Written By Chris Taylor
Chris is an ultra runner and adventuer. His interests include (and are limited to): ultra running, plant-based foods to eat whilst ultra running, and ultra running with dogs.
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 multi-stage ultra, finishing your 250km week an hour earlier than your frowning competitors is surely something worth smiling about.
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