When you’re swimming, or exercising in general, what is your favorite thing to listen to? I personally hate doing anything without music. Music allows me to pace myself better and honestly, makes my workout go by so much faster. Even changing the song I’m listening to can make me run faster or lift heavier weights.
Music isn’t the only thing to listen to while exercising, obviously. The most popular alternatives are audiobooks and podcasts. To me, listening to audiobooks is the ultimate way of multitasking. Whether you’re reading for fun, or have a book report due the next day, listening to an audiobook while exercising really maximizes your productivity. Podcasts are similar, as they (usually) have more substance than music alone, but they can also be a little bit more fun than an audiobook. I would say that podcasts would be the middle ground between music and audiobooks – useful information, but not overly complicated.
Now, let me pose the question: which one is better for your performance? My hypothesis, pre-research, is that music is the best. I say this because (at least for me) music is less distracting. I mean this in the sense that I don’t have to directly focus on the lyrics of the song to listen to the music. When I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, I have to pay attention to what is being said or else I miss the whole story. Even though I like being distracted from how exhausted or in pain I am during a workout, I need to be able to focus on what I’m doing. Maybe that’s just me, who knows. Let’s dive into some research though.
In middle school, I ran cross country. We always practiced on a round track, which obviously had no cars around it, so my coach let us listen to music with headphones in. This is when I really started getting used to exercising with music. We ran at least 4-6 miles every day at practice, so having music definitely made it go by faster.
Well, halfway through the season my coach decided to let us run mapped out routes around the area. We were all very excited; running 6 miles in a circle gets old, no matter how much music you have. Before we went on our first run off the track, my teammates and I started to get our music ready – earphones out, ready to go. That was when my coach broke the news – no more music at practice. We were young, so he didn’t trust us to run on roads with music on.
Long story short, we all ran much slower (and complained a lot more) without the music. We tried talking to each other while we ran to make the time go by faster, but then we just ran out of breath quicker. Basically, there was no substitute for music. It was a long last half of the season.
Time to throw in some facts. According to scientists at Brunel University in the UK, music reduces your perceived rate of exhaustion by 12%, and even increases your endurance by 13%. These numbers may not seem huge, but think about how tired you’re becoming right now. Now think about yourself being 12% more energized. Pretty awesome, right? Another common finding in studies is that listening to music that you can synchronize your movement to leads to increased work output. This basically means that the music you’re listening to can make you try harder (but doesn’t make you more tired).
Okay, enough about music for now. Let’s move on.
Audiobooks are actually pretty awesome. They give you the ability to read a book and do something else at the same time. The big difference between music and audiobooks is that music isn’t a long commitment, while audiobooks are. The average song is usually around 3 1/2 to 4 minutes long, while the average audiobook is between 8 and 13 hours. This is a pretty significant difference, but why does that matter in the realm of exercise?
The motivation to listen to music is that you can hear several different songs and have the ability to easily change the song to match your workout. Audiobooks are vastly different – they require commitment. One of the hardest things for people when first getting in, or returning, to exercise is committing to it. In a study conducted by Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, it was shown that those who were given an audiobook of their choice, and were limited to only listening to it at the gym, went to the gym 51% more often than those who did not have the audiobook. This is a pretty amazing outcome, but it also makes perfect sense.
This situation is better known as temptation bundling. The term is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s just referring to pairing together an activity to a reward. Generally, the activity is either one that you find undesirable or you may just be procrastinating. One example of temptation building would be rewarding yourself with a piece of candy for every paragraph you read in a textbook (I have totally done this).
Although there is no proven link between audiobooks and increased performance, they can definitely motivate people to actually get up and go to the gym. I’m sure if you listened to a motivating audiobook, it could probably increase your performance too – but don’t get mad if I’m wrong.
We have made it to the very last contender: podcasts. Podcasts are like the lovechild of music and audiobooks. They’re short but have substance, there are too many genres to imagine, and you can easily abandon one without feeling too bad. If you’re trying to decide between the 2, go for a podcast!
The closest I’ve gotten to exercising with a podcast is a zombie apocalypse app. The app would prompt me that I was being chased, tell me how long to sprint, and when the terror was over. There was also some backstory thrown in there. The app was really fun and basically acted like a personal trainer.
I haven’t directly listened to a podcast while exercising, but it is a very popular choice for people. Some people don’t want to commit to an 8-13 hour long audiobook, but they still want to listen to something with substance. The perfect medium would be the podcast. Podcasts can be very informative, or not at all. The great thing about them is that there are infinite choices. Are you in the mood for comedy? Check. Feeling like a good conspiracy theory? Great!
There are no studies that I can really find to support podcasts for exercising, but I don’t think that’s necessary at this point. Since podcasts are very similar to both music and audiobooks, I’ll just assume they do have some kind of benefit.
Just like audiobooks, limiting yourself to only listening to a podcast at the gym can provide motivation. The difference would be that you may be able to finish the podcast by the end of the workout. Similarly to music, it is fairly easy to find motivational podcasts. Several fitness enthusiasts, like The GymWits, put their focus on nutrition and exercise in the podcasts they create. This can create a pretty motivational environment for a workout.
Let’s do a little recap of what we have covered. Music is short and sweet – it’s even been proven to improve performance. Audiobooks are a long commitment, but the payoff is pretty great. Podcasts are a mix of music and audiobooks – short, but with substance. But who wins the competition?
Short answer, music. Long answer, it depends on what you’re trying to focus on. The question I posed at the beginning of this article was in regards to which one best improves performance. There are studies that have proven that listening to music does improve athletes’ performances, while there are none for audiobooks and podcasts. So, to answer the question from the beginning, music would be the best choice if you’re solely focused on improving performance.
If you want more of a distraction, then your best options are either audiobooks or podcasts. From there, it is just a choice between how much time you want to commit to a singular topic. If you’re up for hours of the same thing (i.e. a book), then you should definitely check out audiobooks. For a smaller commitment and more variety, shoot for podcasts.
Do you listen to audiobooks or podcasts? Let us know which ones are your favorite! Happy swimming, everyone.
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This pandemic has taught me that while I can’t control what’s going on in the world, I can control my mindset. For me, this looks like finding a few things to be grateful for each morning... With that said, I wanted to share my gratitude list with all of you: