I've long been a believer in the power of music as a motivator when working out. In fact, I bought my first MP3 player back in 2000 (a Diamond Rio 500 64MB model...wow) just so I could use it during running as I moved off for my freshman year of college. Even before this, though, I recall doing basketball warm ups to Warren G's "Regulate" in junior high school as my team got ready for a game. There's something about music that disconnects your body from its physical self. It's very empowering.
A few weeks ago I ran across this article on the New York Times that provided some insight as to whether any scientific evidence exists to show that music does in fact make humans push harder while working out. Anecdotally, most people agree this is true. It's why the Nike+ iPod system has a Power Song feature built in. When you need that extra bit of ooomph, a well-timed song can get you over the hump.
For most of the past decade, I've set my running soundtrack to various John Digweed mixes. These represent very vivid memories for me. I recall the day after 9/11, running around Audubon Park in New Orleans with John Digweed's Global Underground Sydney. My first 10K in 2004 was run to John Digweed's Global Underground Hong Kong. Most of the training for my first half marathon in 2009 was run to this Essential Mix. And as I'm training for my next half marathon coming up on Halloween weekend, I've been running to John Digweed's Essential Mix from earlier this year. You can find an excerpt from that mix here.
What strikes me most about working out to music is how it seemingly overrides your brain's normal way of interpreting limits. It's almost as if you're patching your mind with upgraded firmware for a limited time. When the mix I'm listening to hits its crescendo, there's something magical about that moment where your stride and breathing rate all sync up to the beats per minute in the music. I call it "spiritual" in the title of this post because it's literally that powerful to me. Regardless of how tired my body may physically be, I can transcend that limit for the amount of time I can match my heart rate, stride, and breathing to that unnaturally precise beat of electronic music. It's kind of like cheating physics.
As the New York Times article describes, much of the science behind why our bodies react this way is still not understood. I look forward to the day we can fully leverage the phenomenon, and perhaps apply it to many areas of our lives, beyond just exercise.