Music by the US rapper Eminem can boost athletic performance by up to 10 per cent, British scientists have discovered.
Tracks including ‘Lose Yourself’, ‘Not Afraid’ and ‘Without Me’ were shown to “significantly” increase both power and endurance during periods of prolonged and intense exercise.
Their tempo, rhythm and confrontational lyrics were found to have a “highly motivational edge” that are particularly effective over long distances.
Songs by The Script and by Swedish House Mafia were also proven to have a “surprisingly beneficial” effect on perceived levels of fatigue and endurance, a pioneering study at Hartpury University Centre in Gloucestershire revealed.
Researchers spent three months monitoring the physiological effects of different music types on the British swimmer Ben Hooper ahead of his 2,000-mile Atlantic swim in December.
The team then narrowed down each genre to specific artists and tracks in a bid to identify a ‘Soundtrack of Success’ – a list of songs that athletes should play or avoid for optimum results.
After monitoring his output over nearly 25,000 lengths at LeisureAt indoor swimming pool in Cheltenham and sea training in Key West, Florida, the scientists were able to highlight the most stimulating tracks from an original playlist of almost 100 artists.
After listening to these tracks, Hooper’s perceived levels of effort and fatigue improved, with the athlete feeling less tired and more alert.
Hooper also recorded an improvement in his speed of nearly 10 per cent above average while listening to certain songs.
Others had a negative impact on his performance. Bob Marley, for instance, and other reggae artists, as well as hits by Morcheeba brought no noticeable improvement in speed but required more effort during the laps, even when played loudly.
But lead researcher Richard Collins, a sports psychologist and a senior lecturer at Hartpury University Centre, said lyrics with an “emotional resonance” were more important to Hooper than both tempo and rhythm combined.
This explains why Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger -and what Collins calls other “cheesy” songs – had no major impact. Whilst rhythm and tempos were found to be generally important to improved performance, lyrics must still “strike a chord with the test subject”.
The findings of the study will be used to formulate a case study to help other researchers and practitioners in future endurance-related events.
Speaking yesterday, Collins, who also runs sports performance consultancy Head For A Win, said the results provide new insights into how music can help athletes improve their performance.
“There’s been a lot of research into the effect of music on athletics performance,” he said.
“Some suggest that rhythm is important, in that athletes should listen to music that is a little bit faster than their usual pace - helping them focus on their performance and avoid pain - whilst others suggests loud and fast music is more beneficial.
“Our work with Ben, however, highlights the importance of emotional impact. Although this type of music has been shown to be useful in weight-lifting environments, less evidence has been found on its impact in endurance events.
“The music still needs to be at a brisk pace but we found that tracks with an emotional resonance can boost performance and endurance as much as 10 per cent.
“This could be because these emotionally-tied songs help Ben muscle down and push through the pain and monotony of swimming so many lengths during such an ultra-endurance event.”
He added: “With Ben, listening to Eminem, for example, inspires confidence and determination as there is a general theme of triumphing against the odds while other songs made him think of his daughter and reminded him why he’s doing this historic challenge – to show that ordinary people can achieve the extraordinary.”
The team at Hartpury, the UK’s leading land-based and sports educational establishment, spent a total of 13 weeks conducting their study, which was undertaken during Hooper’s daily eight-hour training sessions.
As official supporters of December’s ‘Swim the Big Blue’ expedition, which counts Sir Ranulph Fiennes as patron, they hoped to find the “perfect playlist” to help Hooper cope with the hellish, 2,000-mile journey from Dakar in Senegal, West Africa, to Natal in Brazil.
The researchers selected 100 songs at random from a selection of common music genres, with the tracks compiled into a variety of playlists which were played to Hooper as he went through his normal daily training session.
After each session, Hooper was asked to record his perceived effort and fatigue levels along with five words which he felt summarised that day’s swim.
Over the course of the research, playlists were adapted and developed based on Hooper’s emotional responses to the tracks and an average exertion score which was compared to all time points during training.
Hooper also monitored his speed during training sessions, and recorded a faster cruising speed while listening to certain tracks.
According to Hooper, a 12km swim - which equates to 480 laps of a standard 25m pool - was reduced from an average of four hours to three hours 37 minutes - a reduction in time of 10 per cent.
Per 100m, Hooper’s pace increased from two minutes to 1minute 48 seconds.
This process allowed the team to select a playlist of songs which were noted to reduce Ben’s perception of effort required to complete each training session.
The ‘Soundtrack of Success’ features Eminem in three places, The Script’s Hall of Fame, and Swedish House Mafia’s Don’t You Worry Child.
Though widely different in genre, each one features lyrics with “high valence emotive value” and an up-tempo, lively rhythm.
Other tracks in the Top 10 include Remember the Name by Fort Minor, We Come 1 by Faithless, and The Day Is My Enemy by The Prodigy.
Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Morcheeba’s World Looking In, and Massive Attack’s Tear Drop, came first, second and third on the ‘to be avoided’ list respectively.
Though these songs do include positively emotive lyrics, their tempo was sufficiently downbeat to have a detrimental effect on Hooper’s lap times.
The Top 10 songs, in addition to some of Hooper’s personal favourites, have already been added to a waterproof MP3 player in readiness for his departure from Dakar on December 31.
Mark Sheehan of The Script welcomed the findings, and added: "We write our songs about real life so we can always stand behind the stories ourselves, but when we hear that our music becomes the sound track to someone else life it just blows us away.
“It somehow makes the songs even more powerful and important...and not just for us.”
Collins concedes that the study, which concluded its practical assessment last week, was limited to 100 tracks out of a “potentially endless supply” and that the results could have been different if it had been expanded.
But he said the University plans to continue the tests on other subjects over the next few years, adding: “Though the study was launched specifically to investigate the impact of music on Ben’s performance, there’s significant potential to start developing playlist for a wide variety of athletes competing in a wide range of athletic pursuits.”
Hooper, a father-of-one from Cheltenham, Glos., who will encounter 20ft-high waves and man-eating sharks on his gruelling swim, added: “Working with Hartpury University Centre on this study has been an incredible and valuable experience as I prepare for the Swim the Big Blue Expedition.
“Like many athletes, I’ve long used music while training and love performers like Eminem for their inspirational messages, but this research has identified the optimum songs to get my mind in the right place and push me through when things get tough.
“Their insights into the emotional impact of music has been a real eye-opener and will prove of great benefit to me as I’m battling the elements and needing every ounce of motivation I can muster to keep on going.”
Hooper, who has just launched www.bensmiles.co.uk to allow supporters to sponsor a mile of the swim and track his progress along the route, added: “The study highlights just how important mindset is in all athletic activities and it’s my hope that Hartpury’s research can benefit others, from professional sportspeople looking for the edge over their competitors to the ordinary man in the street simply looking to improve their personal bests.”
The Soundtrack of Success Top 10 Strong Songs for Optimum Athletic Performance:
Lose Yourself – Eminem
Not Afraid – Eminem
Don’t You Worry Child – Swedish House Mafia
Hall of Fame – The Script
Remember the Name – Fort Minor
Stay – Sash
We Come 1 – Faithless
The Day Is My Enemy – The Prodigy
Without Me – Eminem
Back in the U.K. – Scooter
The Soundtrack of Success Top 10 Songs to Avoid for Optimum Athletic Performance:
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
World Looking In – Morcheeba
Tear Drop – Massive Attack
Don’t Worry Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin
Kelly Watch The Stars – Air
One Love/People Get Ready – Bob Marley
Fleetwood Mac – Passenger
No Woman No Cry – Bob Marley
You Can Get It If You Really Want – Jimmy Cliff
I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing – Aerosmith