blog post 2024 01 22T130825.354

My Favorite Performance-Enhancing Drug Is . . .

As a music lover, I have paid close attention to research on the effects of music in endurance athletes since I first became aware of it, perhaps twenty years ago. So, when a new study in this vein popped up recently on PubMed, I gave it my full attention.

Prior studies have focused mainly on the effect of music on time trial performance. A 2019 study by Canadian researchers, for example, found that uptempo music increased cycling time to exhaustion at 80 percent of peak power output by more than 10 percent. Exactly how the right music enhances endurance performance has not been fully explained, but the general consensus is that it functions as a motivating distraction from the discomfort of time trialing.

The new study, conducted by the same group of scientists at Memorial University of Newfoundland that did the study I just described, looked to shed additional light on the distraction piece. As in their previous study, cyclists were asked to pedal stationary bikes at 80 percent of peak power output either with or without music. Hypothesizing that music might cause time to pass more quickly during intense exertion, which would partly explain its effect on performance, the researchers asked the cyclists to announce when they perceived they had covered 2 km in both conditions. Sure enough, the cyclists covered significantly greater distance with music before giving the word, indicating that sonic distraction did indeed cause time to seem to pass quicker.

Oddly, music had no effect on performance in this study, but we can dismiss this result is an outlier. A more typical result is the one obtained in 2022 by Nidhal Jibabli of the University of Manouba, Tunisia, and colleagues, who found that listening to “preferred music” improved performance in a six-minute running time trial by more than 10 percent. All in all, there is enough evidence to conclude that, in general, music does in fact improve endurance performance.

Which is why I found it absolutely stunning that, in his first sub-two hour marathon attempt in 2017, Eliud Kipchoge and his fellow barrier chasers ran inside a silent and empty formula one racetrack. This was, in my view, a colossal oversight on the part of the team of scientists and experts who supported the attempt. Kipchoge fell just 26 seconds short of his goal that day. Could he have gained an extra 0.4 percent had his favorite running jams been blasting through the stadium’s PA system? I’m certain of it.

I suspect that music is a victim of a longstanding tendency in sports to privilege the physical over the intangible. We give runners pacing lights in world-record attempts on the track, and yet it never even crosses out minds to give them the Gap Band? I don’t get it. If I directed a major marathon there would be fat beats blaring from the lead vehicle, and whoever held the lead would get to be DJ (having submitted a track list ahead of time). Wow, I just saved the sport!

Unfortunately, I do not direct a major marathon. But I do direct Dream Run Camp, the first and only pro-style residential running camp for runners of all abilities. And because I’m not only the creator of Dream Run Camp but also a music lover, music is going to be a part of every Dream Runner’s experience here. To that end, I set aside $3,000 of my launch budget to purchase a McIntosh RS-250, the world’s highest-quality Bluetooth music player. It enjoys pride of place in the main common area at the Dream House, and it will be used. Often.

I also plan to institute a Song of the Week at Dream Run Camp. Each Sunday I will announce my pick in a weekly e-newsletter and online. The featured tune will then be played on the drive to each day’s morning group run that week. There’s no real point to this other than to add a bit of frivolity to the Dream Run Camp experience, though I am hopeful that the tradition will elevate the musical tastes of some Dream Runners. A few years back I asked my Twitter followers to name the musical act they would listen to exclusively for the rest of their lives if they had to choose one, and the largest vote-getter was Rush, the most soulless rock band in history. This won’t do.

Although the first Dream Runners hadn’t arrived yet when this was written, I will share the debut Song of the Week. Take 5 minutes and 28 seconds out of your busy day to check out “Channel Your Anger” by Oscar Jerome!