sound-wave-headphones-vector-clipart2017 marks the ten year anniversary of the national governing body for the USA Track and Field Athletics events banning the use of headphones and the use of portable audio players amongst its athletes.  The reason cited was to ‘ensure safety and prevent runners having a competitive edge’. The rule was much contested amongst athletes but does the use of music really enhance your athletic performance? Luke Dunning looks in detail at the science behind this myth.


There are many studies to suggest that music does enhance performance and most of these studies are compiled by one man, Dr Costas Karageorghis. Dr Karageorghis has authored over one hundred studies on the subject of whether or not music can have an effect on your sporting performance and in his 2012 study. ‘Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis’, Dr Karageorghis describes music to have a similar effect to a performance enhancing drug.


Whilst that is a strong conclusion to make, there are many athletes who would agree with Dr Karageorghis. Ethiopian long distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, is one of these athletes and famously stated that he strode in rhythm to ‘The Scatman’ song whilst running the 10,000m event. During a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Haile stated that it was the ‘perfect song to gain the 10,000 metre record’ which is something he first achieved in 1998.


Further studying by Brunel University, led by Dr Karageorghis, has stated that listening to music can enhance your perceived effort by twelve percent and furthermore, increase your endurance by fifteen percent. Both of these attributes are obvious athletic qualities that need to be shown in order to be successful within this field. The use of music in this way can be described as a dissociation which refers to the music acting as a distraction to the feeling of fatigue which can occur during any sporting performance or fitness exercise, one of the points found from Dr Karageorghis’ study.


Looking further into Dr Karageorghis’ work, the point is also made that music can trigger emotions that enhance enjoyment. The research gathered has shown music to have the power to increase an athlete’s adherence meaning that the individual will be more motivated in order to reach the goal that has been set. The term used by Dr Karageorghis is ‘stickiness’ and the research particularly links this to a rehabilitation process, citing music as motivation for someone to regain the fitness they once had before the injury occurred.  


Whilst it is all well and good having scientific research such as Dr Karageorghis’ study, the report also seems to be enhanced by views from within the professional sporting world. Kayleigh Pollock, a Sport Psychologist Intern, who works at Partick Thistle FC also cites music as a stimulation for adrenal glands. Miss Pollock explains that ‘the adrenal gland produces adrenaline which is released into the blood stream’. She explained to me that the body responds in a way which develops a ‘will to fight’ which can psychologically enhance an athlete’s attitude towards the event they are about to partake in.


Though with all these scientific studies and professional viewpoints stating that music is useful, it is interesting to see the views of the people that are actually effected, the athletes. American Footballer Henry Quick states that in an aggressive sport such as American Football – he likes to listen to music that ‘chills’ him. A potential contrast to the aggressive nature of the sport that Quick is playing, however his reasoning is very sound. ‘I need something to get rid of the pre-game jitters.’ He states as his reasoning. Quick currently plays as centre on the Hertfordshire Hurricanes Offensive Line – one of the more aggressive positions in American Football due to its likeliness of the front row in a rugby scrum.


From an athletic perception, it would seem that everything Quick is saying agrees with Dr Karageorghis and Miss Pollock with the research and experience in their relevant fields. However, Quick goes on to add that a long period of listening to music before a game can cause him too ‘switch off’. He adds, ‘I can only listen to music for around twenty minutes before the game, anymore and I get distracted, any less and I feel tension building up inside me before I go out and play.’    


Whilst researching for this subject, this is the first occurrence of music potentially becoming a hindrance to athletes whilst playing sport. After doing some further digging, another study was found that a slower tempo of music can have a negative effect on performance.


In a study for Liverpool John Moores University, twelve cyclists had their heart rate recorded whilst listening to a music of their choice. The cyclists then had their choice of music slowed down or sped up by ten percent without their knowledge. The findings found their heart rate to have dropped if the tempo was slower, which can be vital in sport due to the need of blood in muscles whilst exercising. Though slower tempo music is good to relax before a sporting activity, the main findings state that it is more useful too listen to quicker paced music when actually partaking in exercise if the participant chooses to listen to music.


There is also the case of not using music amongst athletes who have achieved success without the need to listen to any music before an event. Sussex Cricketer Jofra Archer is one of the athletes whom this point is relevant too.


Archer, who resides from the island of Barbados, is eligible to play cricket in England due to his British citizenship and during last summer, after an impressive first class debut for Sussex against a touring Pakistan side, he signed his first professional contract for the county. ‘I don’t really listen to music when cricket is going on’ says Archer who adds ‘I have a set routine and for whatever reason music is not currently part of it.’


This choice is based on the fact that Archer has had a successful start in his cricket career where his bowling  average is 27.78 in First Class Cricket, 19.42 in List A Cricket and 27.80 in T20 cricket. All these figures are impressive numbers and it really is not hard to see why Archer would be quick to change a routine for him that has bought him such early success in his cricket career. ‘In a changing room full of different personalities, everyone has their own way of doing things for sure – I just have started like this and I don’t plan on changing anything whilst things are working,’ states Archer.


Another cricketer, Luke Youngs, agrees with Archer. Whilst a semi-professional cricketer for the county of Cambridgeshire, Youngs also is a final year Sport and Exercise Science student at the University of Hertfordshire and relates his sporting performance to his viewpoint. Youngs’ experience comes from performing as an athlete and from working for the likes of Sussex Cricket and British Canoeing in a support staff role.


‘I don’t see the use for music when preparing for my sport’ says Youngs who is a keen runner alongside his cricketing exploits, completing the Brighton Half Marathon in 2016. ‘I’ve been pretty successful without it and I have never really thought I have needed it when playing sport, I see sport as a social event and too be engrossed in my own musical world can be seen to be very anti-social’ adds the 23 year old student.


It’s a good point from Youngs, but also a potential semi-professional point too where the social culture of the team is seen to be on par if not above the desire to be successful. This can be the case when many individuals use a semi-pro setting to put themselves on display for professional outlets.


In contrast to the point, what Youngs is saying is not too far away from Jofra Archer’s previous comments and maybe the use of music just comes down to the preference of the individual and whether or not the benefit of music is seen in enhancing sporting performance.


It’s obviously an athlete’s choice whether music improves their performance or not. For all the studies that have been taken, the point purely comes to the individual. If an athlete has been successful whilst using or not using music, why would they change a winning formula. In contrast, if an athlete is going through a poor run of form or struggling to find a love for whatever they are doing. Why not add some music and jazz up the preparation, especially in a potentially mundane activity like running where tiredness can really creep in.


Sport craves individuals and the brilliance that they bring. All athletes should be allowed to do their own thing and listening to music is doing no harm. The US Track and Field Events made a seemingly rash decision ten years ago and it is amazing that it has taken this long for it to be completely lifted. Let athletes express themselves on their stage and show everyone how great they can be.




  1. If you go into most gyms now a days they have music blaring out the speakers or most people have head phones while they’re doing their workouts. May not be professional sport but music definitely plays a part in most people’s work outs. For me, and probably majority of people – music gives extra motivation to work harder.


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