If it's true that music calms the savage in us, it stands to reason that it should have the same effect on competitive runners, right? Not according to a recent research project conducted at Case Western Reserve University.
Acknowledging how the synchrony of motion and music has a positive effect on the enjoyment of repetitive activities, Esther Erb, a May 2008 graduate from Richmond, Va. with a bachelor of science in music and cognitive science, set out to find whether this positive effect could help reduce runners' perceived exertion levels during strenuous exercise.
The project subjected athletes to a series of runs while listening to iPods playing a mixture of silence, beat tracks and music. At the end of the experiment, the runners felt they exerted themselves more while listening to music than heart monitors actually measured.
No stranger to running, Erb was a track and field and cross country athlete at Case Western Reserve. In May 2008, she earned a national title in the 10,000-meter run [35:45:01] at the 2008 NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships in Oshkosh, Wis. She also has a life-long connection to music by beginning cello lessons at age 3, reading music before she could read words and singing in a choir at age 5.
The hypothesis of the project was that for trained athletes, music would lower perceived exertion during exercise. This was expected to be particularly true when the tempo of the music (beats per minute) matched that of the runner's most efficient cadence (rate of foot strikes per minute), causing him to maintain his most efficient cadence thereby allowing him to extend his limits beyond those he would have without music.
Links were sought between music and exertion as measured by heart rate (HR), performance (time) and self-assessed perceived exertion based on the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) during a typical workout for runners.
Thirteen members of the cross country team at the university ran three-mile runs (five male, eight female, age 17 to 20) under three different conditions. Heart rate, performance and RPE were measured for each half-mile run. Each runner was equipped with heart-rate sensor chest straps, monitor watches, heart-rate data recorders and iPod Shuffles with headphones.
At the beginning of each run, the subjects started their watches and iPods. As they began half-mile segments (clearly marked on the route), each runner pressed the "lap" button on their watch and skipped to the next track on their iPod. After each run, subjects rated the perceived effects of the conditions on their performance, as well as their RPE for each half-mile segment and for the entire run.
For the first run (control run), the iPods played no music, only occasional voice recordings indicating that the equipment was operating correctly.
During the second run the playlist consisted of no music for the first half mile. For the remaining five half-mile segments, the runners skipped to one of five beat tracks, each of a different tempo. At the end of the second run, each runner selected the tempo that best matched their preferred cadence. The three selected tempos were 87, 90 and 93 beats per minute.
Five songs were selected for each player, each with a tempo to match their selection from the second lap. The five songs were a mix of indie rock, hip hop and other contemporary genres. As in the previous two runs, a blank track was played during the first half-mile segment.
At the end of the three runs, Erb found moderate statistical significance between the third run and the control run in the size of the effect through measures of heart rate, segment times and total times. However, a counterintuitive significance was found in the size of the effect on RPE.
While there were improvements in performance (time) during the final run, and 12 of the 13 subjects perceived aid from the music, the hypothesis that music lowers RPE was disproved. While both actual heart rates and RPE significantly increased in the third run, this could be attributed to the runners naturally trying to beat their previous times and not to the presence of music. However, in relation to heart rates, RPE was significantly higher in the third run than in the first two.
Erb cites several implications of the higher RPE levels in the third run. One is that the music allows athletes to work harder and perform better but not without perceiving the resulting increased level of exertion. Also, the presence of varying tempos in the second run, particularly those not corresponding to the runners' most efficient cadence, may have inhibited performance and prompted the athletes to be more conscious of their harder and more consistent performance in the third run.
Knowledge of their previous times -- and the desire to best them in the third run -- may have influenced RPE rates. Erb suggests that subject-blind set-ups may provide different data.
The elevated RPE levels could also be due to an increase in the release of endorphins, most commonly associated with high levels of physical exertion as well as exposure to music. The synchrony of the motion of the runner to the music may also have been a factor.
Erb does not plan to conduct additional research. In September 2008, she begins teaching English in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship.
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