Music impacts your life more than you know. You are bombarded by music throughout the day while watching TV, listening to your car radio, playing music on your electronic devices, CDs, cassette tapes, Sony Walkman, 8-tracks or records (I’m not judging). Songs can entertain, elicit emotions, provide distraction, pass time and afford a break from daily drudgery. We don’t merely listen to music—we experience it.
However, external soundwaves are not our only source – songs can be played internally, as well. When was the last time you had lyrics stuck in your head? Think of this as your mental radio station. Merely repeating a song in your mind or even humming a tune can have a big impact on your emotions and change your physiology. As a result, tuning into your mental radio can be advantageous for those of us putting in long miles while both racing and training.
Regulation of Pre-Race Mood
A study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology was conducted on tennis players and the use of music to manipulate their emotional state. “Music alters emotional and physiological arousal and can, therefore, be used prior to competition or training as a stimulant, or as a sedative to calm anxious feelings.” (Bishop et al., 2007)
The ability to foster your optimal mood prior to a race can be advantageous by scanning through your mental playlist and finding a particular song to help foster your desired mood for the start of a race. For example, prior to a race, ruminating thoughts may flow through your mind, “What if I can’t finish the race?” “I haven’t been able to train much, and I never raced this distance before.” A song with positive lyrics or slow tempo can eliminate negative chatter, redirect your thoughts, lessen anxiety, release tension in your muscles and conserve energy that would be better utilized for racing.
If you feel emotionally flat, sluggish or tired, there’s a good chance your pacing will be off early in a race. An upbeat song with lyrics that are mentally stimulating will motivate, lift your mood, help circulate the blood through your body and improve your focus prior to the event. Identifying your optimal pre-race mood can also help you pick the most effective song from your mental music playlist.
Internal music can help set your pace by syncing your stride to the beat of a song. An article in The Sport Journal published in 2020 (Karageorghis and Priest) highlighted an interesting example regarding the relationship between music and pacing:
“The celebrated Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is famous for setting world records running in time to the rhythmical pop song ‘Scatman.’ He selected this song because the tempo perfectly matched his target stride rate, a very important consideration for a distance runner whose aim is to establish a steady, efficient cadence.”
Matching running pace to a song’s beats per minute is similar to the concept of sympathetic resonance. Sympathetic resonance occurs when the vibrations in one object produce similar vibrations in another object. For example, if you have two pianos close in proximity in one room, striking a key on one piano will produce similar vibrations in the other piano.
For a dancer, the tempo of music sets the rhythm for a routine. You can apply the same strategy for your pacing. The rhythm of an internal song can have a beneficial impact on your desired pace. Total synchrony is unlikely, but a faster musical beat can help you pick up your tempo while a slower beat will reduce your pace.
This does not mean you should dig deep into your mind and pull out your expansive library of hits from the 1990s or 2000s. An over-focus on internal factors can be a distraction in itself. Playing a song in your head is a strategy that can be applied as needed.
Distraction and Dissociation
Dissociation refers to diverting the mind from physical sensations of fatigue or discomfort that interfere with ultrarunning. Music can improve performance by redirecting your thoughts from external stimuli (heavy legs, feelings of fatigue) to an internal focus (a song in your head).
Many runners have mastered the ability to freely move their focus back and forth between monitoring heart rate, external course conditions, pace, fatigue and lactate threshold.
Michael Sachs, PhD., Professor Emeritus (Department of Kinesiology) at Temple University and Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Mental Performance Consultant, highlights the need for both association and dissociation while racing long distances.
“Although if one is really competing, then keeping a focus on pace/time is important but even in a competitive race, one can’t associate for hours and hours, as ultra races will take. So, switching from association to dissociation and back again will be necessary.”
While you cannot always control what you feel during a race, you can, at times, dissociate from those physical sensations to keep your mind and body acting in unison.
Internal music is a mental tool that can be used to improve performance, enjoy the experience of running and manage the unique challenges throughout a run. Knowing the effects of different music on your body will help you develop your ultrarunning mental playlist.
Bishop, D. T., Karageorghis, C. I., & Loizou, G. (2007). A grounded theory of young tennis players’ use of music to manipulate emotional state. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Vol. 29, 584–607.
Karageorghis, C. & Priest, D.L. (2020). Music in sport and exercise: An update on research and application. The Sport Journal. Vol. 41, Issue 2.