Beating boredom to maintain motivation levels

Ergogenic aids

How turning on and tuning in can boost your motivation and aid your workout.

 Any serious athlete recognises the importance of regular physical training to prepare the body for competition. But even the most dedicated among them experience dips in their motivation and long for something to relieve the boredom of repetitive training sessions. In fact, sport and exercise psychologists have demonstrated a strong association between boredom and exercise dropout rates. Whatever your performance level, enjoyment is a key motivator for adherence and output during training. And these days more and more sportsmen and women are turning to music as a source of inspiration that can aid their performance in both training and competition. Barry Cowen, the British tennis player, was spotted listening to a personal stereo system during his match with Pete Sampras at Wimbledon 2001. And Cowen later partly attributed his excellent performance to the inspirational music he was listening to during the change of ends. In athletics, Ethiopia’s Haile Gebreselassie set an indoor world record for 2,000 metres while his favourite song was playing in the Birmingham Indoor Arena. The athlete suggested that the music gave him a rhythm that matched the required pace of the run. In a longitudinal study of Russian weightlifters, participants found that their training quality, volume and intensity improved substantially when music accompanied weightlifting sessions. In activities that require high levels of arousal, including weightlifting and boxing, music can also be useful as part of a pre-performance routine to promote optimal arousal.

Can music really benefit athletes?

Sport psychologists studying the effects of music on athletic performance have discovered a number of potential uses. The work of Costas Karageorghis and colleagues at Brunel University has provided a framework for understanding how music can benefit performers (1). First, it seems that music can provide an athlete with an appropriate focus of attention that can relieve boredom and decrease the sense of effort. Our attentional system has a limited capacity and essentially music works by distracting the athlete from feelings of pain or fatigue. Research into the use of music in exercise has shown that, at a given exercise intensity, participants often report a reduced sense of effort (measured as rate of perceived exertion – RPE) when exercising with music. There is widespread support for the theory that music occupies attentional channels, thus temporarily delaying the processing of pain-related cues. We are bombarded with incoming sensory information but, to avoid being overwhelmed, our attention system selects only the most pertinent information. Some researchers have suggested that listening to music during exercise produces an altered state of consciousness, commonly termed ‘flow’. This state is characterised by complete immersion in the activity and a sense of effortlessness that can be associated with a distorted sense of time. However, as exercise intensity increases, pain-related symptoms will inevitably begin to dominate focal awareness and the impact of music as an attentional distraction will diminish. Scientific studies support this assertion, since music appears to be most influential during submaximal exercise.

Music can also affect arousal levels, by helping athletes to either ‘psych-up’ or ‘calm-down’ as appropriate. In one study comparing the effects of ‘stimulative’ music, ‘sedative’ music or no music at all (control) on maximal grip strength, researchers found that stimulative music yielded significantly higher force readings for a single maximal exertion than control. By contrast, sedative music was associated with significantly lower force than the control condition (2). The most consistent finding from research is that music enhances work output by synchronising movement with music to provide an effective training pace. The classic example of this theory in action is an aerobic step class, where the pace of stepping matches the beat of the music. With careful planning, music can be matched to most aerobic activities. Additionally, some music appears to be able to trigger positive emotions, creating a pleasant working and learning environment.

My own research, conducted over the past three years, has consistently shown that exercisers persist longer with progressive exercise testing, and exercise at higher work rates with music than they do without it. This finding is consistent for varying modes of exercise, including treadmill testing, indoor rowing and isometric strength endurance tasks. Despite differing modes of exercise and outcome measures, performance appears to be improved by approximately 5-7%. Furthermore, in all cases this increased work output has corresponded with higher final heart rate readings, suggesting the subjects were motivated to push themselves harder. Like many other scientific studies, my research suggests that music has a positive impact on mood states measured both during and after an exercise bout. Interestingly, my results suggest that the influence of music on performance may be determined by a performers’ personalities – particularly the extent to which they are influenced by emotional factors. And it is important to note that not everyone enjoys working out to music, and some will even find it a turn-off. Although defining motivation can be a tricky business, it is well established that music has motivational properties. Scientists are also agreed that motivation is not an unchangeable personal attribute, but is influenced by changing situations and environments. In industrial settings, production managers have successfully used music as a way of manipulating the environment to encourage greater work output. Music is also well established as a useful tool in therapeutic settings. Research supports the idea that music has the combined effect of enabling people to gain increased pleasure from their work or training, while working/training with increased efficiency and productivity. Although no one fully understands how music acts as an ergogenic aid, it is highly likely that the known effects overlap to some extent. For example, by attending to music the athlete’s attentional focus can become narrow and external, so restricting the processing of internal fatigue-related symptoms. However, to maintain such a focus in higher intensity work the music must be sufficiently arousing to work as a distraction, while also stimulating more positive emotions and interpretations of the situation.

 How to choose the ‘right’ music for you

To experience beneficial and avoid disappointment, you must be careful to choose the ‘right’ music. To do this, you need to take account of your own personal characteristics.

Firstly, consider you personal goals. What do you want to achieve by listening to music? A field athlete, for example, may want to use it as a pre-performance strategy to ‘psych-up’ in preparation for a single maximal exertion. A high-board diver may need it as a source of relaxation between dives, while a distance runner may be looking for something to relieve the boredom of monotonous training mileage. The field athlete should select music that inspires and stimulates increases in arousal, such as a lively piece with a driving rhythm, or something with positive emotional connotations. For the diver, a ‘chill-out’ track would suffice (although he/she should bear in mind that becoming too relaxed prior to maximal strength tasks can be detrimental). The distance runner would select music to match the desired training goal, such as a strong rhythm or even a relaxing one if that is the desired state. If you want to benefit from synchronising movement with music, it is best to go for pieces with a strong rhythm that match the desired cadence. For a cyclist wishing to train at 120 revolutions per minute, music with a tempo of 120 beats per minute would be the best choice. Some researchers stress the significance of tempo and argue that rhythm response is the most important source of musical motivation during exercise. Take care to select music that triggers positive emotions; depressing and melancholy music might be very lovely to listen to but is unlikely to provide a positive focus. Additionally, songs that have associations with sport, or with positive experiences, are a good source of inspiration. Music associated with sport, such as the theme from the film Rocky, has been shown to produce positive nostalgic feelings. Also, songs with lyrics that inspire physical activity, such as ‘move your body’ or ‘keep on moving’ may well enhance the effects and lead to motivational self-talk (internal dialogue) that combats self-doubt. It’s important that you play the music loud enough to block out other auditory distractions so that the music becomes a central focus of your attention. Try to listen actively to the lyrics and the beat while you exercise. Music may not have the same impact if it is used as passive background noise.

However, it is not advisable to use music while running in busy urban areas as this may reduce your awareness of dangers in the external environment, such as traffic. And music may not be an appropriate tool if you need to monitor your physiological state, concentrate on technique, listen to instructions from your coach or use complex skills, when it could become a negative distraction. The type of music you select should reflect your own personal tastes: studies have shown a wide variety of musical styles are capable of enhancing performance, ranging from pop to classical music. Many people believe that variety is the spice of life, and it is certainly essential to our attention system. If you employ the same musical selections time after time, your sensory system may well adapt by switching-off – a process known to psychologists as ‘sensory adaptation’. So be sure to vary your selections if you want to benefit from the distracting effects of music.


Unfortunately some coaches, and even some sport psychologists, may be horrified by the thought of their performer being ‘distracted’ by music. But it is important for them to be aware that music is not just a source of distraction but of positive focus and motivation for an athlete. High levels of concentration place great demands on athletes, and it is unrealistic to expect 100% focus over long periods. Although some people are very good at controlling their thoughts during exercise bouts, others struggle, and without a positive focus negative thoughts, feelings or perceptions may predominate, undermining performance and enjoyment. Carefully selected music can not only provide motivation but also inspire positive self-talk, images and feelings. This is especially important when an athlete needs that little motivational boost to inspire more effort and persistence, particularly when a coach is not there to give verbal encouragement. Not everyone will want to use music while training or exercising. Some may find it a negative distraction and prefer to focus internally on thoughts or feelings. However, music does offer many potential benefits, so why not give it a try: turn up the volume, tune in to the rhythm, and you might experience a more enjoyable workout.

Lee Crust

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