Smile! It May Improve Your Running Performance
While smiling is probably the last thing you feel like doing at Mile 22 of a marathon, research shows that it may be worth your while to do it anyway. A strategy that has been employed by elite athletes for decades, smiling through the pain is so much more than just a tactic to intimidate competitors. It may, in fact, be just what you’ve been looking for to take your running performance to the next level.
So if you’ve been missing out, here’s why you, too, should be running with a smile on your face.
A strategy used by the best of the best
In May 2017 the world watched in amazement as Eliud Kipchoge clocked a 2:00:25 marathon as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. And while his time was not eligible for a world record for several reasons, including the use of pace runners, Kipchoge’s effort left many in awe.
But it wasn’t only his performance that had the running fraternity talking. It was also the fact that he appeared to be grinning through what must have been the toughest parts of the run. And while many speculated that he was trying to mock his competitors, Kipchoge clarified in a post-event interview that he was actually using this strategy to relax and work through the pain.
So while running with a smile appears to have worked for Kipchoge, one question still remains. Can smiling while running really have a positive impact on running performance? Or is it all wishful thinking? A team from the Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales recently proved that it actually can.
In their study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2017, the research team looked at the impact of different facial expressions on movement economy, as well as physiological and perceptual responses to running. This was done by getting 24 trained, amateur runners to complete four 6-minute running blocks at 70% of velocity at VO2max with two minutes of rest between each block. Each running block was, however, completed while doing one of the following: Sincerely and continuously smiling; frowning; consciously relaxing the hands and upper body or with normal attention focus (the latter which served as the study’s control). Runs were completed in a randomized order, and study participants did not know the study’s exact purpose.
During each of the four running blocks, cardiorespiratory responses were continually measured for each runner. Participants were furthermore also asked to report their perceived effort after the completion of each running block. Data sets collected during the running blocks were subsequently compared to each runner’s normal running economy, which was determined a few days prior to the experiment.
And while individual outcomes varied, it was found that the majority of study participants had the best running economy while smiling. In fact, as a group, study participants’ running economy was up to 2.78% more efficient when smiling versus when frowning, consciously relaxing or just focussing as they normally would.
The simple act of smiling on the run also caused runners to use less oxygen and have a lower rate of perceived exertion when compared to frowning or simply focussing as normal.
According to exercise psychology lecturer and study leader, Noel Brick, the study’s findings can potentially be explained by a “reduction in muscular tension” that is prompted through the act of smiling. “When we make a facial expression, we may experience the emotional state we associate with the expression,” Brick explains. He adds that “we associate smiling with happiness or enjoyment, states that make us more relaxed, so when we smile, we are consciously trying to relax”.
Note, however, that the flip side of the coin is also true. “By adopting the facial expression of frowning, though, we are experiencing an emotional state of feeling tense or less relaxed,” Brick adds.
The potential implications
And while a 2.78% improvement in running economy may sound insignificant, Brick says that it could translate into an improvement of approximately 2% in performance time. Which implies that, if you’re currently running a marathon in 4:20, you could shave up to five minutes off that finishing time. Or, if you’re clocking a 10K in 55 minutes, you could cross the finish line a whole minute sooner by simply putting a smile on your dial.
And don’t be discouraged if you don’t see big improvements right off the bat. “Improvements in your running economy will be initially small, but a relaxed runner is an efficient runner,” says Brick. So keep at it and regularly remind yourself to keep smiling on the run until it becomes second nature.
So, in closing, while smiling on the run may seem like a complete waste of energy to some, it may, in fact, be exactly what you need to take your running performance to the next level.
And, besides, we think there’s great truth in the following quote by John Bingham: “…when I’m running I smile because I know that I don’t have to [run]”. Just like Bingham, we know that we don’t have to run. Instead, we want to run. We want to go out there and feel fit, strong and healthy. We want to take good care of our bodies. And we want to be the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. Which, in itself, is definitely something worth smiling about.
- Can smiling while exercising improve performance?, Online publication ,
- The effects of facial expression and relaxation cues on movement economy, physiological, and perceptual responses during running, Scientific journal ,
- Breaking2, Online publication ,
- Can smiling make you a better runner?, Hard copy magazine: Runner's World Aus/NZ ,