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Free Speed: How smiling makes us faster runners, and better humans

Free Speed: How smiling makes us faster runners, and better humans

A discussion on how smiling makes us faster runners, and better humans.

You often hear elite team or individual coaches and athletes talk about focusing on the one percenters in terms of looking for any small gains in performance. With unlimited resources and access to laboratory and controlled testing and specialists in biomechanics and so on, this can be quite expensive and precise, which is not too practical or cost effective for the weekend warrior looking to run a PB or just improve overall efficiency.

The most common default in any activity tends to be looking to ‘buy speed’. In triathlon or cycling, it’s superbikes, disc wheels, aero helmets and skin suits, many of which make considerable differences but can easily creep into ten thousand dollars plus. In running, we’re naturally more limited in terms of technology, with shoes, and more specifically ‘super shoes’ being the current trend following Nike’s initial releases and now most brands have their carbon plated versions. Published testing, both internal and independent has verified (for the sample groups) the Vaporfly 4%’s claim of being that much more efficient, which is huge!

If we consider a 3:30 marathoner, this is the equivalent of potentially shaving almost 10 minutes off the overall time, 10 minutes! Which for $300+ starts to make them look like not that bad value at all. Certainly, there are very few arguments against using whatever you can to run faster, other than a few traditionalists who lament the ‘simpler days’, but progress is progress in any sport. So what about if there was a way to run more efficiently, without any extra or specific training, and it was free? So what is the Next Next 2.8%?

Recently, on a long weekend run, I noticed that only about twenty five percent of other runners gave a wave, head nod or deliberate smile, and this was in atrocious weather conditions, the type of weather that automatically forms a bond with other crazy people running in lightning! I’ll cover the unwritten rules and courtesies another time but it occurred to me that smiling actually made me feel different when I was running.

It turns out, there’s actual science to this and studies have shown that both relaxing the facial muscles, and then smiling, either genuinely or as a deliberate effort actually increases running efficiency whilst frowning has the opposite effect. You’ve probably seen people grimacing in races before, which is pretty unavoidable at times but being able to smile while running or at a minimum relaxing the face, in the sample group, reduced the oxygen cost during vigorous running by 2.8% meaning they were more efficient, for free!

If we took our same 3:30 runner who’s now on target for a 3:20 with their super shoes, there’s a potential to save another 5 minutes off that time, hello 3:15! I would encourage everyone to try this and for me, smiling whilst running does make me feel better, whether there’s a performance gain I couldn’t say but if we feel better, that’s a positive in itself. It may be a placebo effect but I definitely feel faster when I’m happy and smiling so even if it has nil performance effect, you’ll also find out how contagious smiling is when you’re amongst other runners.

It almost sounds too easy, but for anyone interested, you can access the study here and of course, there are limitations, and other studies with more comprehensive sample sizes, but it’s food for thought and something which really doesn’t have any negative impacts no matter how you look at it.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice or treatment. Always check with your health professional before changing your diet, taking supplements, or starting a new exercise routine to ensure their suitability for your individual situation.

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