Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Power of Music and Gift of Silence

Your knees are leaden, toes raw, hips screaming and mouth as dry as cotton wool when suddenly - out of those unsuspecting headphones - something so much sweeter than Lucozade and power bars starts to resonate.

Risin' up back on the street, did my time, took my chances…

Your body feels lighter, step quickens, breath eases, heartbeat strengthens, shoulders relax, stride lengthens…

Went the distance now I'm back on my feet, just a man and his will to survive…

Before long, your hurtling – nay flying – towards the finishing line. You’re an athlete, you’re a hero, an idol, a superstar, hell - you’re Rocky!

Perhaps you think I’m crazy but I have a sly suspicion that I’m not the only person who’s relied on music to propel them through a long and arduous run on a rainy autumn evening.

Music has the uncanny ability to take our mind off anguish and pain, to trigger long lost memories and reduce us to tears in seconds. But its ability to enhance athletic performance is the subject of a long-standing debate.

Professor Costas Karageorghis is an expert on the effects of music on exercise at Brunel University and he argues that music can indeed help runners increase their performance due to its beat.

He reasons that the rhythm of a track can act as a pacemaker, helping runners to maintain a tempo – a bit like a metronome for a musician. UK website Run Britain echoes this, highlighting that the vibe of music can put us in an emotional state that is advantageous to performance.  Pop may push us, while rock could promote positive aggression and trance may focus our minds during a longer run, the website says.

Just think of LeBron James, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt – headphones and music are an integral part of all of their warm-up regimes.


On the flipside though, there is still a whole swathe of athletes and physiology professionals who swear that the sound of your own footfall is the best workout soundtrack.

Last week, I spoke to an amateur triathlete and regular runner who said that he never listened to music on his long runs, preferring instead to meditate silently on his own wellbeing.

This got me thinking.

I’ve heard of other runners who claim that music can actually be a hindrance if you’re trying to find a rhythm. A fast rock tune during the early part of your run may encourage you to speed up and utilize more energy than you can afford to, leaving you drained during the latter part.

Some say that by drowning out the sound of your own body, heartbeat, pulse and breathing, you are disconnecting from yourself and not focusing on your own comfort, well-being and needs.

“I watch athletes all the time running on the treadmill and outside,” Jim Denison, a sports sociologist and coach, told Runner’s World in an interview.

“Regardless of where they are, it's always the case that when they listen to music, they're almost robotic. They put on the music just to get through their workouts. If you see people working with no music, you see a much different approach. There's better focus.”


Over the years, dozens of journals have tried to understand better the interplay between music and physiology, attempting desperately to figure out whether there is any science behind the stories.  

To analyze the impact of music on performance, though, you would have consider physiology, biomechanics, neurology, psychology and other fields of specialized medicine, taking dozens of variables into account. There’s just too much scope, meaning that for most of us, anecdotal evidence will have to do for now.

And considering how much of that is around, why wouldn’t it?

Since it was first hosted in 2008, the number of runners taking part in London’s Run to the Beat - a half marathon where dozens of musicians perform along the route - has almost tripled.

According to surveys cited by Runner’s World, music reduces your perception of how hard you are running by about 10% which helps us all understand the widespread outrage when in 2007 USATF - the governing body of distance races in the US - banned the use of portable music devices in its sanctioned events.

People were outraged, many running with their iPods despite the ban and subsequently suffering disqualification.


I’ve been firmly in the music-for-running camp, relying on songs like Eye of the Tiger Born to Run and We Didn’t Start the Fire, but recently I found myself stranded halfway through a 10k with an iPod that had decided to give up the ghost.

I swore, thought briefly about stopping but then decided to slog on.

It was a Saturday morning in early July and most of the City seemed to be sleeping off a hangover. It was misty and dewy and as I crossed the river I saw seagulls swooping low, a few bleary-eyed tourists gazing up at the Shard and eager salesmen bustling like clockwork around Borough Market, in anticipation of the encroaching crowds.

The most remarkable thing, though, was that unlike during the week, the streets were not filled with the revs of angry cabbies and bus drivers, the clink of bicycle bells and shouts of frustrated commuters. It was almost silent. Central London and - except the sound of my worn out trainers and steady breath - nearly total quietness! I could even hear the church bells in the distance.

Coming home and collapsing on the couch I knew that I was unlikely to intentionally leave my iPod behind again but witnessing the silent City of London - stressless, trafficless and bankerless - was really rather magical. A bit like having a whole fairground to yourself. Just without the candyfloss and clowns.

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