Tunes That Tone

Want to supercharge your workout? Match your music to your moves and you’ll ride harder, jump higher and get fitter faster.

Words by: Cordelia Brabbs

Cutting edge research shows that turning on the tunes can max your workout and make you go for gold. Take Shaun White and Hannah Teter at the Turin Olympics, two stellar athletes who cranked up their ipods at the top of the pipe and went on to win gold medals. It wasn’t just a marketing coup for Apple; what it showed was how athletes use music to help achieve sporting success, whether it’s to get psyched up, calmed down or focused on performance.

Music doesn’t just help snowboarders. Action sports athletes from swimmers to skateboarders get benefits from their beats, especially when competing. Contests can be hectic environments, with crowds, music and other competitors trying to psyche each other out, and athletes use music to concentrate on their thing. ‘If I’ve got a good song in my head I can be in my own little zone away from the distraction of other competitors, and it helps me focus more,’ says Animal surfer Nicola Bunt.

Even when riding for fun, pros use different musical styles to influence their performance. Nikita rider Julia Baumgartner listens to ragga, punk, rock and metal when she’s learning new tricks, and chill out tunes when she’s riding pow. O’Neill rider Laura Berry, meanwhile, says she’s careful about listening to rock in the park. ‘If the music kicks in just as I’m about to jump I go mental and try something stupid,’ she says. ‘If I listen to more chilled stuff I find myself relaxing and having fun trying to nail tricks.’

Athletes like O’Neill snowboarder Jessica Venables use music to set them up for the day ahead. ‘On a powder day I turn the music up in my car before I get to the ski lifts,’ she says. ‘It definitely gets me amped for a day on the mountains.’

Strong scientific research suggests these athletes are on to something. Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education has spent years investigating music’s motivational effects: ‘Music can have a small but significant effect on an athlete to help them against their competitors, and in my mind it is one of the few remaining legal drugs available to them – with no horrible side effects,’ he says.

The Science Bit

So how can we follow in the footsteps of the pros and benefit from our beats in the gym and out riding? Karageorghis has developed an instrument that rates different tunes according to four categories of criteria: rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact (familiarity with a song) and association (images or emotions brought up by a song). Songs with the highest motivational quotient are most likely to make us work harder and reach a level where endorphins are released.

‘Endorphins act like a natural drug that takes away pain,’ says leading fitness expert Jane Wake. Music can also be used to disassociate the mind from pain and fatigue by providing stimuli outside the body to focus on, says Karageorghis. So follow downhill mountain biker Tracy Moseley’s lead whenever you have long training sessions, and turn on your tunes to avoid pain and boredom setting in.

Another way we can benefit from our beats, according to Karageorghis, is to use music as a stimulant to get psyched up, or as a sedative to calm nerves. Remember GB rower James Cracknell rocking out to the Red hot Chili Peppers in the run-up to winning his team gold in Athens in 2004, and Olympic boxing champ Audley Harrison tuning in to classical music to soothe his pre-fight jitters?

Leanne Pelosi, Snowboarder magazine’s ‘Rider of the Year’, is another athlete who relies on a playlist to get in the right mood for competing. ‘If I’m over-pumped I’ll listen to something mellow like Jem,’ she says. ‘If I need motivating, I’ll put on fast beats.’

Lyrics of a song can be a useful motivating tool and Karageorghis suggests picking songs with a strong association to the sport you’re playing or the situation you’re in. Julia Baumgartner, for example, uses Salt ’n’ Pepper’s track ‘Push It’ to get psyched before contests. ‘When I’m listening to this track before riding I feel really motivated and self-confident,’ she says. ‘It’s great for my nerves and gives me more power.’

Beat It

Although most types of song will give you a lift, Karageorghis recommends matching the BPM (beats per minute) with the pace of your workout, so if you’re cycling at 120 revolutions per minute, find music with a tempo of 120 BPM. Or if you’re running or working out, wear a heart rate monitor so you can match the tempo of the music with your heart rate.

To get the BpM of any track, find the rhythm of the song and tap your hand to the beat. Time yourself tapping for ten seconds with a stopwatch, and then multiply by six to get the BPM. Websites, such as, can help you find the BpM. ‘Pick songs with an up-tempo rhythm of 130-160 BPM,’ says Wake. ‘Put together a playlist starting at 130, move up to 160 for the most intense part of the workout, and then come back down to 130 to finish off.’

Websites are now tuning into this market, and have pre-mixed lists geared towards exercising. The new Nike Sport Music section on iTunes has downloadable playlists, then there’s, with a new playlist each week for ipod users, and for upbeat albums. What’s important is to find something you like, that gives you a lift and suits your taste.

Group Classes

There are plenty of music-based classes if you don’t like exercising on your own. Bodyjam and Bodypump use set playlists that change every few months, and tracks are designed for each routine. Songs are tested in the Body Training System’s HQ in New Zealand for motivational levels and suitability.

Dancing to eclectic beats is all the rage in gyms right now. Holmes Place runs Nike Rockstar’s Bollywood workouts nationwide, while the Brazilian martial art dance Capoeira, which combines dance, music, acrobatics and fighting moves, is hugely popular in health clubs across Europe.

Keep it real

Using music for your workouts does come with a warning. ‘Don’t have it so loud that you can’t hear cars or anyone coming up behind you,’ says Wake. And you’re not going to catch every boarder turning up the tunes on the mountain.

Some, like Jessica Venables, would argue that it’s safer to ride in silence. ‘Being a freerider, it’s not always the safest thing to listen to music, so I’ll only wear my ipod when I’m cruising in safe zones,’ she says

Turn it Down

When the volume’s cranked up, physical performance goes down, according to researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. In the study, loud music played at 53 to 95 decibels reduced drivers’ reaction times by as much as 20 per cent, enough to cause a car crash. The tunes to steer clear of at the wheel? Firestarter by The Prodigy and Insomnia by Faithless.

Pro Tunes

Shaun white rode to gold with AC/DC blaring through his iPod-equipped helmet, while Hannah Teter claims she triumphed to the sound of her boyfriend’s band Strive Roots. But what do other pros listen to for motivation? Here’s what’s on their iPods:

Nicola Bunt, surfer: Paolo Nutini, Snow Patrol, The Kooks

Jessica Venables, snowboarder: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jack Johnson, Metallica

Kim Lamarre, skier: Nelly Furtado, Madonna, Young Jeezy, the Mars Volta

Leanne Pelosi, snowboarder: Dandy Warhols, Bjork, James Blunt, Fisherspooner

Gian Simmen, snowboarder: Metallica, Arrested Development, Bubba Sparxx

Lesley McKenna, snowboarder: Kasabian, Gorillaz, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Keane

Lucy Creamer, climber: Tenacious D, David Bowie

Laura Berry, snowboarder: Armand van Helden, the Verve, Frou Frou, Corona

Music to move to

Use songs with a tempo that matches your heart rate to really max your workout…

55% max heart rate: Simply the Best, by Tina Turner; Back to Life, by Soul II Soul

65% max heart rate: I Will Survive, by Gloria Gaynor; Keep on Running, by Spencer Davis Group

75% max heart rate: Movin’ Too Fast, by Artful Dodger & Romina Johnson; I Feel good, by James Brown

85% max heart rate: Everybody Needs Somebody, by The Blues Brothers; The Heat Is On, by Glenn Frey


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