How To Maximize Athletic Recovery and Performance With Music (Step-by-Step Guide)

This article may take about 5-7 minutes to read, but I think you’ll benefit from it HUGELY. If you don’t want to spend all that time, just hit the headlines, and scroll to the bottom for the ACTION steps (right after the blue banner)…Just be warned that you’re missing some super interesting factoids!

Music is PHYSICAL

If you’re human and you work out, you’ve probably used music to help get you amped up before or during your session. But not enough of us intentionally use it to help boost recovery.

Sound is POWERFUL, and music is the most powerful form of sound. Everything you DO, FEEL, or EXPERIENCE influences your physiology, talks to your cells, and tells them how to behave. Music is no different.

Music has such a primal, irresistible force on the psyche. A quick Youtube search for “dancing babies” or “dancing bird/dog/cat” will prove (with bro science) that this force crosses many ages and species.

Music, like any sound you hear, is a PHYSICAL experience.

The sound waves literally trigger the small hairs in our inner ear, which MAINLINES the signal to the temporal lobe of your brain so you can figure out how to respond. If it’s a soft, rhythmic, and natural sound that has fewer beats per minute (BPM) than your heart rate or breathing rate, it will likely calm you. If it’s fast, loud, and abrasive you’ll likely get amped up.

The famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it like this, “We listen to music with our bodies.”

Try putting on some death metal to help you fall asleep, or listen to the sound of the ocean while you try to break a PR on your deadlift. It’s just not gonna happen.

Here’s How Much Power Sound Has:

Maybe you haven’t consciously noticed it, but every single good movie you’ve ever watched plays music to amplify the effect of the scene. Sadness just isn’t as sad without a wailing violin. Victory just isn’t as sweet without an amazing musical climax. And have you ever watched a muted horror film? Not scary at all.

It’s well known that sound of excessive loudness or length can cause cortisol levels to shoot through the roof. (By the way, if you’re a musician or constantly listen to loud music, it’s very stressful to the body and can accelerate your depletion of really important nutrients like magnesium.) Did you know that sound has been used as a form of psycho-physical torture? This is not an uncommon war tactic.

We all know the right sound pitch can literally break glass, and break/damage eardrums.The military has even developed sound based WEAPONS called Long-Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD). They have the power to incapacitate and kill.

On the other hand, the RIGHT music can improve mood, reduce perceived exertion, enhanced work output, improve skill acquisition, encourage flow states, and help dissociation from feelings of pain and fatigue. (Study here)

Our ancestors have been harnessing the power of music for thousands of years to get them pumped up for battle so they could deliver a serious ass-kicking…war drums and all that. But don’t forget they ALSO had feasting and celebration songs to help bring their body and mind into a RECOVERY mode.

Consider this:

Many people intuitive listen to music to get PUMPED UP, but very few make a conscious habit of using the power of music to tell their body to shift into recovery mode. It’s definitely time for you to start harnessing the power of music for your own recovery.

BUT, there’s some specific ways to do this to maximize the impact. Just like anything else, the body will adapt to musical stimuli.

For example:

  • If you drink 10 cups of coffee every day, one cup just won’t give you the boost it once did.
  • If you’re used to eating a dozen Krispy Kremes in a single sitting, you won’t feel satisfied by just one. But I hope that’s not you. Remember this: Krispy Kremes Kill reKovery. KKKK. Bad stuff.
  • You know that one song on the radio you used to LOVE? Well, it’s overplayed and now you’re sick of it and you never want to hear it again.

My point is this: if you want to harness the recovery power of music, you can’t listen to your designated recovery songs all day every day. You have to save them specifically for after your training session. You have to remain sensitive to them.

Anecdote: I once spent 90 minutes in a sensory deprivation chamber – 800 pounds of Epsom salt and 1200 gallons of water in complete darkness. As I looked around in the darkness, I could literally hear the sound of my eyeballs moving around in my head. By the way, it was a soft swishing sound…similar to the sound of fingers brushing across skin. This is the power of re-tuning and maintaining sensitivity to physical stimuli.

How to do it (Step-by-Step):

  1. Create an AMAZING playlist of 5-8 songs (15-20 minutes).
  2. The songs need to generally have a slower tempo and be relaxing. For example, (slow) classical music might be an option, but is a definite NO if you don’t enjoy classical music.
  3. The music MUST be relaxing and make you feel AMAZING, CALM, etc.
  4. Listen to the playlist for 20 minutes as soon as possible after training (and after your post-workout nutrition)
  5. Music should be played at a moderate volume, and you should completely immerse your mind in the experience. You cannot be distracted.
  6. Bonus points: deep, controlled breathing while you listen to the music.

Practical guidelines and considerations:

  • Change playlists, just like you change workouts (every 2-4 weeks, or whenever it stops working)
  • Don’t listen to your recovery songs any other time throughout the day.
  • Keep the first song of your recovery playlist the same to elicit a Pavlovian relaxation response.
  • Expect the effects of this protocol to be cumulative, just like strength training.

This is a tool in the toolbox. If you don’t cooldown properly, stay hydrated, get sufficient protein, sleep, or micronutrients you have to focus on that first.

This is for the people looking for that recovery edge…if your nutrition and sleep quality is awful, listening to some Bach after your training session isn’t going to magically make you recover. But this could be just the recovery boost you need to take it to the next level if you already have nutrition dialed in.

Want more info?

Here’s a Pop science video about music and athletic performance (2:16):

Here’s an amazing 5 minute TED talk on the power of sound:

References:

  1. The Power of Music
  2. Music in Sport and Exercise : An Update on Research and Application
  3. Effect of motivational music on lactate levels during recovery from intense exercise.
  4. EFFECTS OF SELF-SELECTED MUSIC ON STRENGTH, EXPLOSIVENESS, AND MOOD
  5. The Effects of Music on High-intensity Short-term Exercise in Well Trained Athletes.
  6. Effects of pretest stimulative and sedative music on grip strength.
  7. Effects of Different Types of Music on Physical Strength
  8. The effects of music listening after a stressful task on immune functions, neuroendocrine responses, and emotional states in college students.
  9. Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II)
  10. Evaluation on the effects of relaxing music on the recovery from aerobic exercise-induced fatigue.
  11. The effect of music, therapy, and relaxation on adrenal corticosteroids and the re-entrainment of circadian rhythms.
  12. Effect of motivational music on lactate levels during recovery from intense exercise.