It was the tae kwon do championship, and competitor Michael Tang needed something to help him concentrate, to calm his pumped pre-competition energy. He turned to the one thing he knew would work: music.
Strapping on his headphones and cueing up some techno-trance music, he closed his eyes and began to visualize himself going into the ring, winning the first round, then the second. "I used the music as the soundtrack of the day," Tang recalls of the 2001 match. "It put me into a more relaxed state of mind and helped me focus." He kept the music in his head throughout the event. The result? He won the U.S. national title.
Athletes work hard to reach a state of internal calm, harnessing their mind power to stay intense, but not frantic. Music helps them get into that zone, offering flow, control, focus. It helps them manage the pain of stressing their bodies to levels undreamed of by most three-times-a-week joggers. And it becomes a positive diversion.
"Although your brain is really high-tech, it can't think about two things at one time," says sports psychologist Michelle Cleere. "If you have a genre of music that really gets you pumped and keeps you focused, it will distract you from negative thoughts."
How music affects athletic performance begins with the eighth nerve from the ear, which has two direct tracks: one that involves hearing, and another that goes straight to the vestibular system, that part of the cerebellum that manages balance and some motor functions. The same kinds of messages from the cerebellum that enable us to concentrate also encourage maximum performance. So when the right kind of music hits that eighth nerve, all sorts of good messages get sent to the cerebellum.
Humans are hard-wired to process music, both on a motor level and an emotional one, says Mark Bodner, director of research for the MIND Institute, a nonprofit brain research and education facility in Costa Mesa. "Certain music has certain structures that resonate with certain networks we're born with," he says. When those networks overlap with others, it can affect complex motor sequences such as athletic activities.
Music can trigger various emotional responses too, which may explain why athletes seek out certain types of music. Although some of those responses are learned, many of them are inherent. "Even if you're listening to something passively, it will elicit a very specific response," Bodner says. "It truly is tapping into something very innate."
Although each physical part of the brain is connected to particular functions, the brain is also a masterpiece of interconnected systems, and brain waves circulate throughout. Delta waves, for example, are associated with deep sleep, and a drowsy feeling means that theta waves dominate. When adults are awake and alert, but anxious and perhaps too focused, fast beta waves are in action. But in the state of flow, of being in the zone, of being totally relaxed but highly focused, alpha waves organize the brain.
Visualization, deep breathing and listening to music are all techniques used to bolster alpha waves. Athletes in an alpha wave state are charged up, but not so much that performance is marred or that exhaustion hits long before crossing the finish line.
Music can be a continuous stimulus to get the alpha waves rolling, helping the athlete (and the weekend warrior) induce a state of higher concentration, minimizing pain and distraction. When the body is in peak condition and the mind is in a state of calm focus, records can be broken, holes shot under par and tennis serves aced.
Although most people who exercise to music might not give copious thought to their playlists, for pro and elite athletes, the undertaking is more serious. How much music they listen to, and when and where they listen to it, can have both good and bad consequences.
For Tang, choice of music is critical in maintaining a middle ground between being too calm and too tightly wound. "I don't listen to music just to listen to it," says the 31-year-old from Massachusetts. "I know consciously the feeling I'm trying to get, the state of mind I'm trying to achieve."
Research studies have found a definite link between music and improved athletic performance. One study, done two years ago at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, found that women who listened to music ran a minute or two longer than those who didn't. They also adjusted their strides to run more efficiently, and had lower perceived exertion.
"If you get an endorphin response from something like exercise, does music enhance that and allow you to go a little further?" asks Rene Murphy, the study's coauthor and associate professor in the school of recreation management and kinesiology at Acadia.
Another study, done at Southwestern University in Texas, found that men cycling at a high intensity were able to exercise longer while listening to fast-paced music, and even longer while listening to music they liked.
Some research suggests that music tempo is also a factor in the relationship between music and exercise. In one study, up-tempo music, more than slower music or no music at all, promoted positive moods during exercise. Another study of Russian weightlifters proposed that the speed of an exercise should be matched to the beat for maximum impact.
Music is a welcome distraction that keeps negative thoughts at bay, which is "one of the top challenges I run across with athletes," says psychologist Cleere.
The danger comes when the athlete becomes dependent upon music during training, then has to go without during a competition, especially long, grueling races such as marathons and triathlons.
Gale Bernhardt, the 2004 men's and women's Olympic triathlon coach, cautions athletes not to incorporate it into every workout so that it doesn't become an unbreakable habit. "I want them to be in tune with what their body is doing," she says. "In most elite racing situations you can't have music, and I want them to be able to work their way through what's going on, whether it's dealing with pain or those evil little thoughts in your head that tell you bad things are happening."
She suggests using a mantra, "A few lines or words that are motivating that can come into their head and make them think positive thoughts, something you can say with every foot strike or pedal stroke." At least half of athletes she deals with who use this method, she thinks, use song lyrics.
Bernhardt, also a triathlete, uses the method and prefers "songs with lyrics that are motivating, because it's easier for me to visualize things if the words are powerful."
Bob Seger's "Shakedown," for example, is a favorite; the lyrics "Shakedown, breakdown, takedown, everybody wants into the crowded line. Breakdown, takedown, you're busted" works especially well when she's on a competitor's tail.
Check triathlete Mark Fretta's iPod while he's training and he'll probably be listening to Van Halen, U2, LL Cool J or Method Man, tunes with a good beat that are up-tempo. One thing is for sure -- he'll be listening to something, probably even in the pool.
"Music is like the legal drug I use in my training," says Fretta, a USA Triathlon National Team member from Colorado. "When I race, I have music going through my head. I've tried to have a playlist in my brain, but it doesn't work that way. It comes to me, I don't have to force it."
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak contributed to this report.