On the run: mashing music and sport

On 27 September, the Sony Ericsson Run to the Beat half marathon is being held in London. We were invited along to a training session to meet Dr Costas Karageorghis, Reader in Sports Psychology at Brunel University to find out how music can help increase performance in sport.

Dr Costas is a focused man, with the sort of 1500m stare that 20 years researching the link between sport and music gives you, but we couldn't help smiling at his lab coat. We don't know if it was simply a way of stereotyping scientists, or because he expected us all to bleed this Saturday morning. Luckily for us, it's the former.

The man has spent his research career investigating something he is clearly passionate about and the man is no couch potato himself as we soon found out. The lab coat came off, the floor cleared and Dr Costas put us through a warm-up routine with expert precision. Something that comes from coaching Brunel's athletics team we guess.

Sony Ericsson issued us with W995 handsets, their flagship Walkman phone, preloaded with tracks for us to listen to during our exercises that day. But we weren't just here for fun, we were being monitored and data was being gathered about our responses to the music, and how that impacts on our perception of the exercise.

It's a micro-scale experiment compared with Run to the Beat. It's a half marathon organised by IMG who also do the London Triathlon and other mass participation events. For Dr Costas, it’s a chance to see his research in action on a mass scale.

Dr Costas informed us that his research has highlighted tempos of 120-150bpm as ideal for running, bringing with it motivational benefits and lessening the perception of effort. But it's a multifaceted connection with various psychophysical elements coming into play, something that the experiments made perfectly clear to us.

The music can pull you into a "flow" state, getting you in the zone, with optimal focus and absorption into the activity. You can synchronise with the music, picking up the rhythm, and focusing on the music can lessen your perception of fatigue.

Cultural and personal associations also come in to play. The music you grew up with, or music with positive associations for you, will lead to a better result. For some it might be urban music, for others rock. We found that dance music made us feel the best when pounding the treadmill.

Dr Costas pointed out the benefit of music in sport across different groups of participants, from motivating sedentary newcomers to helping elite athletes prepare psychologically before racing. He gave the example of Iwan Thomas listening to The Prodigy's Firestarter before heading out to break the Commonwealth Record. Michael Phelps is another, famously listening to his iPod right up to the moment he steps up to the pool's edge.

So how can you take advantage of music in sport? You can simply collect a playlist together (perhaps even Dr Costas' own Run to the Beat compilation CD, link below) on any MP3 player or phone and many runners already do. Sports headphones will help you out too, and it is worth looking at Sennheiser's excellent range: we're big fans of the PMX70, but there are plenty of options out there.

Dr Costas outlined a rosy future for gadgets in sport that draw on his research findings. "In the future we’ll have heart rate monitors linked to MP3 players", Dr Costas tells us. It will be a simple step to have the MP3 player recognise the exercise intensity through the heart rate monitor and play music with the appropriate tempo, he suggests.

We’ve already seen a number of moves in these directions, be it Nike+iPod or Nokia's N79 Active. Most of the current crop of GPS-equipped mobile phones offer some sort of tracking feature, either through applications like Nokia Sports Tracker, or third party applications like AllSport GPS. But they are interested in where you are going physically, rather than psychologically.

Sony Ericsson pretty much have the technology rounded out already. The SensMe system is included in Walkman handsets such as the W995. It will scan and tag music for you, grouping it together. You'd simply have to link SensMe to data coming in from the heart rate monitor and you'd potentially have a system that could tailor the music to you as you exercise.

You could have a music-led routine: 10 minutes of warm-up tracks, 30 minutes of up-beat tracks for running, followed by 10 minutes to cool down and stretch, with something a little more mellow. The music could be your guide: a beautiful symbiosis of man and music, feeding off each other's energy. Ok, perhaps we've gone to far - but it's an exciting prospect.

For now though we are getting back to training for Run to the Beat. For some tips on selecting your own training music, head over to their website, link below.