Beat The Frown: how smiling improves performance

“Your race photos are ready for viewing”. It’s the line in the email from the race event photographer that grabs us every time. Click. The webpage opens up and …? We look terrible in every photo! Ugh, we don’t need the reminder of the suffering we were feeling! Do we normally look like that while running or cycling? Well, the answer is yes, our facial expressions during an endurance event are typically composed of The Frown.

This week a new study was published that shows how smiling has significant impacts on our physical performance and gives us important clues for combatting The Frown. The benefits of smiling in everyday life are quite obvious. Being less grumpy is just a good recipe for a fulfilled life. But isn’t it another story when it comes to the suffering we feel on the bike or when we’re running? Why would our facial expression have a direct impact on how we performa?

Noel Brick and colleagues at Ulster University had 24 trainer runners consciously alter their facial expressions during running tasks in order to assess the impact of smiling, frowning and consciously reminding oneself to relax. The results?

1. Oxygen consumption was lower during smiling than frowning
2. Most of the runners were more economical in their movements
3. Perceived effort was higher during frowning than smiling

In plain words, this means that choosing to smile periodically while you are running (and we would argue during cycling too) will make you perform better. Less oxygen required by the muscles, better economical movement and reduced perception of effort will combine to help you be faster and enjoy it a lot more.

The problem is that The Frown creeps up on us and sneakily reduces our performance. So how do we get into the practice of smiling more often? Attach a mirror to our handlebars? Well no, not quite. Besides making sure you run or ride with a comedian alongside you, the easiest way is to attach a sticker to your handlebar with the word “Smile!” (Why not add an emoji too?) or tipex the word onto the top of your shoes – The Frown tends to make our heads hang, so you’ll be reminded at the right moment.

Smile away 😉

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