and after an event can affect their performance according to research done by sports psychologists. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Need to get pumped up, or maybe cool down? Music can get you there says sport and exercise psychologists.

"Music seems to give you that edge where by you feel the same but you're working close to about 10 per cent harder," said Jasmin Hutchinson, director for sport and exercise psychology at Springfield College.

She says music is a big part of the training and competition regimens of many of the world's top athletes, including at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Art of distraction

A recent study from UBC Okaganan looked at music and high intensity interval training where researchers had participants do multiple short, intense bouts of exercise.

In one session they would listen to a playlist, in the second they exercised without music. The experiment found participants worked harder and enjoyed themselves more in the activity with music.

But participants said it didn't feel like they worked any harder when listening to music.

Hutchinson said that in many cases with high intensity or interval training music acts as a distraction.

"It occupies attentional capacity to where you're less focused on that feedback from the body."

North Vancouver's Cassie Sharpe won gold in the women's ski halfpipe event and she uses her tunes to shut out distracting commentators blasted through speakers along the course.

"You're hearing them call your tricks, you're hearing them talk about you while you're skiing, and I can't do that," Sharpe said.

"My attention isn't there, like if I heard them I wouldn't be in my zone. [Music] keeps me focused and keeps me in my own space."

Get in the groove

Another factor that can influence an athlete's choice of music is the tempo of the track according to Leighton Jones, a lecturer and researcher in exercise psychology Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K.

"Athletes are very sensitive to this, they're aware of the optimum state they need to be in to perform well," said Jones.

In sports that require rhythmic movement, like cross-country skiing, Jones says music with a steady beat can have an effect that researchers call entrainment.

This refers to the human tendency to synchronize biological rhythms, from heart and breathing rates to brain waves, with musical rhythms.

"You move in time with the beat of a track and that's been shown to demonstrate great levels of efficiency," he said.

Musical motivation

Hutchinson found that athletic output tends to peak with music that's between about 120 and 150 beats per minute, but ultimately it comes down to the feelings the music evokes and even personal taste in music.

This aspect in particular was interesting to Matthew Stork, a PhD candidate at UBCO and one of the researchers behind the high-intensity interval training study.

He says an athlete's favourite music can be an important motivational tool for those trying to exercise more regularly.

"Music can be a way of improving your ability to physically engage in exercise, but it can also... allow you to have better enjoyment of the exercise."

"That might help you push through that last work effort and it might encourage you to want to try it again in the future," Stork said.

With files from Matt Meuse, Jennifer Van Evra, On The Coast