In the last 10 years the body of research on workout music has swelled considerably, helping psychologists refine their ideas about why exercise and music are such an effective pairing for so many people as well as how music changes the body and mind during physical exertion. Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageoghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.
Music was banned from the New York Marathon as part of the wider USA Track & Field ban on tactical communications between runners and their coaches. The marathon committee upheld this ban, which is often otherwise overlooked, justifying its action in terms of safety.
The response to the ban was emphatic. Hundreds of runners flouted the new regulation and risked disqualification from the event—such was their desire to run to the beat. Experience at other races around the world confirms the precedent set in New York; try to separate athletes from their music at your peril! But why is music so pivotal to runners and to sports people from a wide variety of disciplines?
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 (Karageorghis & Terry, 1997). Music also provides an ideal accompaniment for training. Scientific inquiry has revealed five key ways in which music can influence preparation and competitive performances: dissociation, arousal regulation, synchronization, acquisition of motor skills, and attainment of flow.
During submaximal exercise, music can narrow attention, in turn diverting the mind from sensations of fatigue. 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.
But it takes more than that to call headphone use before an event an illicit doping method. Dr. Alexei Koudinov’s theory fails in two key categories, says Doug MacQuarrie, chief operating officer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. While there’s evidence of enhanced sport performance, there is no proof that listening to music can even be remotely considered “doping.”
“There is a prohibited list of doping substances and methods published each year. There are three conditions within the (WADA) code that determine a banned method: that there’s evidence of performance enhancement; that there’s a health risk to the athlete; and that it violates what’s referred to as the spirit of sport. Any two of those three form the basis for whether a substance or method is included on the banned list.
“But those in charge… would determine it doesn’t belong in the prohibited list,” MacQuarrie said. “Very clearly athletes will use all kinds of methods to ready themselves for competition: visualization, relaxation, listening to music. These all fit in to the realm of preparation for athletic competition. Someone running on the spot to increase their heart rate would have similar effects of enhancing the flow of blood.”