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Research Confirms: Smiling Improves Running Performance

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During my years as a high school track coach, I was constantly trying to get the athletes to relax while they ran. Too often runners are much too tensed up while running. This can be throughout the face, shoulders, or any other part of the body.

My favorite trick to help young runners relax was to have them make a “duck bill” with two Pringles and try to run without smashing the chips. This forces you to not clench down on your teeth or tense up your jaw.

How Smiling Impacts Attitude

Science has shown that just the act of putting a smile on your face will have both a physical and psychological positive impact on your body. Smiling produces neuropeptides and these little guys immediately get to work fighting off stress. In addition, neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins also kick in.

In case you are not familiar with the terms, serotonin is a natural antidepressant. When dopamine is released it creates a feeling of pleasure and happiness. Lastly, endorphins act as a pain reliever. These things can all work together to make for a happier you!

smiling running
City photo created by lookstudio – freepik.com

There are actually studies that point to lower stress and blood pressure from smiling. Even faking a smile seems to have positive impacts on the body. Isn’t that incredible?

Eliud Kipchoge has a wonderful quote on the topic. “When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to not feel your legs.” What a wonderful way to look at it.

As you know, there are many aspects of running that are completely mental. If you can get the mental aspects under control, sometimes the physical is more manageable.

What Research Says

There is research out there pointing to a smile as a way to lower your perceived effort on any given run or other workouts. In a small research sample done by writers for CNN, they had 24 athletes who they referred to as “club level” runners perform some tasks. The runners were tasked with running 4 times for 6-minute blocks, with 2:00 minutes of rest between each block.

Runners were tracked during their run and monitored for various things. One item they reported on was perceived effort. Runners stated that they felt the run was easier when they were asked to smile.

But let’s take that one step further. The runners also were 2.8% more economical when smiling than when they were frowning. That is not just how they perceived their run to go, that is real data! The proof is in the distance you can travel in any set amount of time, folks.

Physical Benefits of Smiling During Exercise

Researchers for a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise took 24 runners and had them wear breathing masks to measure oxygen consumption. The study found that they used less oxygen, ran with better economy and also felt that the running they did was easier when they ran while smiling.

Can You Fake It?

We have all been in those social situations where you are faking the smile for all you have. Right? So here is the million-dollar question. Can you fake the smile and still reap the benefits?

While studies do point to a genuine smile as having a greater benefit to someone working out, a fake smile does have some measurable performance-boosting power. So in a word, yes, you can fake it.

Neutral Face vs Frown

Okay so maybe you don’t feel like smiling. Can you keep your face neutral? Does an actual frown have a negative impact on performance, whereas a neutral face has none?

Contracting your facial muscles into a frown has a measurable impact on the heart rate of most people. So if you are frowning, you are actually sending signals to your body that you are in distress… even if you aren’t.

Keeping your face “neutral” may be harder than it sounds. Sure, you are not necessarily looking unhappy or frowning, but making that slight effort to tilt the edges of your mouth up will help.

Elite Athletes Smiling!

Eliud Kipchoge is well known for his speed in the marathon. Second to that? Anyone who knows anything about elite runners and the marathon can tell you that Kipchoge is always smiling. Yes, even when he is running!

Eliud Kipchoge smiling while running

Although his pace is obviously grueling as he sets the course and world records, this elite recognizes the power of a smile. He has repeatedly told reporters that he smiles to help himself work through pain and discomfort. That’s right. He knows that smiling benefits you both mentally and physically.

It’s not just for men, and it is not just for runners. Swiss triathlete Natascha Badmann is famous for her million-dollar smile, even as she competes in perhaps the most grueling of all competitions.

Natascha Badmann

Badmann made history when she became the first European woman to win an Ironman World Championship, then went on to do it 5 more times. If you search photos of Badmann you will not come up short of images of her smiling through her race. She knew what many did not: the smile is a secret weapon.

What About Us Average Joes? (Or Janes!)

It’s fascinating to think about. Some of my fastest runs are when I am running in the company of a group of friends. Sometimes I realize it is because I am running with people faster than I. They help to “pull me” to a faster time. However, perhaps there is something to the smile logic.

Maybe, just maybe, the company of people who keep you smiling helps us to keep up a pace we don’t normally run alone?

One thing I know for sure is that the next time I do track work with the girls, I plan to smile through it. Have you ever done a Nike Run Club workout? The coaches are famous in their speed work interval runs for tossing in Celebration Pace intervals and reminding us to, “smile and have fun.”

I think those coaches are on to something!

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