Fake-it-till-you-make-it has long been an effective strategy for those of us slogging our way through a difficult job or new hobby. Want to do yoga? Just pretend your way into a better downward dog. Want to be an insta-worthy chef? Whisk those ingredients like your last quiche did *not* come out of the oven a burnt puddle of yolk. Recently, this MO has increasingly taken hold in the running community, with one piece of advice: smile.
The idea is simple. If you grin a little while logging miles -- even painful, miserable, or desperately hungover miles -- you may trick your brain into thinking it’s having a good time. That’s because, researchers say, humans don’t just smile when we feel good… we also feel good when we smile. In other words, act like you’re having a fun, easy workout, and that workout will actually feel more fun and easy. A number of past studies -- going back to the days of Charles Darwin -- indicate that perception of effort has a much bigger impact on our ability to succeed than effort itself.
But until this past fall, smiling was just that -- a psychological trick for runners looking to get an edge -- ie, something to make a performance feel easier. But can smiling actually make a run physically easier? That’s the question researchers from Swansea University in Wales as well as Ulster University in Northern Ireland sought to answer this past fall. In the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, they published a study determining that smiling improves running economy, or the amount of oxygen it takes to supply one’s muscles, by about two percent. (Think of good running economy like good fuel economy for a car -- the less energy it takes to move the vehicle, the better.) Two percent might not sound like a whole lot, but it’s the equivalent of weeks of plyometrics training.
The caveat? Only genuine smiling really does the trick. A fake, toothy grin -- or a smiley tee-shirt a la Forrest Gump -- isn’t going to cut it. So if you can’t sustain a sincere smile for too long, experts say, you might do better alternating 30 seconds of real smiling with 30 seconds of not.Or, as little orphan Annie would say: You’re never fully dressed without a smile… at least part-time.