Music as Performance Enhancer

Costas Karageorghis works with runners to find their natural pace. James Hole

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WHAT IF THERE were a way, a legal way, to enhance athletic performance? Turns out, there is. "I often refer to music as a legal drug," says Costas Karageorghis, a sport psychologist at Brunel University London and co-author of Inside Sport Psychology, who has spent more than 20 years studying the subject. This, even though the New York City Marathon and other top competitions strongly discourage the use of personal audio devices. Karageorghis, in response, is helping to scientifically amp up a new generation of music-fueled athletic events. Using beat, tone and lyrics, he helped select songs for London's Run to the Beat half-marathon, and he now partners with Spotify, Red Bull and music producers to create tracks for elite athletes. For the best results, "you need careful planning," he says. "It's a complex science." Here are four things he looks for.

Beat For rhythmic sports like road races, the rate of movement can be the difference between gold and fold. Karageorghis works with runners to find their natural pace, then selects music that's one to two beats per minute faster. "It gets them to work that little bit harder without being conscious of it," he says. Entrainment, or syncing the body with a beat, can also lead to more efficient movements.

Arousal Many athletes use fast music before competition, creating "psychomotor arousal." Translation: It pumps them up. Songs in the "sweet spot" of 120 to 140 beats per minute can boost mood too.

Association You could call this the Rocky Theme Music Effect. "Just hearing the track conjures potent associations that can direct behavior in a positive way," he says.

Dissociation By blocking some of the signals that travel from the working muscles to the brain, music can lower perceived exertion during easy or moderate workouts by 8 to 12 percent. Music can also make more intense activities seem, if not easier, at least more pleasurable.