LONDON (Reuters) - Swimmer Michael Phelps uses it to get into his zone, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe uses it to psyche herself up, and 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 “like is a legal drug for athletes” says its benefits lie predominantly in what he calls its psycho-acoustic properties.
“Music can have either a stimulative or a sedative effect, depending on its psycho-acoustic properties,” he said in a 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 percent longer, according to one study.
Research published on Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, when runners listening to tracks by artists such as Madonna, Queen and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, found they 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, published this month in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 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 percent decrease in oxygen uptake.
“Physiologically you’re more efficient when you are synchronizing your movements to music,” Karageorghis said.
“Music coordinates our actions in such as way that we minimize the inefficiencies and optimize the mechanics of our movement.”
The use of music in training and preparing for competition was popularized by athletes such as American 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, which moved into the 6th day of competition on Thursday, there is no shortage of fans of the technique among those fighting for medals.
Phelps and his fellow American swimmer Ryan Lochte are said to be big Lil Wayne fans, while their Chinese rival Sun Yang was also sporting a set of headphones as he headed for the starters’ blocks at the Olympic pool. All three have won medals already.
Gymnast Louis Smith listens to reggae music 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.
Table tennis player Jorgen Persson, who was playing in his seventh straight Olympics - and last - says he also prepares for games with his iPod turned high.
For the 46-year-old Swede, it’s mostly rock, or rock and roll, that hits the spot. “It’s good for the action,” he said. “I have some special songs. At the moment I am listening to The Gaslight Anthem and Alabama Shakes.”
Karageorghis, who worked with double Olympic rowing gold medalist James Cracknell and is now training world 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene in the art of musical medaling, 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 techno pop song “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.
“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.”
Additional reporting by Steve Slater, Pritha Sarkar and Clara Ferreira Marques. Editing by Justin Palmer