You may have noticed on the trails that some people seem lost in their own world, maybe you have started a friendly conversation with someone at the trail head, just to find they have their head phones in. This might seem like an odd choice, after all, one of the best parts about mountain biking is that connection to nature, and the outdoors, so why would you want to block that out? But listening to music whilst you ride comes with a lot of benefits as well.
A poll carried out by PinkBike in August 2018 found that the majority of people preferred to ride without music. Given that a large proportion of the mountain biking community ride to be sociable, this makes sense that you wouldn’t listen to music, whilst you’re out catching up with friends. However the results do suggest that when we ride by ourselves, most of us like to have some music to keep us company.
Focus or Distraction?
The traditional theory is that listening to music whilst exercising will reduce the sensation of fatigue, whilst promoting relaxation and focus (Szabo, Small & Leigh 1999), and allow you to push your body for further or longer. When it comes to a complex sport like mountain biking there are a few other factors at play. For example, this theory might be applicable when you are trying to push a high cadence or heavy gearing on an ascent, but you don’t really want to be distracted from riding your bike whilst descending a technical section, otherwise you are more likely to crash and injure yourself.
Music is going to affect different aspects of riding in different ways. Adding a rhythm, provided in the form of music, to your ride is likely to result in a physical response of coordinating your motor skills and maintaining a consistent and high cadence. This could be particularity useful in the climbing aspect of a ride, especially if the rider has to do long miles on steep climbs. One of the most useful skills to have whilst riding at an intense level, is the ability to relax. This not only allows for less restrictive breathing, but also allows for your body and brain to react quicker to changes in the trail and bike position, during the descents. Szmedra and Bacharach (1998) studied the effects of music on stress levels of runners. Their results showed a statistically significant decreases in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, rate of perceived exertion and lactate levels when individuals listened to music during the treadmill test.
As any rider knows, strength is key to holding on to, and maneuvering, your bike during long descents. So wouldn’t it be great if listening to the music you like also made you stronger? Well Karageorghis and colleagues carried out a study which suggests that it does. The grip test of 50 participants was carried out whilst listening to stimulating music (that is music the participant enjoyed), white noise, and no noise. Analysis of the results revealed that subjects had significantly higher grip strength scores when they listened to stimulative music rather than sedative music, or white noise (Karageorghis, Drew & Terry 1996). In addition to the increased strength, a more recent study showed that the endurance of that strength also significantly increased when participants were exposed to stimulating music (Crust 2004).
How does different genera of music affect the ride?
One important thing to note is how different music types may affect the ride. This is likely to vary between different people, for example you might love k-pop, and find that its exactly the motivation you need to keep you going. However, if it’s a music type you dislike, then you are going to spend the ride hating the music, hating you legs, and questioning your life decisions. A study carried out looking in to how different music types effected runners found that the music type made no significant difference to the point of exhaustion (Copeland & Franks 1991). However a study which focused on factors including average speed, power, heart rate and rate of perceived exertion whilst cycling, found that playing high tempo music (142bpm) had a significant increase across all factors, compared to no music (Atkinson, Wilson & Eubank 2004).
In my personal opinion I find that despite my music tastes off the bike being more orientated towards classic rock and metal genera, I prefer something with a more upbeat pop vibe when I am riding. A mixture of pop, punk rock, and ska is surprisingly useful at giving a happy mindset and predictable cadence on the climbs, whilst also fitting in to the pump rhythms and flow state on the descents. This is obviously going to be different from rider to rider, but anecdotes from fellow riders suggests that listening to thrash metal as you drop in to a trail is probably going to result in you crashing in the first corner, as you are way to over stimulated.
There are some obvious safety implications to having head phones in whilst you ride, as you are unable to hear your surroundings as clearly. I personally do not like having headphones if I am riding on the road, as I don’t fancy being surprised by a car doing something unexpected. However there are also safety implications on the trails. With tight twisty trails, often in dense forest, our vision is limited, and we rely on our hearing to alert us it if someone has crashed up ahead, or needs our assistance. On the flip side, we also need to listen out to the possibility of a much faster rider coming up from behind. Although they should be prepared to slow down as they approach the slower rider, we all know this doesn’t always happen. The third reason you may not want to have head phones in whilst riding the trails is becasue listening to how your bike sounds down the trail can offer valuable advice. You can often hear if bolts or head sets are rattling loose earlier, and fix them before doing permanent damage to your bike. The obvious solution to a lot of these problems is simply only use one earphone at a time, so that one ear is still able to hear everything going on around you.
Head phone options
Which head phones you decide on is mostly personal preference. Obviously anything with an over the head band is out, it’s not fitting over your helmet. But there are plenty of other options. Ear buds are a popular option for gravel trails, but personally I don’t like having things sticking in the ear canal, and I find the vibrations from the rough trails cause them to fall out. This is especially problematic if you have wireless earbuds, and I have know a few people lose an ear bud half way down a trail, never to be found again. Instead I opt for an ear phone that sits on the ear and is held in place with magnets, like the earshots© bluetooth headphone. These can be used independently of each other, so I only use one at a time, allowing the other ear free to hear everything going on around me. The magnets also mean they stay in place comfortably throughout the whole ride, and even whilst crashing. The final option you can try is a ‘bone conducting’ headphone. These headphones don’t go in the ear at all, and actually sit on the users cheek bones. The sound vibrations skip the ear canal and ear drum completely, passing through the bones directly to the cochlea. This all sounds very far fetched, but it’s the same technology used in hearing aids, and has the big advantage that becasue it’s not blocking the ear canal, the user can still clearly hear everything around them.
- Atkinson, G., Wilson, D., & Eubank, M. 2004. Effects of music on work-rate distribution during a cycling time trial. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 25 (8), 611-15.
- Crust, L. 2004. Caryy-over effects of music in an isometric muscular endurance task. Perceptual Motor Skills, 98 (3 Pt. 1), 985-91.
- Copeland, B.L., & Franks, B.D. 1991. Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 31 (1), 100–103.
- Karageorghis, C.I., Drew, K.M., & Terry, P.C. 1996. Effects of pretest stimulative and sedative music on ngrip strength. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83 (3 Pt. 2), 1347-52.
- Szabo, A., Small, A., & Leigh, M. 1999. The effects of slow- and fast-rhythm classical music on progressive cycling to voluntary physical exhaustion. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 39 (3), 220–25.
- Szmedra, L., & Bacharach, D.W. 1998. Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lacrtate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19 (1), 32-37.