Dr Costas Karageorghis

Dr Costas Karageorghis and runners at the end of a race.

The reader in sports psychology reveals the science behind the music and how you can create your own performance enhancing playlist.

We all use music in a variety of ways, for relaxation, celebration or even concentration. Research has found that music can also boost our performance during sport and exercise.

Raise Your Game: What are the benefits of listening to music?

Dr Karageorghis: Music lowers your perception of effort. It can trick your mind into feeling less tired during a workout, and also encourage positive thoughts.


Dr Costas Karageorghis

Reader in sports psychology

Specialist area:
Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of music in sport and exercise.

Career highlights:

  • Head of the Music in Sport Research group at Brunel University, West London
  • Leading consultant for 'Run to the Beat' London half marathon, which involves coordinating live music with mass participation running events.

Music can also act as a sedative or a stimulant. Music with a fast tempo can be used to pump you up prior to competition, or slower music can be used to calm your nerves and help you focus. It is considered by some athletes to be a legal drug with no unwanted side effects.

RYG: Can you tell me about the concept of 'state of flow'?

Dr K: Music helps to induce alpha brain wave activity which is responsible for our dreams and rest states. This leads to a state known as 'flow,' which is an ultimate motivational state in which sportspeople are completely immersed in what they are doing and feel as if they are functioning on autopilot.

RYG: How can music enhance positive feelings?

Dr K: Music is a great way to regulate or modulate your mood. It can enhance positive feelings such as vigour, happiness and excitement, while at the same time it reduces negative feelings such as tension, depression, anger and fatigue.

A good example of this is that one of my former students, the Commonwealth Games and Olympic gold medallist superheavyweight boxer Audley Harrison, was extremely nervous and suffering with pre-competition anxiety prior to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. He listened to some very gentle and soothing Japanese classical music and he found that this soothed his pre-fight nerves and enabled him to function at his best.

Did you know?

Psychophysical - is the influence of music on the mind and body.
Ergogenic - aids such as music to enhance physical performance

Music blocks out fatigue-related symptoms such as the burning lungs, the beating heart and the lactic acid in the muscles. It can reduce our perception of effort by as much as 10%. So, for example, a 66 minute cycle can feel like a 60 minute cycle with music. Although music doesn't reduce perception of effort during very hard exercise, it can make you feel more positive at a high workload, even up to the point of exhaustion.

RYG: How important is the role of lyrics?

Dr K: Music can help us to unlock images from memories including heroic images in overcoming adversity. If you were to play the track Chariots of Fire by Vangelis, it immediately conjures up images of Olympic glory. This can be done through the lyrics. The former world champion boxer, Chris Eubank, used to use the Tina Turner track Simply the Best due to the inspirational message in the lyrics.

RYG: Can you give me examples of athletes that have successfully used music?

Dr K: There are many instances of athletes using the power of lyrics to facilitate their performance. The world record marathon runner, Paula Radcliffe, particularly likes to listen to Stronger by Kanye West.

In preparation for the Athens Olympics 2004 Dame Kelly Holmes listened repeatedly to soulful ballads such as Fallin' and Killing Me Softly by Alicia Keys. These tracks summed up the way that she was feeling and they helped her to block out the pre-race nerves which led her to attain an unexpected feat of winning two Olympic gold medals.

Dr Costas KarageorghisRYG: How can we use music in a group?

Dr K: Music is not just personal. There are many instances in which music creates cohesion in a group. The use of chanting that resonates around a rugby ground can be a huge source of inspiration to the players and most teams have their signature chants or song. For example, England rugby fans are famous for singing the stirring hymn Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. This recital, whether it is in the stands or in the player's dressing room, serves to promote feelings of patriotism and unity.

Similarly the All Blacks famously issue a Maori challenge, the Haka, that is used just before the start of each game to reinforce their team identity and displays a unified strength to intimidate the opposition.

In the 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign, England unexpectedly made the final. They used the Kenny Rogers song The Gambler after hearing prop Matt Stevens strumming it on his guitar in the hotel lounge. This song then became the team anthem.

The England captain, Martin Corry, said that "Given where we are as a team, the lyrics seem to have struck a chord with us." He highlighted the chorus, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run." The players clearly identified with the underlying message of the song that it's not necessarily the hand that you have, but the way that you play it.

RYG: You are a consultant to 'Run to the Beat' London half marathon. What inspired this event and what does the work involve?

Dr K: In 2007 the authorities banned music at the New York Marathon. This caused absolute uproar and inspired London's music marathon 'Run to the Beat' which uses scientifically selected music to match the physical demands that an athlete experiences as they progress around the course.

By sampling the subscribers' musical background via the internet I was able to assign a musical programme that was based on their musical preferences and also on their heart rate profile as they progressed through the course. We are hoping to take the concept all around the world.

Create your own play list

There are three main ways in which you can use music:

1) Pre-task - Choose music with a relatively slow tempo so that you don't burn off too much psychological energy. It also needs to be inspiring whether it is the artist associated with the song, the composition of the music or in the lyrics.

  • Search for the Hero by M People - bpm 100
  • Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky) - bpm 97
  • Chariots of Fire by Vangelis - bpm 70
Types of music:

Asynchronous music - music that plays in the background while you train.

Synchronous music - matching the beat of the music to the tempo of the exercise. This technique can regulate your movement and even reduce the oxygen required during exercise, which means that you utilise less energy for the same amount of work.

2) Asynchronously - In the early stages of your work out, match the music tempo with your working heart rate. The optimal bpm's are about 5% above your working heart rate. When the heart rate gets above 140 bpm there is a ceiling effect.

  • Mercy by Duffy - bpm 127
  • Don't Stop the Music by Rhianna - bpm 123
  • Put Your Hands Up for Detroit by Fedde Le Grande - bpm 129

3) Synchronously - Work out your work rate per minute. One way of doing this is by getting a friend to film you. Then find music that ties in with your work rate and the rhythm of your movement. You need a very steady beat.

  • Pump It Up by Danzel - bpm 128
  • I See You Baby by Groove Armada - bpm 128
  • Don't Stop Moving by S Club 7 - bpm 117

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