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Music and the Inner Voice

Zach Zenteno  // FEB. 15, 2021

7 min read
7 min read

Zach Zenteno  // FEB. 15, 2021

Using music to elevate athletic performance is neither a secret nor a revelation - we’ve all relied on music for motivation or relaxation in one way or another. Music, especially when combined with exercise, floods the brain with hormones and endorphins to reduce perceived exertion and delay fatigue. When the body is breaking down due to exercise, music is an excellent tool to distract your mind from the pain growing in your muscles. As a result of the amazing capabilities of music, it is routinely used by athletes everywhere as an aid during training, regardless of sport. Go to any gym or observe any jogger, and you’ll seldom find an athlete without headphones. This information is not particularly compelling but what happens when music is stripped away is.
If you are exercising alone, you are left with only yourself, your thoughts, and your inner voice. Can you motivate yourself without any rhythmic distractions? Is there anything to gain from a silent workout? As a competitive swimmer of 12 years, I’ve spent countless hours in my head. I had a daily appointment with the voice. I learned to talk to myself and draw motivation from within, as this was the only source I had.
Now retired from collegiate swimming, I’ve explored other forms of cardio-based exercise, primarily cycling and running. I now listen to music during exercise, something I’ve been mostly void of for the majority of my athletic career. This journal is my take on the incredible influence of music and how I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. Moreover, I’m going to discuss the importance of working out without music as an aid, and why having a conversation with the voice in your head is paramount to peak athletic performance. I’ve discovered that, under the right conditions, conversing with yourself can be therapeutic, revealing of your true character, and a source of motivation in itself. As an athlete that has had both experiences, I’ll explain why a balance of using music as a tool while maintaining the connection with your inner voice is a key to optimal athletic performance.


My athletic career has given me a unique perspective on this matter. It started with numerous sports as a child, including basketball, baseball, skating, among others, eventually landing on swimming at age 10. I swam competitively for most of my childhood and the entirety of my teenage years, helping me land a division 1 scholarship for Seattle University. Specifically, my events in college were the 500 freestyle, 200 freestyle, and 200 backstroke.
I’ve swam for numerous coaches, endured several coaching styles, and experienced several approaches to the sport. I’ve endured long-distance yardage training, high-intensity strength and power training, and everything in between, both in and out of the water. As I write this, at the age of 23, I’ve spent the majority of my life in pursuit of some athletic goal. Having spent more than half of my life doing this, and I’ve learned a few things about how to keep myself motivated.

Importance of Training Without Music

Swimming is unlike any other sport, not to say it’s hardest - but there are a few unique factors that separates it from most other sports. For example, a swimmer has limited access to oxygen. A swimmer is more hydrodynamic when not breathing, so it is crucial to strategize each breath for maximum efficiency and speed. This concept is especially important for shorter races, but certainly plays a role in long-distance events as well. I can’t name many sports where replenishing your oxygen-deprived muscles can actually hinder your performance. Visibility is also limited. If you want to see where your competitors are, looking directly at them will undoubtedly slow you down. You are limited to peripheral vision and quick glances during a breath. Many of the senses we take for granted on dry land are directly impacted by water.
"Complete submersion dulls the senses and creates an isolated environment for a swimmer, which leads me to my point of focus: decreased auditory stimulation."
A swimmer cannot hear the roar of a crowd when he or she pulls ahead during a race. When racing, there’s no detectable energy to feed off of, no chemistry with teammates to elevate your game. Even if the crowd’s roar can be heard while breathing, it is diluted and muffled by rushing water. When training, the majority of a swim practice is spent with your head down in the water, with nothing but splashing and your own pulse to listen to. A swimmer has much less stimuli to draw from when compared to other sports; no music, no interaction with coaches or fans, nothing except for the voice in your head. It is for this reason, swimmers are uniquely predisposed to this type of mental toughness. When the going gets tough and you need to press on, there is only one person that is going to do it for you.
When you are truly broken down, not just tired, but on the brink of ultimate exhaustion, you are presented with an opportunity. There are two choices: keep going or stop. Push yourself forward or give up. I’ve found that when in this moment, when I can feel every fiber in my muscles burning in agony and all I want to do is stop, there is a moment of clarity and vulnerability. Am I going to conquer the voice in my head telling me to stop? Am I one to quit? These simple questions, when asked in the right context, can reveal one’s true characteristics. It can be quite humbling to talk to yourself in such a manner. As a swimmer, I’ve been face-to-face with myself countless times, and I’ve learned to answer those questions in a way that motivates me to keep pushing forward. This is a concept all swimmers must master to some degree in order to succeed, whether they are aware of it or not. In those darkest moments, swimming has taught me how to rely on myself when I need motivation. It is extremely empowering knowing that in my darkest hour, when everything is telling me otherwise, I can rely on myself to persevere. But how do I actually use this to motivate myself?
The greatest failure of any athlete is failing to give 100% of your effort. The only thing worse than losing a race or not achieving a goal is knowing you only gave 90%. I personally find great discomfort holding back. Can you be satisfied with a performance knowing that you did not do everything in your power to maximize that performance? Perhaps your answer is different than mine, but I find zero satisfaction in taking the easy route. Approaching the end of my senior year in college, the final year of my swim career, I wanted to be sure that my lifelong career of swimming ended in a way that I could be satisfied with. I wanted to tell myself that I truly left everything I had in the water. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my post-swimming life wondering what I could have been capable of achieving had I given swimming 100% of my effort. I wanted to know, without doubt, that I had reached my full potential. So, I had to actively talk to myself everyday to ensure I was giving 100% of my effort and attention. When broken down and faced with only my inner voice, I reminded myself of my current goals, and that this particular moment in time is where these goals are achieved. I would ask myself, “Are you working hard enough to tell your future self that you did everything you could?” This can be a great method to talk yourself into hard work. Hindsight can be a real bitch. The fear of knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to achieve a goal pushes me forward. There is a saying along the lines of “you can lie to others but you can’t lie to yourself.” I can’t tell myself I’ve done everything I could unless I actually do it. I held myself to a high standard so my future self can be satisfied with that day’s effort.
As mentioned already, you need to be broken down physically and mentally to have this inner dialogue with yourself, and I feel music can get in the way of this conversation. I motivate myself by simply asking my inner voice if I can be satisfied with today’s effort when the future race is said and done. What will motivate you? That is something you have to find out for yourself, as nobody else can tell you. I recommend occasionally working out without music to find that inner dialogue and have that tough conversation.

Using Music As a Tool

In contrast, the extraordinary benefits of music cannot be understated. I’d like to discuss the benefits music has had on my personal workouts. As I’ve said, I rarely listened to music while training for swimming. To be clear, this doesn’t mean I never used music during my entire career. I listened to music in the weight room. During dry land workouts, we often had music playing in the background. Several of my coaches would play music during practice, allowing me to listen to music in between sets and during rest periods. It is not as if I’ve never heard a musical note while exercising.
"However, I’m talking about the moments I discussed above, the darkest moments of extreme exhaustion when one can have an honest conversation with themselves."
These are the moments I never had music for, as I was always actively swimming when I reached this point of the workout. Now an avid runner and cyclist, I’ve experimented with music in these moments. Wow, the effects are phenomenal!
Music is a cheat code for the runner’s high. It’s difficult to express the difference between staring at a line at the bottom of a pool with only my thoughts versus exploring new territory on a bike ride to my favorite songs. In those times of extreme exhaustion, it is a luxury to lean on your favorite song for a little boost of energy. While still important, I don’t always want a spiritual conversation with my inner voice, sometimes I just want to tune everything out and go. Working out without music builds mental toughness, but working out with music makes the workout fun, evening addicting. This is the other side of the coin I’ve grown to use to my advantage as well.
The boost I’ve experienced while running and cycling to my favorite songs is absolutely euphoric. Music has allowed me to look forward to long, monotonous workouts. I don’t see running or biking as something I have to do, I see it as uninterrupted music time. On days when I’m feeling less than thrilled about going for a run or ride, as we all have those days, I use music to talk myself into working out anyway. It is incredible how I can go from feeling lethargic to energetic with the right playlist. It can be difficult to talk yourself into a workout when you know that you’ll be alone, in your head, but surprisingly easy when you know that music will be there to pull you along.
I want to remind the reader that my findings are based off of my personal experiences; everybody should experiment themselves and see what works for them. We are all different. I’ve experimented with several genres and styles of music when working out, including rock, pop, rap, R&B, disco, country, instrumentals, anything and everything. I want to bring this back to my discussion earlier about being vulnerable. When I’m exhausted, and therefore vulnerable and open-minded, I’ve found that I am more likely to “buy in” the music. If I’m feeling the music, I’ve found that tempo or genre really don’t matter. I find myself exercising to songs that have no business being in a workout playlist. There are no rules for what you can and can’t listen to - not everything has to be pump-up music. Listen to your guilty pleasure songs, listen to anything you want.
"Let the music run through you; sing along, snap your fingers, tap your hands, move your body, do anything to make it fun. I’ve found that the miles slip away when I emphasize having fun like this."
Find out which songs get you going when you’re tired and need a boost, the result might be surprising.

Balance of Both

The point of writing this piece is to demonstrate to athletes that there’s no single way to motivate yourself. Motivation comes from anywhere you can derive it from; for me it’s music and my inner voice. On days when I just want to burn off some energy and get down to the music, I throw on my headphones and just let myself go. When I plateau or want a challenge, I turn the music off to remind myself of my goals and why I’m working out in the first place. A healthy balance of both, in my opinion, is the best way to stay motivated and simultaneously build mental resilience. Find out what works for you, but remember that you can use your own voice as motivation, and music can be a fantastic tool to get you going when you need it most.
I’ve included my personal workout playlist for those who are interested. Keep in mind these are the songs that work for me. Feel free to judge, take what you like, disregard what you don’t. Find out what works for you, but listening to what works for me can be a good starting point.
Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6C5ySBSw6MU5vkNC6EVKNI?si=Ykv6gZFlTx6SuvSOYj5rvQ