Music lessons: ergogenic effects need not be pharmaceutical

In the epilogue to a recent book on blood doping, Robin Parisotto (member of the UCI bio-passport panel, interviewed here by nyvelocity) discusses the future of doping, and suggests that music’s effects may be sought out by athletes and trainers who previously might have resorted to transfusions or rEPO. The use of music to enhance sporting performance is arguably a kind of doping or artificial ‘assistance’, and indeed is now being treated as such by some sports (e.g., the IAAF, rule 144(d)), although efforts to ban music in some sports (especially mass participation events) may run into stiff opposition from athletes and coaches.

I recently watched Costas Karageorghis deliver an entertaining and informative talk on the ergogenic effects of music on sporting performance. Karageorghis runs one of the few sports science labs focusing on music, and has worked with many sportspeople, often using music to help them achieve their peak performance. His involvement in run to the beat signals his interest in using music to increase participation and in sport as well as sporting performance although he warns against potential hearing loss and distraction.

Music’s effects on performance, according to Karageorghis (& Terry 1997; 2006), are extremely varied, and I will not attempt to review them here in detail. What is worth noting is that some effects are more physical in nature, and some more psychological (although in reality this is a pretty tricky distinction to make). For example, music may improve performance through affording biomechanical synchronisation to rhythm and tempo: adapting pace (see e.g., Simpson & Karageorghis, 2006), or distract/motivate allowing for a higher work rate or an ability to sustain a given work rate (see e.g., Atkinson, Wilson & Eubank, 2004; Lim, Atkinson, Karageorghis and Eubank, 2009).

It has even been claimed by one commentator (Koudinov, 2008; a claim repeated fairly uncritically across the internet some, although see this which summed things up for me) that listening to music before exercise can actually result in improvements in oxygen uptake, a kind of musical blood doping. Music has been shown to have a range of mainly arousal-based physiological effects alongside its undoubted effects on mood and emotion (see e.g., Juslin and Sloboda, 2010), and this has led Koudinov to suggest that using music just before competition actually contravenes the WADA anti-doping code on the artificial enhancement of oxygen uptake. Koudinov argues that Michael Phelps should be stripped of his medals for his use of music, although the actual empirical research cited in support of his position was not performed in a sporting context, and mainly reports on the the potential for music as a tool for inducing relaxation in medical and therapeutic settings.

What has become clear, however, is that music’s ability to enhance performance is not only measurable, but significant, and may be as powerful (or more powerful) than many more harmful forms of performance enhancement. Where this leads us ethically is uncharted territory, but if professional cycling can self-combust over race radios (see the inner ring for some constructive comments on the radio issue here and here), I am sure someone will find the time and energy to ban the use of music before and during time trials before long…

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