Evolutionary psychologists say that where there’s music, there’s movement. When not running from cats, our ancestors tapped out a rhythm as they danced around the campfire. Several millennia later, those sabre-toothed cats no longer terrify us. But we have invented something else to fill that particular void — athletic performance. And in the hours before a time trial for example, the pros are to be seen on the smart trainer tapping out a not too dissimilar rhythm to that of our ancestors. It’s one that’s often powered by the beats from the headphones dangling over their sweaty handlebars. We all know that music has the ability to excite and motivate, and we cyclists can harness it in ways to enhance our own performance above and beyond on the smart trainer.

HOW MUSIC AFFECTS OUR PSYCHOLOGY

Well-selected music has a strong effect on the mood-related areas of the brain. At higher intensities, as the body begins to fatigue, we begin to shift our focus inward as thoughts of how much longer we think we can push begin to arise. Music helps disguise the symptoms of fatigue by altering our sensation of perceived effort. This in turn makes exercise more enjoyable and tolerable — and that’s the perfect combo for any cyclist doing those inescapable high-intensity intervals on a smart trainer.

At low levels of intensity, our minds focus on the outer experience of what’s going on around us. That may be a conversation with a fellow cyclist, or the view on offer. It’s at intensities above 70% of our aerobic capacity where the brain tends to make this switch from focusing on external influences to internal fatigue-related symptoms. It’s a protection mechanism of sorts. In effect, our body still thinks it’s living on the Savannah, but in actuality, we may be in the basement on the smart trainer doing our 2×20 Tuesday night sweet spot intervals!

In such cases, music helps us disassociate from this inner pain and focus outwardly once again. Studies show that well-selected music can increase endurance and work rate by 10-15%. It may be the best legal performance-enhancing drug on offer, but it begs the question of just what is “well-selected” music?

WHAT MUSIC IS BEST FOR YOU?

One person’s noise is another’s music. The optimal music for an athlete depends on a variety of things including the person, their cultural background, the activity, and the intensity.

Beats per minute (bpm) are closely correlated with work rate. The underlying beat to the music is a powerful way for the athlete to sync to the music. Runners often run to a song with a beat of 180bpm. But any cyclist tapping out a rhythm that fast would make Chris Froome look like a grinder!

Music which is rhythmically busy and constant, but with a lower bpm of around 100 usually works best for cyclists. Music that’s rhythmically unpredictable, like salsa, is difficult for many to sync to. The same goes for progressive rock, so no listening to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven during your next FTP test. You may find that you don’t really start putting out the power until the 4th minute!

WARMING UP WITH MUSIC

Cultural background is important here. When selecting music to warm up to, it must be music that brings about the desired mindset and emotional state. Depending on where you’re from, what you listened to growing up, and what memories and emotions are associated with the music, everyone’s choice will be different.

And that brings us to the issue of novelty. We cyclists know all too well what happens when we overindulge in coffee. Soon that morning cup of joe becomes 5, and the same thing happens with music. People like music more the less they hear it. So if you are lucky enough to find an album or playlist that really pumps you up, then save it for a special occasion. If you listen to it every time you jump on the smart trainer for something as simple as a quick recovery ride, then you’ll quickly desensitize yourself to it. Resist the temptation to set it on repeat and save it for when you really need it.

WHAT TYPE OF PERSON BENEFITS MOST FROM MUSIC?

One of the main benefits we cyclists obtain from the sport of cycling is the ability to go inward. It’s a mechanism to quiet the mind, one that helps us stop obsessing about the problems in our outer world. This is something that’s of paramount importance in today’s busy world.

For those who find they can easily tap into the inner world of feeling and emotion, then music may be the distraction that hinders more than it helps. In such cases, music should be saved for when you really need a boost, such as in a time trial warm up.

For the other half with busy minds, music is perhaps the only way for them to consider doing an hour on the smart trainer. It’s these people who will benefit most from music. Just make sure you change up your playlist every couple of weeks so as you don’t desensitize yourself to it!

SMARTER TRAINING WITH MUSIC

Music is best reserved for the smart trainer sessions as opposed to on the open road. And at Tacx, our complete line of smart trainers and software solutions provide you the means to train optimally. The only thing we can’t give you however is the motivation to dig deep on those anaerobic intervals. For that, you may require some good music!