Lil Wayne raps Michael Phelps to Olympic gold
American swimmer Michael Phelps uses it to get into his zone. British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe uses it to psyche herself up. British gymnast Louis Smith uses it to calm himself down.
Whether it's aggressive rap, mellow reggae or calming country, music has become an integral part of many Olympians' medal plans—and science shows its effect is far more than superficial.
"Music can have a genuine effect, both before and during the event," said Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist and one of the world's top experts on the use of music in elite sports.
Karageorghis, who describes music as "a legal drug for athletes", says its benefits lie predominantly in its psycho-acoustic properties. "Music can have either a stimulative or a sedative effect, depending on its psycho-acoustic properties," he said in an interview during the London 2012 Olympics.
It's not just noise. A large body of scientific evidence points to the effects of music on ease of movement, perception of exertion and even on oxygen efficiency during sport. Music has been shown to improve endurance performance, helping people run 18% longer, according to one study.
Research found that runners listening to artistes like Madonna, Queen and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers not only ran further and longer, but also enjoyed it more, even up to the point of collapsing at the end of a training session.
Karageorghis' most recent study found that music at a tempo that matches the movement of the activity can even improve oxygen efficiency. Athletes who exercised in time to music had a 7% decrease in oxygen uptake.
"Physiologically you're more efficient when you are synchronising your movements to music," Karageorghis said. "Music coordinates our actions in such as way that we minimise the inefficiencies and optimise the mechanics of our movement."
The use of music in training and preparing for competition was popularised by athletes such as US triple jumper Willie Banks and 400m hurdler Edwin Moses soon after the advent of the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s. "Since then there's been an explosion in the use of music by athletes," said Karageorghis.
At the London 2012 Games, there's no shortage of fans of the technique among those fighting for medals. Phelps and his teammate Ryan Lochte are big Lil Wayne fans, while their Chinese rival Sun Yang was also sporting headphones as he headed for the Olympic pool. All three have won gold.
Bronze medallist Louis Smith listens to reggae before competing on his signature event, the pommel horse. "It might seem like an unusual choice and it might not work for others, but it calms me down and gets me focused," he told Reuters.
Karageorghis, who counts double Olympic rowing gold medallist James Cracknell among his former students and is now training world 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene in the art of musical medalling, says it makes sense for different athletes to use different tracks in different ways.
"If a track has a very strong rhythmic feel, with crashing guitars and an aggressive lyric, it is likely to have a rousing effect," he said. He notes that the Ethiopian marathon star Haile Gebrselassie smashed several world records with the help of the Scatman.
For others, the role of music is to block out any negative thoughts so that athletes can focus only on the race or match. But while swimmers are able to take their music right to the edge of the pool and use it to help them ignore distractions, runners and other athletes must leave their personal music players in the warm up zone.
"Thinking can be an athlete's worst enemy," said Karageorghis. "Music provides a good way for them to dissociate, regulate their emotions effectively and stay in the here and now."
Published: 3rd August 2012