CAN SMIL­ING MAKE YOU A BET­TER RUN­NER?

THE SCI­ENCE BE­HIND HOW TRAIN­ING YOUR FA­CIAL MUS­CLES CAN IM­PACT YOUR RESULTS.

Runner's World South Africa - - FRONT PAGE - BY STAV DIMITROPOULOS

LLAST YEAR, TOP-RANKED marathon run­ner Eliud Kip­choge ran 42.2 kilo­me­tres in just two hours and 25 sec­onds in Monza, Italy, as part of Nike’s Break­ing2 project. His time, al­though not record-el­i­gi­ble, is the fastest marathon time ever recorded, and the ef­fort re­quired to clock it was un­doubt­edly gru­elling. Yet Kip­choge never let it show on his face. In fact, it ap­peared as if he was ac­tu­ally grin­ning at times. No, he was not try­ing to mock his com­peti­tors. Kip­choge was smil­ing – he later told re­porters – in or­der to re­lax and work through the pain, em­ploy­ing a strat­egy some run­ners have long be­lieved to be true: that smil­ing while run­ning can help you run more ef­fi­ciently.

Con­sid­er­ing the time and ef­fort we ded­i­cate to train­ing and fo­cus­ing on form, it’s hard to be­lieve that some­thing as sim­ple as a smirk could have that much of an ef­fect on our per­for­mance, but sci­ence backs it up. Stud­ies have shown that when we en­rich our work­out with a smile, we feel that the ef­fort

we put out – our per­ceived ef­fort – is far less than the ef­fort we ex­ert when we frown while ex­er­cis­ing. But no re­search had se­ri­ously looked into the ef­fects of ma­nip­u­lat­ing our fa­cial ex­pres­sions by smil­ing or frown­ing on our run­ning econ­omy or per­ceived ef­fort while run­ning – that is, un­til now.

Re­searchers at Ul­ster Uni­ver­sity in North­ern Ire­land and Swansea Uni­ver­sity in Wales asked a group of 24 run­ners to wear a breath­ing mask to mea­sure oxy­gen con­sump­tion and then com­plete four sixminute run­ning blocks on a tread­mill – while smil­ing, and while frown­ing. The study, which was re­cently pub­lished in Psy­chol­ogy of Sport and Ex­er­cise, found that run­ners who smiled used less oxy­gen, ran more eco­nom­i­cally, and had a lower per­ceived rate of ex­er­tion than those who frowned and those in the con­trol group.

“They were 2.8 per cent more eco­nom­i­cal when smil­ing than when frown­ing,” says Noel Brick, PhD, lec­turer in sport and ex­er­cise psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ul­ster and co-au­thor of the study. The rea­son has to do with fa­cial feed­back. “When we make a fa­cial ex­pres­sion, we may ex­pe­ri­ence the emo­tional state we as­so­ciate with the ex­pres­sion,” Brick says. “We as­so­ciate smil­ing with hap­pi­ness or en­joy­ment, states that make us more re­laxed; so when we smile, we are con­sciously try­ing to re­lax. By adopt­ing the fa­cial ex­pres­sion of frown­ing, though, we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an emo­tional state of feel­ing tense or less re­laxed.”

While a 2.8 per cent im­prove­ment may sound in­con­se­quen­tial, it can trans­late to a roughly 2 per cent im­prove­ment in per­for­mance time, says Brick. That means if you run a marathon in 4:20 or 4:45 (the av­er­age marathon times for men and women, re­spec­tively), you’ll cross the fin­ish line about five min­utes faster; if you run a 10-K in 55 to 64 min­utes, you can shave a full minute off your race time. And if you’re clock­ing un­der 25 min­utes in a 5-K, just smil­ing can help you cover the same dis­tance 30 sec­onds faster, a mean­ing­ful re­sult for very lit­tle ef­fort. “Im­prove­ments in your run­ning econ­omy will be small ini­tially, but a re­laxed run­ner is an ef­fi­cient run­ner,” Brick adds.

This lit­tle trick be­comes es­pe­cially use­ful for run­ners who need to con­serve as much en­ergy as pos­si­ble over the course of a long-dis­tance run. “Run­ners tend to tense up when hold­ing higher paces specif­i­cally by tight­en­ing their jaw, which in turn can pre­vent the run­ner from ben­e­fit­ing from a nice, re­laxed, and open air­way,” says Meghan Takacs, a Road Run­ners Club of Amer­i­cac­er­ti­fied coach. “But when a run­ner is su­per­s­tiff, they will tire out a lot quicker.” Takacs says her ex­pe­ri­ence has shown her that smil­ing is key be­cause it brings on a pos­i­tive men­tal­ity, and run­ning is as much a men­tal game as it is a phys­i­cal one.

How gen­uine that smile is, it turns out, doesn’t even mat­ter. Dr Omar Sul­tan Haque, PhD, a psy­chi­a­trist and so­cial sci­en­tist at Har­vard Med­i­cal School who stud­ies how bi­o­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and so­cial forces in­ter­act in health and heal­ing, sug­gests you can fake it till you make it. “The con­cern about ‘fak­ing it’ has within it the as­sump­tion that emo­tions al­ways oc­cur be­fore fa­cial ex­pres­sions. But if the mus­cu­lar ex­pres­sion of smil­ing can in­flu­ence or even cause the feel­ing of re­lax­ation, then plan­ning to smile so that one feels re­laxed is no more fake than smil­ing as a re­sult of first feel­ing re­laxed.”

Takacs re­minds run­ners she works with to chill out: keep the mus­cles in their faces re­laxed, stop grit­ting their teeth, and smile. “Think of it like throw­ing your brain an en­dor­phin party when it needs it,” she says. “A smile in­stantly boosts pos­i­tiv­ity, re­laxes the body, and in turn, makes you more self-aware. And when it comes to run­ning, men­tal­ity and self-aware­ness take you a long way – lit­er­ally.”

Al­though this study is small, pre­vi­ously con­ducted re­search also sup­ports smil­ing to make ef­forts seem eas­ier. A study by the School of Sport, Health and Ex­er­cise Sciences at Ban­gor Uni­ver­sity in Wales found that the ac­ti­va­tion of smil­ing or frown­ing is a good pre­dic­tor of how hard an ef­fort is. So if a hard ef­fort makes you frown, then the op­po­site is also true: frown­ing makes an ef­fort feel harder, but smil­ing makes the ef­fort feel eas­ier.

In the end, mus­ter­ing a smile even when you don’t feel like it is just a mat­ter of train­ing, like cul­ti­vat­ing any other habit, and could even be eas­ier than push­ing your legs to run through a cramp, Haque says. He sug­gests sim­ply re­con­sid­er­ing our as­sump­tions about the one-way re­la­tion­ship be­tween feel­ing and smil­ing. In­stead of be­liev­ing we need to chan­nel an emo­tion like hap­pi­ness be­fore smil­ing, re­mem­ber that smil­ing it­self can cause an emo­tion or feel­ing, so no chan­nel­ing is needed, as the fa­cial feed­back hy­poth­e­sis holds.

Be­sides, there’s not much to lose by giv­ing grin­ning a shot. If noth­ing else, at least you’ll end up with bet­ter race photos.

THINK OF IT LIKE THROW­ING YOUR BRAIN AN EN­DOR­PHIN PARTY WHEN IT NEEDS IT.

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