I was listening to an audio book on peak performance for athletes and it mentioned a study from Noel Brick at the University of Ulster titled: ‘Smiling makes you a more efficient runner’.
I was intrigued by this so decided to do two things. Look more into the study and test it out.
The idea for this study seemingly came about after Eliud Kipchoge’s, Breaking2 marathon effort. If you watched the race, it wasn’t hard to notice the bright, seemingly cheerful smile spreading across Eliud Kipchoge’s face every few minutes. Is he just a happy go lucky guy or was this smiling a deliberate plan?
After the race was over it was later revealed that Kipchoge’s smiles were a deliberate tactic to relax and work through the escalating pain. But did it make a difference?
The study by the Brick and his team had 24 runners complete a series of four six-minute runs and measured their running economy (an efficiency metric based on how much oxygen you consume at a given pace), as well as perceptual outcomes, like effort. During the runs, the volunteers were instructed to smile, frown, relax their hands and upper body (by imagining, for example, that they were carrying crisps between their thumb and forefingers without breaking them), or just think their usual thoughts.
The results more or less supported the benefits of smiling. Running economy was a little more than two per-cent better when smiling; an improvement that’s comparable to what you see in studies of weeks or months of plyometric or heavy weight training.
It seems that if you are going to adopt this technique, you really have to go for it. The study found the effectiveness of smiling when running may depend on producing a “real” smile—or, as it’s referred to in the literature, a “Duchenne smile,” which involves “symmetrical activation of the zygomaticus major and activation of the orbicularis oculi muscles”. In layman’s terms, that means smiling with the eyes and cheeks as well as the mouth, which is what the volunteers were instructed to do.
That’s easier said than done, especially if your clocking up the miles. A better approach may be to emulate what Kipchoge did. In the later stages of the race he was seen holding the smile for about 30 seconds at a time. Of course, producing any sort of smile in the final miles of a marathon can be a daunting challenge.
By the time Kipchoge finally started to drift off the two-hour pace late in the Breaking2 race, his smiles weren’t just looking as bright, and understandably so.
Still, the idea that you can improve running economy simply by smiling is remarkable. The most likely explanation is that smiling primes a more relaxed emotional state, in turn reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, which can influence heart rate and muscle tension, allowing you to run more efficiently. There’s lots more research needed to confirm this idea, but for now, it’s a pretty low-risk intervention to try, which is what I did.
fun on the run
I set off one cold wet evening and about a mile into my run I started to smile. I did notice two things. First of all, my running pace got quicker and I just felt happier, even in very unpleasant conditions. I must admit in the later stages of my run the smile was slowly disappearing and thoughts turned to ‘just get me home’.
Writing this article brought back memories of the longest running event I ever did in my life which was a 39.3miles Ultra Marathon. What sprung to mind was the amount of times I laughed and smiled during that race.
I went into the event with no expectations of a specific completion time; all I wanted to do was enjoy something that I trained hard for. Along the way myself and running partner, Ryan, laughed, joked, smiled and even had some interesting conversations with fellow runners as we clocked up the miles.
There were one or two points where we needed a lift and it was provided by my family, who to our surprise drove around the course and cheered us on. The next few miles were a smile frenzy and seemed easier after seeing them wave their banners and cheer us on.
Finally getting to the final two-mile marker I remember having a huge smile on my face and it stayed with me the whole way until and after I crossed the finish line.