01 June 2012

Performance Enhancement

During the Prague Marathon, I did something I've not done in a race before. I listened to music in order to lower my perception of pain and help me get through the final 9-10k of the race. I know that this is a serious taboo for some runners, and I used to be one of those runners who would say how much I'd rather be in tune with my body than in tune with the stream coming through my earbuds. However, the research regarding the benefits of listening to music while exercising shows little doubt about the power of music to aid performance. (See here and here.) There are no negative side effects of listening to music--unlike some other performance enhancers, so I would say listening to music while racing is really no different than taking in caffeine during a race or using a certain piece of equipment, say compression socks or an altitude tent, while training for a race. All of these things are used to assist someone in performing to the best of his/her ability during competition.

I know some people argue that runners with earbuds are a hazard to other runners on the course, but music played at a reasonable level does not inhibit someone from being a courteous runner. In fact, runners who choose to stop running suddently and walk through aid stations during a running race are much more hazardous to their racing peers than are those who listen to music (twice in Prague I had to leap to my left to avoid running over someone in front of me who stopped to walk at an aid station), but these runners are not criticized nearly as often as earbud wearers, nor have race directors banned walking through aid stations like they've banned wearing earbuds. (For the record, an earbud wearer has never caused me any problems during a race.)

Of course, I would never argue that we should not allow walking at aid stations. It's a common practice in triathlon, and many runners find it difficult to maintain race pace and ingest the fluids and nutrition they need to perform well. But those who do slow down drastically at aid stations, like those who wear earbuds, must be aware of how their actions may affect others and must ensure that their race strategies do not negatively effect another athlete's race. And to all who are militantly opposed to listening to music while running and who are deeply offended by those who do listen to music while running, please find something a little more important to stress out about. All endurance athletes have things they do or use to help them run or bike or swim as fast as they can. Enjoy your thing, and let everyone else enjoy his or hers.

(If you listen to music as you race or train or if you are adamantly opposed to listening to music while racing and training--and even opposed to seeing others do it, please let me know in a comment below.)

While we're on the topic of perfromance aids, I just came across an article in Runner's World (here) discussing research on the benefits of Rhodiola rosea for endurance performance. I picked up some Rhodiola rosea today, and I will try taking it before a hard workout on Tuesday. I'll be sure to report back my findings to you. So far, caffeine is the only performance enhancer I have found to work (I've not taken any of the illegal ones, though) and that I take regularly during races.

I took today off from running, but I did some strength training. I will run tomorrow and Sunday and tell you about it on Monday. Enjoy your weekend miles.


  1. The question becomes, which of these "enhancers" are physical, and which are psychological?

    While it seems to be common sense to place music in the "psychological" column because there is no direct physical/biological interaction, supplements like Rhodiola rosea are harder to define. Sure, you can do studies on those who take it versus those who don't, but that still doesn't measure direct biological/physiological effects. Meaning, the power of placebo has been well documented, and I wonder how much of this effect is at work with these supplements?

    Of course, if performance increases then who cares whether its direct effect is real or imagined...although, the power of the mind is a little easier on the wallet.

  2. Of course if you give half the athletes in a study the Rr and half a placebo and then have them perform a time trial and bring everyone back a week later, switch who gets the placebo and who gets Rr, and give them the same time trial, then you might be able to account for a placebo effect. However, I will not be able to control for a placebo effect.

    Also, music's effect on a person is not merely psychological.