Rocking Out Can Get You Through High Intensity Workouts

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert

For high school athletes (and even their parents), the trend in fitness routines has been moving towards more intense but shorter workouts. Whether its CrossFit, Insanity, P90x3 or just structured treadmill or cycling training, people want to pack in a high energy workout into a compact amount of time rather than spend an hour or more at a lower pace. Known as high intensity interval training (HIIT), the greater efficiency of exercise time comes with one problem: it’s no fun. Challenging exercises, burning lungs, skyrocketing heart rates, and profuse sweating scares a lot of us away, longing for nice, moderate jogs. To keep us coming back, researchers took a look at what could be done to make HIIT less intimidating or at least distract us from the pain. Their answer was simple: our favorite music.

We’ve known for years that music can help our cadence-based exercises like running and cycling. Matching a playlist’s beats per minute to our jogging heart rate helps our brain to feel more in sync with the work we’re asking our body to do. There are even apps that have cataloged entire libraries of songs so that you can find just the right mix of 140 beats per minute tunes to match your mid-run stride.

But with HIIT exercise, your heart rate goes through the roof, and only some speed metal jams could keep up with your pace. Matthew Stork, a kinesiology grad student at McMaster University, wondered if simply having your favorite music in your ears would offer enough of a relief to endure bursts of grueling movement.

He recruited 20 healthy young adults to endure sessions of HIIT in a lab setting. These volunteers were fit but not used to the demands of intense exercise. Stork put them through a baseline of four 30-second all-out cycling sets, interspersed with four minute rest periods. He tracked their power output from their stationary bikes as well as their rate of perceived exertion rating, a score from 1 to 10 on how hard the exercise was.

Next, the group was divided into two, one that would get to listen to music during future workouts and one that suffered on without any tunes. For the music group, Stork asked them for their favorite playlist so that he could download it for their use. 

Two more HIIT sessions later, each group was asked for their RPEs while their power output on the bikes was recorded. All of the participants rated their pain level just as high as before, even the group that got to listen to music. However, the surprising result is that the power output of the music group was now significantly higher than their baseline. They were working even harder but their RPE did not go up. Those that did not listen to music stayed at the same RPE and power output.

The research has been published in the Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise.

So, it may sound logical that listening to your favorite music will help you ignore some of the pain of an intense workout, but being able to ramp up your output without feeling any worse has dual benefits. Getting more done in less time is the key to efficient physical fitness.

Try it yourself and let us know how it works!

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Dec 08 2014

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