Most ultra-run­ners have resigned them­selves to the fact that there are no short­cuts in this endur­ance sport. The quick­est route to get­ting faster, stronger and more effi­cient is to put the hard work in. But what if there were legit­im­ate gains to be made not out on the trails, in the kit­chen, or at the gym… but simply by chan­ging your facial expres­sion dur­ing train­ing or a race? It has long been known that activ­at­ing the facial muscles used to express pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive emo­tions can amp­li­fy how strongly those emo­tions are felt (stick a pen­cil between your teeth when watch­ing a com­edy show and you’ll find it 10% fun­ni­er). This is called the “facial feed­back” hypo­thes­is and it states that just as emo­tions trig­ger phys­ic­al responses, phys­ic­al expres­sions (such as a smile or a frown) can in turn enhance or even cre­ate cor­res­pond­ing emo­tions. The intriguing ques­tion for ath­letes then is, does this the­ory also apply to the effort of exer­cise? Although grit­ting your teeth might seem the most sto­ic (and Brit­ish) way to endure a phys­ic­ally demand­ing task, sci­ence sug­gests that if you want to go quick­er for longer, you’re much bet­ter off turn­ing that frown upside down. Renowned exer­cise physiolo­gist Samuele Marcora recor­ded facial muscle activ­ity with EMG elec­trodes and found a strong link between increased per­cep­tion of effort and the activ­a­tion of frown­ing muscles dur­ing heavy exer­cise. Since then, fur­ther research has con­firmed the oppos­ite: adopt­ing pos­it­ive facial expres­sions can have an ameli­or­at­ing effect on repor­ted effort levels.
This might come as no sur­prise if you’ve ever watched cur­rent mara­thon world record hold­er Eli­ud Kipchoge run­ning — he more often than not has a broad grin on his face, even when blis­ter­ing around a big city mara­thon at 2:52/km. Rather than simply exhib­it­ing his joy for the sport, Kipcho­ge’s incess­ant grin­ning is a race strategy he adopts to help him “relax and work through the pain.” It’s there­fore no coin­cid­ence that you’ll often hear coaches telling their ath­letes to “relax their face” or “unclench their jaw” down at your loc­al track. Inter­est­ingly, the per­form­ance enhan­cing effect of facial expres­sions can even work sub­lim­in­ally. Dur­ing a time-to-exhaus­tion tri­al con­duc­ted at Bangor Uni­ver­sity in Wales, par­ti­cipants cycled for longer and at a lower per­ceived effort level when a screen in front of them peri­od­ic­ally flashed happy faces as opposed to when the screen flashed sad faces — even though the faces were shown for an imper­cept­ible 16-mil­li­second burst (about twenty times short­er than a typ­ic­al blink). So, if you’re look­ing for a way to improve without fur­ther increas­ing your weekly mileage (and let’s face it, who isn’t), smile, and take in the smil­ing faces of your sup­port­ers, volun­teers or crowd. It may well make oth­ers smile in turn, might bag you a new pic­ture for the gram, and should reduce your per­cep­tion of effort to the tune of a 2.8 per­form­ance bene­fit. This is great news for ultra-run­ners. As the dis­tance increases, 2.8 per­cent has an incre­ment­ally lar­ger effect on time and although the clock is less import­ant in a multistage ultra, fin­ish­ing your 250km week an hour earli­er than your frown­ing com­pet­it­ors is surely some­thing worth smil­ing about.