SMIL­ING COULD IM­PROVE YOUR RUN­NING EN­DURANCE

Smil­ing Could Im­prove Your Run­ning En­durance

In Flight Magazine - - IN THIS ISSUE - { TEXT: NOEL BRICK: LEC­TURER IN SPORT AND EX­ER­CISE PSY­CHOL­OGY, UL­STER UNI­VER­SITY, & RICHARD MET­CALFE: LEC­TURER IN SPORT AND EX­ER­CISE SCI­ENCE, SWANSEA UNI­VER­SITY / WWW.THECONVERSATION.COM | IMAGES © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM }

FOR ATH­LETES OF ALL LEV­ELS, EN­DURANCE – HOW LONG THEY CAN KEEP GO­ING AT THEIR CHO­SEN SPORT – IS MADE UP OF BOTH PHYS­I­O­LOG­I­CAL AND PSY­CHO­LOG­I­CAL FAC­TORS. PHYS­I­O­LOG­I­CAL FAC­TORS IN­CLUDE CAR­DIO­VAS­CU­LAR FIT­NESS, AND HOW EF­FI­CIENT AN ATH­LETE IS AT US­ING EN­ERGY, IN OTHER WORDS THEIR “MOVE­MENT ECON­OMY”. A CRIT­I­CAL PSY­CHO­LOG­I­CAL FAC­TOR, ON THE OTHER HAND, IS PER­CEIVED EF­FORT, OR HOW HARD WE FEEL WE ARE WORK­ING DUR­ING AN AC­TIV­ITY. THE LOWER OUR PER­CEIVED EF­FORT, THE EAS­IER WE FEEL THAT AN AC­TIV­ITY IS.

Cru­cially, any strat­egy that re­duces how much an ath­lete per­ceives it to be an ef­fort gen­er­ally has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on en­durance per­for­mance. One of the more sur­pris­ing ap­proaches could be to de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­late one’s fa­cial ex­pres­sion. As pe­cu­liar as it may seem, many top ath­letes, in­clud­ing Olympic marathon gold medal­list Eliud Kip­choge, strate­gi­cally use pe­ri­odic smil­ing dur­ing per­for­mance to re­lax and cope.

In ad­di­tion, re­search has also sug­gested that in com­par­i­son with frown­ing, in­ten­tional smil­ing may re­duce ef­fort per­cep­tion dur­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. How­ever, un­til we be­gan our lat­est in­ves­ti­ga­tion, no study had looked into the ac­tual ef­fects of fa­cial ex­pres­sions on move­ment econ­omy or per­ceived ef­fort dur­ing en­durance ac­tiv­ity that has a longer du­ra­tion.

RUN­NER RE­SEARCH

We asked 24 club-level run­ners to com­plete four sixminute run­ning blocks on a tread­mill. Each six-minute run was per­formed dur­ing a sin­gle ses­sion, with a two-minute rest be­tween each bout. Dur­ing each run, par­tic­i­pants ei­ther smiled (specif­i­cally a real or “Duchenne” smile, and not a fake smile), frowned (run­ners mim­icked their own fa­cial ex­pres­sion dur­ing in­tense run­ning), at­tempted to con­sciously re­lax their hands and up­per body (by imag­in­ing they were hold­ing a potato chip but try­ing not to break it), or adopted their nor­mal fo­cus of at­ten­tion dur­ing run­ning.

Each par­tic­i­pant also wore a breath­ing mask that al­lowed us to mea­sure how much oxy­gen they con­sumed while run­ning. By

mea­sur­ing the oxy­gen, we could work out how much en­ergy the run­ner had used. Af­ter each run, we asked par­tic­i­pants to re­port on a num­ber of per­cep­tual re­sponses, in­clud­ing their per­ceived ef­fort dur­ing the pre­ced­ing six min­utes.

Our key find­ing was that par­tic­i­pants were most eco­nom­i­cal – in other words they used less en­ergy – while smil­ing. Re­mark­ably, par­tic­i­pants were 2.8 % more eco­nom­i­cal when smil­ing rather than frown­ing, and 2.2 % more eco­nom­i­cal in com­par­i­son with the nor­mal thoughts con­di­tion. Th­ese re­duc­tions would be enough to ex­pect a mean­ing­ful im­prove­ment in per­for­mance in race con­di­tions.

Par­tic­i­pants also re­ported a higher per­ceived ef­fort when frown­ing rather than smil­ing, or when at­tempt­ing to re­lax their hands and up­per body.

Col­lec­tively, th­ese re­sults sug­gest that smil­ing may be a ben­e­fi­cial strat­egy to im­prove run­ning econ­omy, and to re­duce per­cep­tion of ef­fort in com­par­i­son with frown­ing. In con­trast, not only does frown­ing re­flect ef­fort dur­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, but may ac­tu­ally, in turn, in­crease our per­cep­tion of ef­fort.

But why ex­actly did fa­cial ex­pres­sion im­pact the run­ners’ econ­omy and per­ceived ef­fort? In­ter­est­ingly, our find­ings are sup­ported by the con­cept of em­bod­ied emo­tion – the idea that adopt­ing a fa­cial ex­pres­sion can in­flu­ence how emo­tions are ex­pe­ri­enced.

We also know that re­lax­ation strate­gies can im­prove run­ning econ­omy. So smil­ing may in­crease re­lax­ation among run­ners, while frown­ing may in­crease ten­sion. More de­lib­er­ate re­lax­ation tech­niques may need some prac­tice to be ef­fec­tive, how­ever, per­haps ex­plain­ing why the con­scious re­lax­ation cues did not im­prove run­ning econ­omy in our study.

IM­PROV­ING YOUR PER­FOR­MANCE

So what are the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of this study? And how can you use this re­search to im­prove your own run­ning per­for­mance? One im­pli­ca­tion is that smil­ing may be a use­ful strat­egy to im­prove econ­omy and to make you feel more re­laxed dur­ing run­ning. In con­trast, frown­ing may in­crease ten­sion and make your run feel harder.

There are many ques­tions we still need to an­swer, how­ever. Firstly, how long should you smile for? Like Kip­choge, are pe­ri­odic 30-sec­ond bouts of smil­ing suf­fi­cient, or do we need to smile con­tin­u­ously like the run­ners in our study did? Se­condly, does smil­ing also work dur­ing other en­durance ac­tiv­i­ties, like cy­cling or row­ing? Fi­nally, can a sim­ple re­lax­ation cue – to imag­ine del­i­cately hold­ing a chip be­tween your fin­gers – im­prove run­ning econ­omy with prac­tice?

A longer train­ing study might an­swer th­ese ques­tions but, for now, our rec­om­men­da­tion is to pay some at­ten­tion to your fa­cial ex­pres­sion and to smile as much as you can dur­ing your run. Even when the miles seem gru­elling, try to fo­cus on pleas­ant mem­o­ries, beam and say hello to peo­ple as you run past, grin at cam­eras on the side­lines – or even a small smile to your­self when you com­plete each mile will work too.

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