While the arguments of what to listen to may not be resolved soon, the question of what is actually happening during a training session after an athlete plugs in the headphones is well worth investigating.

Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University London has written, Applying Music in Exercise and Sport. It is the result of years of research in this increasingly popular field. Karageorghis notes that music enhances performance and he says rowing is different from many other sports.

What’s going on in the brain?

“There are many similarities to using music in training and recreationally,” explains Karageorghis who looked at what goes on in the brain during exercise, “but significant differences also.”

In both settings, music is a natural mood-booster. While most people feel this intuitively, studies demonstrate that in exercise and non-exercise contexts, listening to music increases enjoyment and happiness while reducing negative emotions like anger and tension.

“One of the keys during training is a tendency for internal physiological cues – burning lungs, beating heart – to prevail over other sensory information,” says Karageorghis. While this inevitably leads to the sort of discomfort all too familiar to rowers, music seems to somewhat dull the pain.

“Music gives an external cue and reduces the amount of attention we can devote to the internal cues,” says Karageorghis.

In other words, music can be a welcome distraction, but there is a point where it becomes impossible to ignore the pain. “At high intensities, those physiological cues are so overbearing that we can’t do anything but focus on them,” he says, “and it is difficult for the brain to process music.”

Yet, before that breakdown point occurs, the distracting ability of music can have significant effects on performance. “It can allow us to reduce our perceived exertion between 8-12 per cent,” explains Karageorghis.

What’s going on in the body?

One of the main reasons that music can be such a powerful training tool is down to a principle known as ‘entrainment’. “This is how the rhythmical qualities of music affect the body’s pulses (like heart rate and respiratory rate),” says Karageorghis. “As we listen to a piece of music, our physiological systems will be influenced by the music to a small degree.”

He gives the example of a steady-state row. “If you are rowing over 10,000 metres and listening to a piece of slow and sedate classical music, it is likely to reduce the overall load of that training bout, lower the heart rate, relax the body and make it more efficient,” Karageorghis explains. “Slower more sedate music can be more effective in spreading the load distribution.”

For faster-paced activities, faster music is beneficial and in non-rowing activities Karageorghis recommends selecting songs with slightly higher beats per minute than the rate of the exercise you are undertaking. “This is particularly effective because we have a natural predisposition to auditory-motor synchronization,” he says. “The difference in work rate is imperceptible with that little performance boost that the music gives you.”

Karageorghis, however, cautions against overuse of music. “Try to reserve music for when you most need it psychologically,” he says, “that is where it is most effective. Like any mild drug, if used too frequently, its benefits are diminished.”

It’s all in the rhythm

While an arbitrary selection of an athlete’s favourite songs can help, the biggest gains happen when the music lines up with the rhythm of the exercise being performed.

“There is something unique about synching your movements to music,” says Karageorghis “The results are on a higher order than when music and movement are asynchronous.”

In rowing, the monotonous clunk-clunk of the feathering and squaring oar and splash of the blade at the catch provide the essential rhythm for a rower and have prompted many to seek the connection to a musical beat.

“The Greeks and the Romans understood the importance of having a drummer on boats,” says Karageorghis. “Today, the use of music in rowing is something that has attracted considerable scientific interest.”

This is where things get a bit tricky, however, since the complex movement of the stroke does not neatly fit into the steady beat of most music.

“The unequal duration of the drive phase and recovery phase raises the issue of whether the strong beat of the music should be at the beginning of the recovery of the beginning of the drive,” he says. “There are a lot of opinions and I think it is one of those areas that is ripe for investigation.”

The best beat

While Karageorghis admits that “the jury is still out on rowing and synchronous music,” he suggests some possible ways rowers might attempt to feel the rhythm of the music in their stroke.

“Completing a stroke in each musical bar is probably the best way to go in my view,” he says. “So, if we take a musical tempo of 128 beats per minute and divide it in four we get 32.”

Because of the difficulties in finding the exact beat needed, in Karageorghis’ opinion, the major benefits for rowers will come in not focusing too much on lining up the rhythm of their movements to the music, but instead using music asynchronously simply to distract from the pain.

“If you want to use music asynchronously,” he says, “my research suggests that the sweet spot is between 120 and 140 beats per minute.”

He suggests the following as a guideline for musical beats per minute (BPM) for low, medium and high intensity exercise and offers an example song within each range:

  • Low intensity = 115-124 bpm (“There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” by Shawn Mendes – 122 bpm)
  • Moderate intensity = 125-134 bpm (“Summer” by Calvin Harris – 128 bmp)
  • High intensity = 135-144 bpm (“Find Me” by Sigma featuring Birdy – 135 bpm)

And the lyrics

Karageorghis points out the importance of positivity in whatever music is chosen for a given training session. “The lyrics should have affirmations of the activity,” he says, “harmonic qualities predominantly in the major mode, and an engaging melody to distract the mind.”