Running Up That Hill: Music and Exercise

The importance of music in the gym environment has been recognised at our gym since we first started it. This is even reflected in the statement that we read out at the beginning of each class - “Bristol Co-operative Gym creates a supportive, open exercise space where we can feel comfortable, in our own clothes, with our own music, to progress in our own way.”

I think we know intuitively how music selection can alter the atmosphere of an environment, and have all experienced times when song selection has felt jarring, but I don’t feel that much thought is given to this in most training spaces. In this article I will see what science has to say on music in the context of the gym, and then see how we can apply some of these findings at BCG.

Historical context

Scientific research around music and exercise dates back to 1911, when Leonard P. Ayres noticed how cyclists in a six-day bike race in New York raced almost 2 mph faster when the band was playing than when it wasn’t. He wrote how this seemed to confirm what armies and workforces knew already in their use of work songs and military bands to keep people moving “faster, further and with less fatigue”.

Current research

These days, Dr. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University has become the pre-eminent expert on music and exercise performance. In 2012 he co-authored the most recent review of the existing literature. This takes two parts, first exploring the reasons why music might affect activity, and then looking at which sorts of music seem to work best.

Music and the body

Music affects us in many ways - it increases our attention, wakes us up, makes us feel feelingz, increases the amount of work we can do, reduces inhibitions and encourages us to move rhythmically - and the review paper shows how all of these effects can contribute towards improving our exercise performance.

Timing your jams

The review paper separates studies based on when participants listened to music.

Before working out, “stimulative” music can help wake us up and produce better results, though evidence was limited (one of the experiments showing this sounds very funny - athletes listening to the Rocky theme before sprinting).

During exercise, music seems to have the ability to reduce perceived effort in both endurance and strength workouts, and give better results for each. These improvements seem more significant for lower-intensity exercise than higher-intensity exercise, perhaps because lower-intensity tasks are more affected by psychological factors, with physiology becoming increasingly important as intensity increases.

Related to this, the power of music is particularly potent when the athletes are picking their own intensity - when we listen to music, we seem to choose to work harder.

There has been very little research into the use of music after working out and how it may affect recovery. What research has been done suggests that listening to something calming results in a more positive emotional state and a more relaxed body; listening to heavy metal had the opposite effect.

Song selection

This brings us onto the type of music we should be listening to. The research broadly recommends motivational, stimulative music before and during exercise and relaxing music afterwards.

By “stimulative”, they seem to mean songs with a pace of 125-140 beats per minute (bpm). Apparently, human movement and perception of rhythm tend towards a frequency of 120 bpm, but this pace increases while exercising. In the case of repetitive exercise, we seem to match our rhythm to the beat of the music we are listening to. This can be a useful tool in altering your running or cycling cadence (fun fact: the Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie mentally timed his record-breaking 10,000m cadence to the beat of ‘Scatman’). There are apps dedicated to this, from simple bpm-detecting tools to interactive music feedback systems like MoBeat that synchronise the music to your cadence.

For a song to be “motivational”, however, we can’t rely on such simple measures. This emotional response depends on individual experiences of “memory, empathy and appraisal”, meaning we will each have our own motivational music. This varies depending on our gender, age and personality type. In general, familiar music moves us more.

The importance of this individualisation is greater when we are relaxing and when we are performing a self-directed task. If we are not so autonomous (say, following an aerobics instructor or maintaining a set rhythm for as long as possible), the beat is more important than our feelings towards the music, though a familiar piece of music with an appropriate bpm is even better.

Finally, the complexity of the music seems to have some effect. In sedate classes such as yoga, we tend to prefer more complex music. In higher-intensity situations, we seem to want things to be stripped-back and repetitive.

Musical doping

The significance of the effect has led to Karageorghis giving a much-quoted description of music as a “legal performance-enhancing drug”.

The International Association of Athletics Federation takes this seriously enough to ban any “technical aids” during races (rule 144.2). Similar rules have proved unenforceable at an amateur level but elite runners have been disqualified for listening to music during races.

There have been some attempts to enforce this in other sports - for example, during the London 2012 Olympics, Dr. Alexei Koudinov wrote an open letter to the Queen (!) attempting to have swimmers who wore headphones before racing banned from competition as it gave them an unfair advantage. No response from the Queen is recorded.

Applying this to our gym

Around every Olympics, desperate journalists pull together articles of athletes’ favourite workout songs, perhaps imagining that what works for the elite might work for us too. From Rio 2016, the playlist would have contained Lil Wayne, Skrillex, Ed Sheeran, and Avicii. At Sydney 2000, the sprinter Darren Campbell listened to the same Craig David song, ‘Rendezvous’, on repeat for an hour and a half. Going to a gym that took either of these approaches to soundtracking would make me leave probably before I’d finished getting changed - as we know, individualisation of music choice is important.

Ideally, a gym would be able to offer individual music selections for each of its members, somehow played in such a way that doesn’t limit social interaction. Obviously this is impossible.

Instead, collaborative playlist-making feels like a good option, with members invited to contribute their favourite workout songs.

After reading the research, however, we know that different types of music suit different exercise contexts, so it makes sense to have separate playlists for before, during and after workouts, and for there to be multiple “during” playlists depending on the intensity of the workout (a HIIT soundtrack, for example, should be different to a flexibility class).

For this reason, I have made a few different Spotify playlists that I would like to invite you to add your favourite songs to. So far there are:

  1. Warm-up - Bristol Co-operative Gym

  2. Functional HIIT - Bristol Co-operative Gym

  3. Undoing Sitting - Bristol Co-operative Gym

  4. Strength Circuit - Bristol Co-operative Gym

Please find me on there (username Guy Lochhead) and add your favourite jams to the playlists. It fits with the science, meaning it’ll result in better workouts for all of us, and it’ll spare you from whatever horrendous tangent my music taste is on.


Ayres, L.P. (1911) The Influence of Music on Speed in the Six Day Bicycle Race. American Physical Education Review. 16 (5), pp. 321-324.

Karageorghis, C.I. & Priest, D.-L. (2012) Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 5 (1), pp. 44–66.

Karageorghis, C.I. & Priest, D.-L. (2012) Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 5 (1), pp. 67–84.