The Power of Music

Mike Teunissen

Jack Bobridge’s UCI Hour Record attempt had him riding to a chosen soundtrack with a series of selected songs. Twitter found some of the songs amusing but there’s a performance aspect as music can make you go faster. Many riders, like Mike Teunissen above, use it during a warm-up.

The velodrome is unique because a rider can have music played to them during competition. Should Rohan Dennis compile a playlist?

It’s hard to combine music and cycling. You might use it in training but in competition it’s hard. Even if you had a race radio during a time trial chances are the tune would be interrupted. It might be possible to get away with an MP3 player in a time trial too but it’s rare if not unheard of. This is why the velodrome is different, it has a sound system and music can and is often played.

Music is powerful. Whether it’s a film soundtrack, a national anthem or the bass beat in a club, the power of music goes well beyond an appreciation of harmony and rhythm. It’s exploited to condition human behaviour, whether obvious examples like a DJ in a club or, more sneakily, the ambient music in a shop, for example play French music in a wine shop and sales of French wine increase. In sports science it’s a well-researched topic with numerous studies, probably hundreds, suggesting music before and during effort can boost performance.

During repetitive, endurance-type activities, self-selected, motivational and stimulative music has been shown to enhance affect, reduce ratings of perceived exertion, improve energy efficiency and lead to increased work output. There is evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise
International Review of Sport and Exercise, December 2011

To summarise these benefits occur because they boost the mind and can delay fatigue, and the beat can help co-ordinate the body too. But like all summaries, it’s not so simple: there are a range of specific factors which vary according to activity, intensity and experience. Just listening to your top tunes isn’t guaranteed to work and the beat is the big factor, the melody and lyrics are secondary. There are even apps to sync music with effort like Spring and RockMyRun. There is also an association with success or effort, listening to the a song with the right beat but the wrong message might give you the blues just as academics from Texas A&M university suggest:

extra-musical association could very well promote thoughts that inspire physical activity or relaxation within the athlete. For example, an athlete may associate vigorous exercise with the theme from the popular “Rocky” movie series

The Rocky theme is often cited by sports scientists as a good song – proving taste is put aside – thanks to its triumphant cords and relentless beat. It’s got 95 beats per minute which suggests a good cadence. Distance runner Haile Gebrselassie asked for “The Scatman” to be played during his record attempts because he found the beat was perfect for pacing.

For a rider lapping a velodrome repeatedly for an hour some music might help the time go by but research suggests differences between couch dwellers and elite athletes. Those unused to exercise might find music helps them push on further, perhaps because they’re unused to going for a run or a ride. But while it helped Gebrselassie there’s some work to say it’s distracting for trained athletes. Here’s Dr Karageorghis of Brunel University in Britain, an expert on the subject:

Research has shown that when you cross the anaerobic threshold, which happens at 70 to 80 per cent of maximum heart rate, music is less effective. Also, elite runners tend to be associators, which means they focus inwardly on regulating their bodies, rather than outwardly to stimuli such as music. Above 85 per cent, silence may be golden

This might well apply to track cyclists bidding for the Hour where it’s all about a threshold effort, pacing and focusing on the line and the corners. You don’t need to be psyched for this, in fact you need to be measured and consistent. So silence can help but, thinking aloud, perhaps tracks with a regular beat can still help.

Where music can help is the warm-up. It’s common to see riders warming-up for a time trial with music. It helps block out the world, wandering fans can distract the rider but if carefully selected the music should help with focus. Again the choice has to be right, the last thing needed is a rider pumped to the max as they finish their warm-up and ready to bolt from the start house. Instead motivation and focus on the effort ahead are needed.

While Bobridge’s taste in music was up for discussion last week, for all we know it might have been carefully picked to provide the optimal beat or maybe he started with too many rousing anthems and got carried away? Probably not but music does have an effect on performance, it is a stimulus. This piece only touches on the sports science, there are many studies out there but the conclusion is that it does help.

In cycling it’s rare because it takes place outdoors but the velodrome is the exception and music can be used. Should Rohan Dennis have playlist? It could help for his warm-up, yes but all the rest is just a marginal detail beside training, aerodynamics and pacing.

36 thoughts on “The Power of Music”

  1. During Voigt’s hour record in the Swiss Velodrome the announced playlist ( was hardly audible because the sound system was terribly bad and the commentator’s voice too scrambled.
    Also the whole event was far more interesting in the news and social media than on site (e.g. the crowd was let in too late). Every BMC banner was hidden under a Trek banner (even on the track itself), it was a Trek party without the need of any spectator. I hope this Saturday’s event will be more “real”. Since it’s a BMC event this time, the music should be rocking!

  2. quote : “It might be possible to get away with an MP3 player in a time trial too but it’s rare if not unheard of. ”

    Not for us amateurs in UK TT’s under CTT regulations, where earpieces are banned for road-safety reasons
    – reg 19 (a) “Competitors must not wear head/earphones associated with audio equipment except hearing aids.”
    But doubtless different for the pros on closed roads

    However, for me on the turbo, I’d never get through it without The Prodigy and Pendulum !

  3. I had to do a double take at the pic above of Mike Teunissen, I thought Inrng had taken out sponsoring riders with the logo appearing on his sleeve….

    The topic reminds of the joke about someone asking David Beckham what he was listening to on his headphones….Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe In, Breathe Out……..

  4. ‘… reading to bolt…’ should be ‘ready to bolt’.

    Been there done that, missed the t-shirt though. Wheelied out of the start gate after listening to too much Prodigy before a kilo start – wound up 4th and still had to pee in the bottle.

    Should Paul Weller fans book their tickets early for Wiggo’s hour?

  5. Does anyone listens to Metallica’s Ride The Lightning? Great for interval training on rollers, the only problem being that sometimes the guitar solos are a bit to long to go flat out. Still.. that shit makes me fly!

  6. two things astonish me –
    1) that anyone would consider shutting off any of their senses while riding a bike – do folks have a death wish?
    2) how this blog manages to be consistently just so much better than anything else (cycling related…) I can find on-line…

  7. One of the main advantages of turbo trainer winter grinding is that I can catch up with music that I don’t have enough time to listen to.

  8. Surely the best thing would be to create a mix that starts relatively slowly and come the last 15 minutes starts banging in true top DJ style (By top DJ I don’t mean chumps like Calvin whatsisname, proper DJs)

  9. I remember that Jens’s playlist seemed to be rather long on bad 80’s hair metal….

    I don’t think I would survive the indoor riding season here in MN without very loud music. If you make the right playlists you can make a fun interval workout out of it- full gas one song, rest the next, or over/unders. if you set it to “shuffle” you have no idea how long your interval will be or how much rest you’ll get.

    i’ve never been a huge techno fan, but the sufferfest videos use a fair bit of it, and it’s definitely grown on me as good riding music. I’m planning on spending an hour this afternoon with the reissue of Underworld’s DubNoBassWithMyHeadMan.

    Outside- I would never listen to music in a race or on a group ride, but solo and especially on gravel roads without traffic- absolutely. I’ve had some fantastic, emotionally powerful moments when the right song came on right as I crested a good hill, or caught a particularly nice view of the prairie.

  10. For the Turbo…….85/90 beats per minute….four on the floor bass drum…..and just keep going….never fails.

    For warm up I have a number of playlists to which I have added a voice over telling me when to raise cadence/effort to ensure that a complete warm up is done……a bit mechanical but I get a good consistent warm up is essential too me….

  11. Got to have music cycling indoors!

    Warmup/warm down: Porcelain/Moby

    Sustained output: Panic Switch/ Silversun Pickups

    Hill climb TT: Stairway to Heaven/ The zep

  12. As a fat 40-something, I generally use the music to regulate breathing on climbs (no Beckham jokes, please…!). Trying to maximise in-breath, holding it just a couple of beats to get all the oxygen out of it. No idea of there’s any science to back this up… But indie rock helps you through the hard times anyway, so I’ll keep struggling!

  13. Rooto: Graeme Obree wrote that the body will never stop getting oxygen in – that’s what it’s needs to stay alive – it’s getting rid of carbon dioxide that you should focus on. He worked out a breathing pattern for his land-speed records to expel as much co2 as possible – in-out-in-out-in-ooooooooout.

  14. Love riding with music, BUT right earbud only ever (gotta hear too, even for mtb)

    Various kinds of House music seem to work particularly good for riding for me.

    Isn’t the use of headphones illegal in TT’s as well? At least for USAC?

  15. ANYTHING to break up the awful monotony of riding indoors – music, TV, whatever. Outside riding solo I want to enjoy hearing the birds chirp, the hum of handmade, open tubular tires on the road, the clicks of the freewheel and the smooth meshing of chain and sprockets while engaging my mind in other thoughts. Riding with others, the conversations on a wide range of topics are most important. I also want to hear motorized traffic approaching, no matter what.
    Hard to know if going around a track (indoors after all) for an hour at world-record pace qualifies as boredom needing distraction or should be something requiring solitary introspection?
    Either way…Buona fortuna Dennis!

    • Larry, nice someone is still riding silk tubulars you got bank dude.

      Glad you don’t ride in Cali electric cars don’t make any noise….

  16. If anyone else remembers that movie from the ’80s, “Breaking Away” it’s almost impossible to recollect the scenes of Dave’s cycling without hearing Rossini’s “Marriage of Figaro” in my head. Classical music and cycling cadence go together like bread and butter.

  17. Seem to rember Chris Hoy using Chemical Brothers during his warm up and didn’t they produce the song for the London velodrome during the Olympics?

  18. Wearing headphones on public roads is a DUMB thing to do. Cyclists doing so are no better than the nitwits riding with no lights, while usually wearing dark clothing. Not content with gambling their own safety but also potentially ruining someone else’s life too.

    • Yay! I was hoping for that… Some of their more Krautrock / Motorik stuff fits the bill for cycling too – and along those lines I dig the likes of Can, Neu!, Trans Am, Black Sabbath for nice driving rhythm. I don’t ride with earplugs any more though – I’ve gotten in to riding with a speaker cannon – they’re pretty much perfect for long bike rides (I do a fair bit of touring):

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