Various studies have proven that listening to music can boost your cycling performance, especially when the cadence of the music matches your pedaling.
Every year, ten million sets of headphones are sold in the UK, and it’s a small investment that could boost your cycling efficiency by more than 15%. Using a simple set of headphones plugged into the right music could help increase your pedaling efficiency and take your thoughts off the pain in your legs and give you empowering positive feelings that can last for hours after your training session ends.
According to studies, adding music to your indoor cycling have threefold benefits. In effect, you get a triple whammy: improved efficiency, deceased feeling of exertion and a positive effect on your mood. All together, this will help you enhance your endurance, improve your time trial times and, of course, increase your enjoyment of cycling.
To enjoy these great benefits in efficiency, cyclists need to carefully choose the music according to rhythm. The beats should correspond to the pedal strokes, a process known as auditory motor synchronization. It was discovered that the most effective rhythm equated to a half-turn of the pedals for each beat. You won’t need very fast music to get the benefits. For instance, the classic ‘Tour de France’ by Kraftwerk has 134 beats per minute, or 67 revolutions per minute. Likewise, ‘Move on up’ by Curtis Mayfield has 136bpm or 68rpm, together with a positive, aspirational lyric.
The research that have been done so far suggests that you can improve efficiency by 6-7%, meaning you need 6-7% less oxygen a minute to achieve the same results that you would while cycling on the same intensity but without music.
Alex Stenford usually chooses a mix of house, electronic or modern jazz tracks, such as ‘Oh Africa’ by Alex Barck or ‘The Eraser’ by Thom Yorke or—usually 119-123bpm, and his average pedaling cadence, at 95rpm, is well out of sync with the music in his ears. This can explain why his average watt output initially went down when he switched from road cycling to indoor training. It can also explain the brick wall he hit when ‘This is how we Walk on the Moon’ by Jose Gonzalez comes through his earphones—it plays at only 114bpm. He chose this track for its motivational message, ‘Every step is moving me up’—unfortunately not enough to keep a high pace going.
Alex has experimented with listening to another of his favorite genre of music, northern soul, which usually has a bpm of about 100. He tried syncing a full pedal revolution to the beat and not the suggested half-revolution. Electronic dance music from Underworld usually has a bpm of 140. Experimenting led him to ‘Morning Side’ by Four Tet, an uplifting piece of music that’s 20 minutes long and crucially 127bpm, which seemed to work for me.
PACE AND TIMING
Another error Alex tends to make isn’t turning off the faster music quickly enough after he has reached his target distance or time. Instead of reaching for the water and a towel, he should have been unplugging his ears and stopped listening to the exercise music immediately.
Studies suggest you shouldn’t listen to fast music when you’re slowing down and recovering. When the body is in stasis, you’re activating or stimulating it with an outside stimulus. This is uncomfortable for the mind and can affect recovery. The suitable speed of music to use as a recovery tool during the cool-down period is 60-90bpm.
Researchers applied slower music after a demanding session and discovered that slower music expedites and accelerates the recovery process with measurable psycho-physiological effects. For instance, it speeds up heart–rate recovery, especially in women, who seem to be surprisingly susceptible to recovery music after a hard training session. Moreover, it accelerates psychological recovery, making you feel better in a shorter period of time.
The timing and duration of music for exercise might be equally important. After an initial surge brought on by music, Alex’ legs usually lag in the second half of the session. A recent study shows that when music was listened to during time trial events on exercise bikes, the power of the music was stronger if the duration of the training session was shorter. Moreover, if you use music before an event, its effect may be determined by how long the race lasts. If you are in a very long-duration cycling event, then pre-event music will have little or no effect on performance.
Another study was carried out on the differentiated use of music in cycling. When the music was listened to in the second half of a time trial, it had much greater effect than when listened to in the first half. It seems that athletes derive more benefit from music at a time when they need it rather than using it throughout a cycling session. So, it’s a good idea to save the music for the time when you most need it.
MUSIC IMPROVES MOOD
When cycling indoors in the gym or at home, the amount of information flying on the screen could have a demotivating effect. There are also some other reasons to listen to the music on an exercise bike. Two other benefits are concurrent. If you’re cycling to a low or moderate intensity, up to about 75% of your aerobic capacity, then this will also decrease your perceived exertion by about 10%.
If music is well chosen and matches your taste, it’s likely to improve your mood by 10-15%. Feeling 10% happier during the darker and colder winter months is definitely a boost worth having.
Furthermore, experts suggest the power of music applies to amateur athletes only. These benefits work best for non-elite athletes. The internal rhythm of professional cyclists can be disrupted by music, and researchers couldn’t extrapolate the findings to what effect music has on elite athletes. Usual cyclists may be more discerning in their musical tastes, too. If you belong to those who exercise recreationally, it’s a fairly high chance the selection of music will be very important to you.
Also, these results only apply to cycling indoors. Researchers strongly recommend cyclists not to try to reap these benefits outdoors, even with one ear on the road and the other listening to music. Music is so powerful, so strong, so stimulating, so intoxicating that it could place people in mortal danger and is just not sensible in the outside world.
That said, there’s tentative proof to suggest that using auditory imagery—imagining the sound of the music—during your training session on the road could improve your efficiency (but not to the extent that it can while listening to the real music). It can especially help people with a strong auditory imagery ability and who are able to create the track accurately in their mind’s ear. The major advantage to this is that it’s far less distracting than having music blasting in your ears and you are still aware of the environment; you can still hear approaching traffic and see warning signals. It’s a safer alternative, yet not as effective as actually listening to music for real.
DIFFERENT PEOPLE, DIFFERENT USES OF MUSIC
Researchers at Brunel University London have been analyzing the responses of indoor cyclists tricked into believing they’re on the road outdoors. In their lab, they have created an immersive cycling experience through a combination of auditory and visual imagery, a virtual reality environment.
They project a country scene playing at the speed that the rider is cycling and detect various psychological and physiological responses. In this application, the combination of video and music has the potential to decrease perceived exertion and improve the mood to a greater degree than music alone. It appears that the combination of the visual and the auditory can have an additive effect.
Nonetheless, virtual reality won’t benefit everybody. This impact tends to work at low to moderate intensities with exertion at less than 75%, and tends to benefit the amateur athletes.
The stimulus has to be carefully chosen. Watching the news or reading a book might distract too powerfully, to the detriment of performance. We all focus differently. The researchers at Brunel have been analyzing how people with different attentional styles benefit from listening to music during exercise, experimenting on three major types.
An ‘associater’ tends to focus inwardly and on task-relevant cues, while a ‘disassociater’ usually focuses outwardly on task-irrelevant cues, and a ‘switcher’, naturally, is an individual who moves between the two, focusing inwardly or outwardly depending on the situational development.
People who are associaters usually use music in an associative way, looking for inspiration in the lyrics or trying to improve their mood by the melodic and harmonic content of the music. They try to adjust their workout speed to the rhythmic qualities of the music. Associaters, rather than using music as a distracter tool, are trying to use it functionally to boost their performance. This is an interesting finding.
If you wish to get the maximum performance-based benefits from music, then it might be the best idea to use music synchronously, like a metronome, in an indoor environment. If you really love music, there’s another benefit to listening to it as part of your training routine; a subjective advantage that goes unrecorded in the scientific data.
Many people say music sounds better and more stimulating when played loudly on earphones, and when you are exercising hard, the increased euphoria that accompanies the adrenalin rush from exercise amplifies the pleasure of listening to the music itself. That this pleasurable experience also increases cycling endurance and efficiency is a very welcome bonus.