Part three in a series of posts celebrating the Rio Olympics and the rich relationship between music and athletics

Music Moves:

Pushing Through The Wall


We’ve all heard of ‘hitting the wall’, but what happens to the human body to make us feel like this? Hitting the wall is a physiological state where your body runs out of sugar to burn. Marathon runners typically feel the wall at around 20 miles, which is the average time a body’s glycogen stores run out. 


In Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, the psychologist describes how he was able to overcome a leg injury while mountain climbing, descending the mountain before sunset by singing “The Old Volga Boatman” to himself. In this story, Sacks attributes having the strength to reach safety to being able to forget pain because he “musicked along” to the song. 

“You feel physically depleted and often mentally drained,” says Professor Andy Lane, professor of sport psychology, University of Wolverhampton. “Music can help athletes perform better but it can't stop you hitting the wall,” he explains. “It can help when things feel tough; imagine feeling low and having an inspirational message to revitalise you. Music can be that motivational message. What you need to do is select music that has inspiring lyrics, that you have powerful personal connections with and you know that when you hear it, you feel energised. 


“Songs that are good for running tend to be fast and have a 4/4 rhythm; its possible to run to the beat. This will be down to personal taste. Culture and age are important, and we tend to prefer music that was popular in our adolescence.” 

In short, music is not a magic cure for hitting the wall, which is a physiological state, but it can help reduce your perceived exertion and give you a mental boost to push through. 

A study by Harbury College & University Centre, which examined the effect of music on British swimmer, Ben Hooper as he prepared to swim 2,000 miles across the Atlantic, found that listening to Eminem tracks such as “Lose Yourself”, “Not Afraid” and “Without Me” improved his speed by 10 per cent, reduced fatigue and boosted effort levels while he was undergoing intense training. 

Experts recommend avoiding tracks with complex rhythms, unfamiliar harmonic structures or music that requires you to do any close listening. In the same study mentioned above, “Tear Drop” by Massive Attack actually decreased Hooper’s performance. 

Hit the wall or off the wall? An athlete plays at Oakley Safehouse  2016  , B&O PLAY's partner's in Rio

Hit the wall or off the wall? An athlete plays at Oakley Safehouse 2016 , B&O PLAY's partner's in Rio


Another study went so far as to suggest that there was a marked difference in the performance of athletes who listened to music to motivate them – that they did significantly better than those who did not listen to music. But American decathlete Jeremy Taiwo, described to us in Rio how he focuses in on his environmental sounds during a race: “I hear the rhythm of my feet, I know that how the sound reverberates off the track from my feet indicates the kind of energy that I am currently putting into the surface. It's valuable feedback,” he says. “The roar of the crowd spikes my adrenal response, it's a boost that takes my intentional force and makes it extraordinarily precise for technical events. I feel like my mind is a sponge thirsting for any audible, kinesthetic or visual cues to use in to fuel my body's movement and performance.”

Because hitting the wall is a physiological state, music can’t smash that barrier, but in the same way that rinsing your mouth with a carbohydrate drink can improve performance because you’ve fooled your body into thinking more sugar is on the way, music can give us the mental strength to dig deep and keep going. 


Want to push through the wall yourself?

Check out our line of headphones, beautiful sounding music for whatever activity you choose.

Read part one in the Music Moves series, Warmup, here

Read part two, In The Flow, here


Music Moves: Recovery and recuperation

Nathaniel Budzinski
Music, In the details

Music Moves: In The Olympic Flow

Nathaniel Budzinski