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Music to enhance cycling performance

Posted by Warren Pole, 33Fuel co-founder on

While many of our favourite cycling routes are shrouded in fog, pelted with hail, doused with drizzle or layered with ice, we find ourselves all too often on the turbo trainer. It may be painfully dull but, as you’ll discover, science shows the right music can really enhance cycling performance

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Most of you committed bunch will have spent months training indoors getting into shape for the upcoming race season. Whether you’ve been balancing on the humble rollers in the garage or enjoying a smart trainer in a dedicated ‘pain cave’ complete with wide screen TV and sophisticated speaker system, you’re probably still bored to tears.

With no wind you’ll sweat like an MP with an expenses claim from the local moat cleaners; with no gradients the temptation to go too hard too early is almost impossible to resist and can even lead to demoralising injury; and no matter how much TV you watch as you crank out the miles, the fact you’re not on the road means the sofa and the biscuit tin are never more than a few tempting steps away at all times making an early stop all too easy.

Music to enhance performance – the science

Fortunately, there is a superbly simple, scientifically-proven and almost completely free way to transform your turbo time – play some music and watch the rewards come flooding in.

33fuel music to enhance cycling performance - get in the zone

Get in the zone and enhance your on-the-road cycling performance with tactical music choices

Dr Costas Karageorghis is head of Brunel University’s Music in Sport Research department and the author of over 100 academic papers on the benefits of music for athletic performance. He calls music sport’s “legal drug” and believes it can be an enormous help for cyclists in training.

In cycling training, music enhances the positive aspects of mood such as vigour and happiness and reduces the negative aspects such as feelings of tension and fatigue,” Karageorghis explains. “It can heighten or reduce arousal where required, trigger inspiring imagery and evoke associations from popular culture.

Better still, he says, “music can enhance cycling endurance by around 15 percent. And in a study I did in 1999, I found that among non-highly trained participants, synchronising cadence to musical tempo resulted in endurance enhancement of up to 20 percent, which shows just what a powerful training aid music can be”.

And it isn’t only Karageorghis who believes music can benefit cyclists looking for better, more enjoyable training. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that riders training at submaximal levels not only worked harder with faster music, but also chose to do so and enjoyed the music more the faster it was played.

Even Lance Armstrong swears by it, as Karageorghis explains. “He (Armstrong) said that although he wouldn’t use music on the road, he felt naked without it at other times – cyclists benefit from music predominantly when they are cross-training or doing occasional sessions indoors.”

How do you mix music and training for maximum results?

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First, forget the music for the roads – this is for the turbo only. Also make sure you have the right audio set up and that whatever you use, from MP3 player to full-on stereo, is tried and tested. If it isn’t you run the risk of spending more time faffing with cables, headphones, batteries, chargers and so on than actually training.

Get the playlist right

Most importantly, it has to be music you like and ideally music which takes you to a good place, reminds you of great times, or reminds you of inspiring influences. Whether that means loading up on the Rocky soundtrack and the best of Bon Jovi or the Sound of Music and the Village People is entirely your call. Science can tell us many things, but music choices are a personal matter best not meddled with by the men in white coats.

Beyond this, the tunes you choose should be between 120 and 140bpm. Slower tunes can work for recovery periods, and faster music can also work as a motivator, but too much tempo can cause its own problems as you’ll see later.

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The Rocky soundtrack, Village People or Bon Jovi – whatever floats your boat. For me, you can’t beat good ol’ classic Ibiza dance tunes!

Put as much care as you can into your playlist,” advises Karageorghis. “You need to know how long you’re working for, how your training breaks down within the session, and how hard you’re going to be working. The music must be matched to the specifics of the session planning. For example, soft and slow music can be used to punctuate recovery periods.

For many athletes, music is most effective when matched to heart rate but for cycling matching it to cadence provides the very best results.

In my experience of coordinating music with cycling it’s generally best to attempt a semi-revolution of the pedals on each beat of the bar,” says Karageorghis. “So, in standard 4/4 time (the four beats to the bar that characterises most rock and pop) the cyclist would take two full revolutions of the pedals in one musical bar.” If this sounds confusing, simply imagine a half stroke to every beat.

When music becomes a hindrance

There are a couple of notes of caution before you head off into your newfound musical nirvana however because music is not always the perfect training partner.

33fuel music to enhance cycling performance - when the effort level cranks up

When the effort level really cranks up, it might be best to ditch the tunes and focus inward on the intensity

When you’re really turning up the heat and your heart rate tops 85 percent of your maximum, music may suddenly become a distraction. This is because your body by this stage will be screaming at you to stop, and where before fast-paced music was enjoyable it may now become an annoyance as its incessant urging beat clashes completely with your natural impulses.

If you are in this zone and find the music has stopped helping, don’t be afraid to switch it off. As Karageorghis himself says, “music can be an unwanted distraction during all-out sprints and very high intensity work. Above 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, silence may be golden”.

Linked to this is the fact elite athletes in any discipline rarely use music in competition. This is because highly-trained and elite athletes tend to look inside themselves for their ultimate motivation rather than relying on external stimuli like music. Many will use the tunes to psyche up before an event, to cool down afterwards, or for certain elements of their training, but come race time those headphones are off.

Music and cycling performance - conclusion

The bottom line is that music can be a seriously handy tool to boost your winter training regime, not only in terms of results but also in terms of enjoyment. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to play around with it until you find the ideal balance for your own riding and training schedule.

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