Tune up: How to use music to get the best out of your cycling

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It’s 1910 and the eccentric researcher Leonard P. Ayres is watching the New York six-day bike race at Madison Square Garden. He’s got his stopwatch out, timing the riders as they whir around the velodrome. A brass band plays intermittently on the sidelines, generally for a few minutes at a time before stopping for a brief interval. As Ayres writes down lap times, he notices something quite fascinating.

When the band is playing, the riders take an average of 3:04 to ride a mile. When the band is silent, the average time increases to 3:21. The background music seems to be inspiring the riders to push harder as they fly around the track.

And with that, research into music’s effect on exercise began in earnest. Over the following century, a multitude of studies would be completed looking at just how effective music can be at enhancing sport and exercise.

The original study, published in 1911.

If you’ve ever done a spin class with music blaring, or ridden your home trainer while listening to your favourite tunes, you’ll know just how effective music can be as a workout-enhancer. A good upbeat song can get you fired up and ready to go, helping you get the best out of yourself on the bike.

But as Leonard P. Ayres found all those years ago, it’s not just that music can help us feel more motivated or more energised — it can actually help improve our performance as well.

Dr Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University London is a world leader in this space, having spent more than 20 years studying the psychological and physical effects that music can have on those engaged in sport and exercise. In that time he’s published many papers relating specifically to the relationship between music and indoor cycling performance1.

According to Dr Karageorghis, there are two main ways2 that music can be applied in the context of cycling, to help riders get the most out of themselves.

“The music can be used synchronously, which is where the exerciser consciously attempts to synchronise their pedal rate with the music,” Dr Karageorghis told CyclingTips. “The music can be used asynchronously, and that is where it’s playing in the background to make the environment more pleasurable but there isn’t a conscious effort to synchronise pedal rate with the music.”

If you’ve done a spin class or listened to music on your home trainer, you’re most likely to have used music asynchronously, playing in the background to create an inspiring atmosphere. And while this isn’t without its benefits, research has shown that pedaling in time seems to be more effective at improving cycling performance.

“One of the main differences, and we’ve shown this experimentally, is that when the synchronous music is used it enhances efficiency,” Dr Karageorghis said. “And this means that less oxygen is required in order to perform the same amount of work, and the efficiency gain is in the order of 6-7%. It’s not to be sniffed at.

“The other point pertaining to the synchronous application is that music generally has an ergogenic or work-enhancing effect when used synchronously. This is often in the magnitude of 10-15% with recreationally active people.”

Sanne Cant warms up.

Music used asynchronously can be effective too, albeit not as much as when pedalling in time: “When it’s used asynchronously there’s also an ergogenic effect — a work enhancing-effect — but it’s of a lower order, generally 5-10%.”

Why does it work?

So why is it that a great tune can get us fired up and help us to ride harder or more efficiently? As a group of British researchers explained in a 2009 paper, “music acts as a ‘distractor,’ reducing the individual’s perception of the work, fatigue and discomfort that are involved”. In essence, music tricks our brain into making a workout feel less arduous than it might otherwise, while also inspiring us to do more work without an increased sense of effort.

As Dr Karageorghis explains, it ultimately comes down to humans’ millenia-old relationship with music.

“Through evolution we’ve developed a tendency to respond favourably to musical rhythm,” he said. “We use music for communication. Moving with music and making music is something that’s very firmly embedded in human DNA.

“We use it for mating, to attract a partner. And so music-making, expression of music, and moving to music is something that is a uniquely human experience and we find movement with music pleasurable. That is one of the outcomes of our research — that even at relatively high intensities music can enhance the pleasure that we experience during physical activity.”

Luke Durbridge works up a sweat.

Choosing tunes

So how can we best use music to get the most out of our cycling? What sort of music should we put in our indoor training playlist?3 As Dr Karageorghis explains, it really depends on whether we’re going to be pedalling in time with the music or not.

Asynchronously

“If the music is used asynchronously our research with cycling has shown that there appears to be a sweet spot between 120 and 140bpm [beats per minute],” he said. “So this seems to yield optimal benefits in psychological terms and motivational terms. If you go beyond that you don’t get a corresponding increase in the benefits that you measure.”

That tempo range can be narrowed down even further if you know how hard you want to ride.

“If you think of a low intensity of cycling, such as around 60% of maximal heart rate, then you would do that with music between about 120 to 125bpm,” said Karageorghis.

An example of this would be Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Something which clocks in at 122bpm.

If you’re riding at a higher intensity, you’ll need higher tempo music playing in the background.

“When you’re getting very high intensities above ventilatory threshold — so say around 80 to 85% of maximal heart rate — then you would be looking at music tempi of 135 to 140bpm.”

Celebrity Skin by Hole is an example of this, with its tempo of 135bpm.

Synchronously

When it comes to pedalling in time with music, one strategy is to work out what sort of cadence you’re looking to ride at. Are you looking to push a big gear and do strength-endurance efforts? Or are you looking to spin your legs in a smaller gear? Dr Karageorghis recommends taking your pedalling cadence in RPM and doubling that number to work out the ideal tempo of music to ride to.

“The best way to do it in my experience is to take a semi-revolution of the pedals on every beat. That seems to work really well,” he said. “So to give you some examples, let’s say you want to cycle 57 revolutions per minute. Then you might use a track like The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson, which is 114 beats per minute.

“Similarly, say you want to cycle at 64 revolutions per minute you might use a track like Work Hard Play Hard by Tiesto which has a tempo of 128 beats per minute.”

“Let’s say you want to go at 76 revolutions per minute. You might use a track like Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon which is at 152 beats per minute.”

But what about if you want to riding at an even higher cadence, nearing or even above 100rpm? Simply choose a track with a tempo that matches your cadence (rather than doubling the RPM to arrive at the correct tempo).

“When you’re going at very high intensities it suddenly becomes hard to process very high tempo music,” said Dr Karageorghis. “Taking a whole revolution per beat is a good way to go.

“So let’s say you want to go at 98 revolutions per minute, a really high intensity, you might use a track like Burning Heart by Survivor.

“Or if you want to absolutely put the pedal to the metal and go, say, at 112 revolutions per minute, you might use something like I Want to Break Free by Queen.”

A quiet interlude

While most of us have used music as a stimulant, to rev ourselves up while riding on the trainer, it can also be used for the opposite purpose — to calm us down and aid in recovery.

“Slow, sedative music after very intense cycling … we find that it’s successful in returning the body to homeostatis, or its natural state,” said Dr Karageorghis. “The arousal dimension of emotion, so how gee-d up we feel — we’re able to bring our emotions back down to an even keel relatively quickly with sedative music.”

Recuperative music has even been shown to influence factors such as blood pressure and heart rate, helping to bring one’s heart rate back to resting levels. It also helps to reduce stress in the body.

“Cortisol is the stress hormone … we see that with sedative music there’s a faster reduction in the cortisol that is evident in the human body.”

Last year Dr Karageorghis and his team published a study looking at the use of “respite music” during a high-intensity interval training session. In this application the music is used between the hard efforts, rather than to inspire those hard efforts.

As you might expect, slower music is the way to go when trying to improve recovery.

“We found that a tempo range going down from 90 to 60bpm is particularly beneficial. So it’s perhaps slower than the music you would ordinarily listen to,” he said. “The sedative tracks will have a warm, enveloping feel. They won’t have a strong beat. They might have long, sustained vocals or be devoid of vocals — they might be instrumental tracks.”

By way of example, Dr Karageorghis points to slow, ethereal-sounding tunes, such as those by Enya.

The works of Enigma can be very effective for this purpose too.

And later in the recovery process, even more sedate tracks can be particularly useful.

“The sweet sound of birdsong, a bubbling brook, or the sound of waves crashing gently on a beach incorporated into the music is particularly good,” Dr Karageorghis said.

Coda

After more than two decades spent researching the benefits of music on exercise, Dr Karageorghis has no doubt about its value for cyclists. And while elite cyclists can benefit from the judicious use of music before, during and after exercise, recreational athletes have even more to gain.

“As a generality, music is less likely to influence elite riders because of well-established motor patterns and also their tendency to work at high intensities and to focus inwardly,” said Dr Karageorghis. “[This] means that often music can be an unwanted distraction [for professionals].

“In this instance, with cycling and music, the biggest benefits are conferred for the recreationally active when using cycle ergometers indoors.”

Dr Karageorghis notes an important caveat though.

“Like any mild stimulants, the effects of music can wear and not be as potent if it’s used extensively,” he said. “And so for the recreationally active I would suggest two sessions with music to one session without. Churn your playlist every two weeks in order to maximise the benefits that you might derive.”

About Dr Costas Karageorghis

Dr Costas Karageorghis is a Reader in Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Brunel University London. His main research interest is the psychological, psychophysical and ergogenic effects of music in the domain of exercise and sport. This is a topic that he has examined systematically for over 20 years using a broad range of scientific approaches and methods.

Dr Karageorghis is the author of “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport”, what he describes as “the first book in the world to address the application of music in exercise and sports”. Find out more about the book or order your copy here.
 
To find out more about what Dr Karageorghis and his team are up to, be sure to follow the Brunel Sound and Vision Innovations group on Twitter.

Footnotes

1. For Dr Karageorghis, indoor cycling is the perfect vehicle for testing just how effective music can be at improving performance.
 
“Because there are so few degrees of freedom in cycling — it’s such a technically simple action — it’s particularly good for researchers where we want to control technical aspects and exertional aspects,” he said. “And for the synchronous application of music, it’s probably the perfect activity. You just can’t get better than indoor cycling.”
 
And the “indoor” part is important. Dr Karageorghis strongly advises people not to listen to music while riding outdoors: “Music is so intoxicating that it is potentially very dangerous to use it for outdoors cycling. So we wouldn’t recommend that.”
 
2. There’s another method of music use beyond the synchronous and asynchronous: “In recent years there have been several attempts to generate music electronically so that the rotation of the pedals generates an analogous beat,” Dr Karageorghis said. “So the music follows you, in essence, depending on your cadence.”
 
3. This site is a great reference for finding tracks of a certain tempo.

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