When the going gets tough...smile!?
You know the feeling. You are going through a grueling portion of the race, calves tightening, lungs burning. You keep pounding, but things just get harder and harder. Until that magical moment. Maybe it was a funny poster on the side of the road or a majestic view along the course. Whatever it was, it brought a huge smile to your face. And just like that, it seemed that all your problems disappeared. It’s as if your smile threw a bucket of cold water to that fire in your lungs, and you don’t even notice your calves anymore. But what exactly happened?
Well, what if I told you that smiling makes you perform better? Believe or not, this is what a recent study has demonstrated. Psychological skills and their impact on endurance performance have been studied extensively and research points out that different strategies (such as saying positive things to yourself while running, setting goals, or trying to divert your thoughts from the suffering you might be experiencing) have a positive impact on performance. Remember that fatigue is much more than just a physiological component, and that your psychological state has a significant impact on it. And in this context, a more relaxed state has been shown to improve performance, as it reduces your perception of effort. It also lowers your oxygen consumption at a given intensity, and therefore, makes you a more economical athlete. But where does smiling fits in?
A recent study decided to compare the effects of commonly used cues to change athletes’ focus of attention and strategies that aim for a more relaxed state during a race, and how these might impact running economy (the oxygen cost of performing at a certain intensity) and physiological and perceptual responses. After completing an initial test to determine maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) and running economy, the participants returned to the lab to complete 4 sets of 6 minutes of running under four different conditions: frowning, smiling, receiving cues to induce relaxation, and a control condition that focused on their normal thoughts when running. After the completion of the four intervals, the results were quite amazing.
I guess you know where I am going with this, so it should be no surprise to you that the participants who smiled during the intervention were the most economical runners. In total, about 60% of the participants in this group had a better running economy when smiling, and were significantly more economical when compared to those who were frowning or just maintained their regular thoughts. The hypothesis is that smiling may prime a more relaxed emotional state, reducing sympathetic nervous activity (your “fight or flight” response), muscle activation and tension. In turn, these responses would lead to a lower oxygen consumption at a similar intensity, turning you into a more economical runner. The improved running economy is in the order of 2% to 3% when compared to the other conditions. If you think that is a small number, keep in mind that the figure is equivalent to the improvements seen following six weeks of plyometric training or 13 weeks of heavy strength training. If you are still averse to lifting weights (more on it in a different post), I strongly suggest that you start smiling more!
The authors also demonstrated that smiling and focusing on relaxing was more effective in reducing the participants’ perception of effort when compared to frowning or the control condition. This is also huge, as some scientists argue that perception of effort and not a physiological limit is what determines our performance. In short, we all exercise until we feel we can’t keep going or until we perceive that maintaining a certain level of effort is not worth the reward that comes with it. So, if you can “trick” your mind to think it is working at a lower level of effort, you should be able to maintain a higher work rate, and therefore, performance should improve.
However, just smiling is not enough. The better economy and increased relaxation are far more pronounced when individuals produce a “real” smile (a “Duchene” smile is the technical term, which I was not aware of). Don’t know what a real smile looks like? Well, it involves “symmetrical activation of the zygomaticus major (mouth movement), and activation of the orbicularis oculi (eye and cheek movements) muscles. In plain terms, it has to be a big smile, that involves movements in the muscles of the mouth, cheek, and the eyes. So even though your fake smile may cut it at work, it won’t help you when you are trying to improve your running performance.
Still, two curious findings from the study deserve mention. The first one is that the use of cues to relax only proved to be the best strategy for one of the twenty-four runners. This despite almost half of them reporting that they constantly use this strategy in their practices, and therefore, have some experience on it. Nevertheless, the authors mentioned that for most participants, this relaxation could occur naturally when they are training by themselves but that the constant focus and cues by the researchers telling them to relax could have had the opposite effect. As other studies show the benefits of using cues to relax, if you can do a good job in changing your attention focus during training and racing, this still seems to be a good strategy.
The other finding is that smiling worked almost exclusively for men. Ten of the 13 male participants were most economical when smiling, with that number dropping to 4 out of 11 for the female runners. As the authors suggested, perhaps having a male researcher constantly telling women to smile in an unknown environment might have made them uncomfortable, leading to non-Duchene smiles, which would not have the same result int terms of the relaxation that smiling could produce.
The bottom line? When it gets tough, start smiling. Chances are it can reduce your perception of effort and allow you to sustain that harder pace a bit longer. If you don’t remember, not that long ago, Eliud Kipchoge was caught smiling in the last stages of his attempt to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. I’m not sure if he was just enjoying himself too much, or if he already knew something research is starting to catch up on. What I do know is that when something this simple can have benefits, it is hard to ignore. Next time you go for a run, stop trying to distract your mind and focus on your mouth. Well, more specifically, your mouth, cheeks and eyes. Maybe play a stand-up comedy from your favorite comedian instead of your usual playlist. Whatever works to get a smile on your face. A big, genuine, real one.
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If you want to know more about it, check these papers:
Brick, N. E., McElhinney, M. J., & Metcalfe, R. (2018). The effects of facial expression and relaxation cues on movement economy, physiological, and perceptual responses during running. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 34: 20-28.
McCormick, A., Meijen, C., & Marcora, S. (2015). Psychological determinants of whole-body endurance performance. Sports Med, 45: 997 - 1015.
Midgley, A. W., McNaughton, L. R., & Jones, A. M. Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance. Sports Med, 37: 857 - 880.