Music Key to Olympic Preparation

When his feet are pounding the pavement, Simon Whitfield’s ears are tuned into CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. While he’s getting his fix of current affairs, he’s not fixated on the long kilometres that lie ahead or sweating the mounting pressure of the London Olympics.

Canada’s Olympic triathlon champion is one of countless athletes who have made the iPod — with its signature white earbuds — as integral a part of athletic attire as running shoes and swimsuits. “I train with my iPod all the time,” Whitfield says. “I listen to audio books, I just finished ‘Boomerang’ by Michael Lewis.”

Athletic success comes from training the mind as well as training the body. And be it current affairs or top-40 tunes, iPods can be an important part of an athlete’s training or pre-race routine, according to sports psychologist Penny Werthner.

“Most of us spend too much time thinking, thinking, thinking about various things and that’s taxing,” Werthner said in a phone interview from Florida, where she was working with Canada’s paddling team.

“Athletes can use music in two ways, one to use as a recovery piece, so they’re dialling down their brainwaves so they’re thinking less, and they can use music to pump them up and get them ready to compete.”

Werthner works with Canadian athletes using neuro and biofeedback — measuring everything from brainwaves, to heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature — to determine what controls stress levels. The key, she said, is finding out what works for each athlete.

Everyone’s different.

Whitfield’s pre-race playlist includes Canadian artists Hawksley Workman, Hey Rosetta and Jim Cuddie, and American folk singer Iron and Wine.

Hurdler Perdita Felicien prefers anything with a good beat — Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga.

“I’m very eclectic in my tastes, so you’ll find anything on there. . . you’ll find reggae, you’ll find oldies, whatever I like to soothe me and get really me pumped for a hard practice or a hard race,” said Felicien, a former world indoor and outdoor hurdles champion.

Boxer Mary Spencer, a three-time world champion, finds inspiration in anything from Christian contemporary artist Chris Tomlin to Enya to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

It’s loud, angry music that gets swimmer Julia Wilkinson fired up before races.

“To just get in that boxing mode like you’re ready to go to battle,” Wilkinson said. “Sometimes if I’m nervous I like to listen to country.

“I will make a playlist before a meet and there’s some songs that always stick around and get moved from playlist to playlist.”

Canoeist Mark Oldershaw prefers anything from the Beatles and the Clash to hip-hop. He’s even got some Disney music on his iPod.

“Anything that kind of gets me going,” Oldershaw said. “AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ is pretty good for us, because the canoe club where I’m from (Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont.), we wear all black jerseys, so that’s kind of a team thing that we have.”

Swimmer Ryan Cochrane is a fan of house or electronic music.

“Stuff with a really good beat because I find it drives me to train every day,” Cochrane said. “At five in the morning I can have house music on. I listen to stuff like deadmau5, Porter Robinson. It’s really forever changing. I don’t have a song I’ve liked for years. It’s whatever is in the minute.”

Diver Emilie Heymans, a world champion and three-time Olympic medallist, watches movies on her iPod to stay loose between dives, which can stretch up to an agonizing 45 minutes.

“I think too much and you can’t really be focused for that long, so since 2007 I have been watching movies to distract myself between dives,” Heymans said. “I like easygoing movies, cute movies, girly movies. I really like ‘Legally Blonde,’ ‘Honey,’ ’27 Dresses.’

“I really should refresh the movies I have on my iPod,” she adds with a laugh.

Werthner, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s human kinetics department, said when it comes to reaching the optimal pre-competition mental and physical state, each sport is different.

“Every athlete needs to figure out what that is for themselves, and what the sport demands. If I was to talk about freestyle (skiing), you have to be activated because you need to come down the mogul hill and be quite aggressive,” Werthner said. “If you’re talking track and field, a 100-metre sprint you’ve got to be pretty activated, 1,500 or longer you’ve got to be less activated in the sense that you’ve got to be saving that energy.

“Figure skating, you’ve got to be activated and confident but not overactivated because you’ve got to execute pretty technical jumps.

“Each event demands a certain thing and the individual is individual.”

Werthner worked with numerous Canadian athletes utilizing neurofeedback (how the brain reacts) and biofeedback (how the body reacts) in the run up to the Vancouver Olympics.

One of those athletes was freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau, who captured Canada’s first gold medal of the 2010 Games.