Smiling is a fundamental reflex that fires up the brain with a cascade of feel-good chemicals that can change even the crustiest mood. Often, it’s an unconscious response, but what happens when we’re more mindful and aware of smiling, even if that means “faking it” until it turns into the real deal?
As it turns out, that could be your secret weapon for boosting your running performance — even if you’ve hated slogging through the miles before.
Researchers at Ulster University in Northern Ireland undertook a small study with 24 runners, asking them to complete four runs of about 6 minutes each. They were asked to use different strategies for each run: smiling, frowning, consciously relaxing their hands and upper body or with their usual attention and expression.
Cardiorespiratory responses were recorded, along with perceived effort, oxygen consumption, heart rate and other health markers.
“As peculiar as it might seem, many top athletes, including Olympic gold medalists, strategically use periodic smiling during performance to relax and cope.”
Although smiling didn’t change their heart rate, smiling made a difference when it came to how much oxygen they consumed and how they perceived the running effort. Basically, they found running easier while smiling and harder while frowning.
“As peculiar as it might seem, many top athletes, including Olympic gold medalists, strategically use periodic smiling during performance to relax and cope,” says the study’s lead researcher Noel Brick, PhD, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Ulster University.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN
Although the Ulster study was limited in scope, there has been other research over the past couple decades highlighting how effective smiling can be when it comes to changing what’s happening in the brain.
Smiling activates the release of hormones — like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — which not only act as natural painkillers (a nice bonus when you’re in the midst of a long run), but also causes an overall feeling of wellness.
THE POWER OF POSITIVITY
Apart from smiling, any strategy that changes how you perceive exercise — or nutrition — tends to have a positive effect. For example, one study found psychological skills training that included imagery, self-talk and goal setting improved endurance performance for athletes.
Another study noted that trying to remain positive can lead to reinforcing behavior like regular exercise, avoiding tobacco use and moderating alcohol consumption, in addition to other healthy habits. The study noted that optimism can even predict lower coronary heart disease risk, and help your body use antioxidants more effectively.
CAN YOU FAKE IT?
Why would smiling itself play such a big part in how runners perceive effort, and the amount of energy they use for exercise? Dr. Brick says smiling — even when it’s forced — is a signal to the brain to relax, and the more relaxation you can cultivate when running, the more endurance and pleasure you tend to have.
Further work needs to be done, he says, to understand how long you’d need to put on a happy face to get the benefits, but for now, he suggests giving it a try.
“Our recommendation is to pay some attention to your facial expression, and to smile as much as you can during your run or during any exercise,” says Brick. “Even when the miles seem grueling, try to focus on pleasant memories, say hello to people as you run past or even give a small smile to yourself when you complete each mile.”