Every athlete has tough workouts that put them right on the edge of failure. Sometimes all you need to get that workout to the finish line is a little extra motivation. This extra motivation might be easier to grab than you think. You can increase your chance of success, and boost motivation by pressing play.

For more information on music and training check out Ask A Cycling Coach Ep 244

Mental Effects of Training With Music

Music can have a huge effect on your mind when you train, which in turn can result in a physiological benefit. Choosing the right music when you train has the potential to lower your perceived exertion, and alter your response to discomfort. 

Music and Workout Intensity

The psycho-physiological effects of music are mostly dependent on the intensity of your workout. This is because your brain has a limited capacity to process information. As intensity increases, so does the physical demand, which consumes a greater portion of our mental bandwidth. At lower intensities, you can handle both sensory input and work output.

At intensities below FTP, music can lower your perceived effort by around 10%. This means that you can do the same amount of work with what feels like less effort. While this can help your efforts below threshold, above threshold, you won’t get the same benefit of lower RPE. This is because the physiological demands of work above threshold overloads your brain.

While you don’t get the benefit of reduced RPE at or above FTP, there are still advantages to using music during your training. At higher intensities, music doesn’t alter the perception of effort or fatigue, but it can change how you interpret or respond to the discomfort.

Music can also aid your ability to manage pain and discomfort by helping you reinterpret the pain as productive. In other words, you are re-framing the exercise stress because you understand the benefits of the workout. Music keeps you hanging in there, knowing there will be a reward of increased fitness when the workout is done. 

Types of Music for Training

The type of music that works best for training is dependent on the intensity of your workout. For lower levels of intensity, there is not much of a difference between the songs that help and don’t help. Once the intensity ramps up though, it’s important to like what you’re listening too.

So for low-intensity workouts, don’t worry, just hit shuffle or listen to something new. But if you are working hard, it’s time to press play on your favorite workout playlist.

Ergogenic Effects of Training With Music

In addition to the mental benefits, listening to music can help increase your work capacity and delay the onset of fatigue. These effects differ based on timing. Before, during, and after the workout, each has different performance effects.

Before the Workout

Pressing play on your favorite playlist before your workout can help mentally and physically prepare you by heightening self-confidence. Jamming some tunes beforehand might not have an ergogenic effect, but it does elevate heart rate and your epinephrine/adrenaline levels. This elevation of arousal mentally and physically preps you for the workout.

During the Workout

For high-intensity work, the content and tempo of the songs you pick have a significant influence on performance. Song lyrics that contain positive affirmations and task-related cues increase performance. This stems from music’s ability to help you form positive associations with physical discomfort. Music enables you to embrace the pain instead of trying to avoid it. That way, you can focus on the work

Additionally, song tempo can also play a role, but only when it changes. Both slow and fast tempo music elicited superior performances during maximum intensity. That means that the effect is less about the song’s tempo and more about personal motivation. You want to pick songs that build momentum or change tempo from slow to fast. Doing this leads to higher rates of work. An added benefit is that the change in tempo will keep you mentally engaged. So don’t blast yourself with music the whole time. Instead, be strategic with your song selection.

Pro Tip: You can pause a song during the rest period to avoid becoming disengaged with the music.

For low-intensity workouts, music leads to improved endurance performance. An ideal tempo is 125-140 beats per minute and doesn’t have to be in sync with your cadence. Physiologically, music shows the capability to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. This means that you are doing the same about of work for less physical stress. Additionally, this reduction in RPE increases the effectiveness of a training program because you are more likely to adhere to the plan, with the extra benefit of doing every workout as successfully as possible.

After the Workout

Relaxing music after a workout has been noted to lower cortisol levels in about five minutes. This can be particularly helpful if you train late in the day or want to get an extra kick-start to your recovery. Creating a cooldown playlist and listening to it while you wrap up your workout can be the perfect end to a hard ride.

When you use the right songs you can increase your training performance. Want to watch TV instead? Check out How Much Faster Can You Get Watching TV? For more information on the effect of music and exercise, you can explore the study: Music in the Exercise Domain.

For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.