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Endurance: How smiling improves exercise performance

Posted by Tim Heming - 33Fuel on

If we’re smiling when running it not only shows that we’re enjoying ourselves, it could also help us perform better

In a recent post on training motivation, 33Fuel co-founder Warren melded a quote from Irish endurance legend Gerry Duffy - “You don’t have to train, you get to train” - with the Latin phrase ‘memento mori’, which means ‘remember, you’re going to die’.

The suggestion was we should stay relish our sport, because one day we won’t be able to take part at all.

Today, we’re moving it on another step.

Not only should you embrace training and racing because life is short, but research shows that by competing with a broad grin on your chops, it could actually improve your performance too.

Smiling and exercise performance - the evidence is out there

Journalist and no mean runner himself, Alex Hutchinson, explores what determines our endurance potential in his book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

As well as examining some of the superhuman feats surrounding everything from oxygen deprivation to extreme dehydration and inhumane temperatures, he also looks into the scientific research around what happens when you simply adopt a positive mindset during exercise.

Smiling and exercise performance 1

Smiling can improve endurance. Consuming fizzy snakes, less so

In one study a group of 18 trained cyclists were tested by Stephen Cheung, a physiologist at Brock University in Canada, with half receiving a fortnight of ‘self-talk’ motivation to suppress negativity.

Those given the positive messaging improved their ability to tolerate higher core body temperatures when compared to the control group.

In another experiment, Samuele Marcora, a research professor at the University of Kent, asked 13 volunteers to pedal to exhaustion on static bikes. In this one a screen flashed images of happy or sad faces in imperceptible 16-millisecond bursts at the cyclists as they went for it.

Guess what?

Those shown happy faces cycled, on average, three minutes longer.

Smiling and exercise performance - real world smiling

Trials in the lab can never completely replicate what happens during a race, so for that lets turn to some first-hand experience from an athlete who has endured arguably better than any other - 33Fuel ambassador and 4 x World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington.

Smiling and exercise performance Chrissie Wellington

4 x World Ironman Champ Chrissie Wellington is a legendary smiler (and a big 33Fuel fan)

Chrissie was renowned for smiling her way through fierce Ironman competition.

Right through her standout record of 13 Ironman races, 13 wins, and even on her final World Championship outing in Hawaii where she won her fourth and final title complete with road rash and muscle damage sustained in a bike crash just days before the race - she kept a smile on her face.

“It does actually give me a boost to smile,” she says.

“Although, there was a definite case of faking it a bit that day [in Kona]. I was worried, I was in pain, and scared I wasn’t going to win, but needed to mask it, both for myself and also to try to convey the impression of not hurting to my competitors.

“I don’t want it to seem that my smile was disingenuous though, I think it was a powerful weapon in my armoury.”

You may be thinking, ‘of course, she was smiling - she was always winning!’ but that would be over-simplifying this simple, yet deceptively powerful mental weapon.

Smiling and exercise performance 2

Say cheese - smile if you wanna go faster

We need to look no further than some of Chrissie’s competitors, fellow female Ironman athletes to see the ones racing with smiles are the ones excelling.

Take England’s multiple winner Lucy Gossage, who combines her racing with a career as a cancer doctor, or Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby, who has an omnipresent grin and is constantly chattering with positive vibes (while also going bloody fast!).

Smiling and exercise performance - make it work for you

Consider your training partners, club mates and race rivals - is it the happier ones, who seem the relish the discomfort, who have the ability to endure for longer?

You can even reflect on your own performances and recall what you were thinking about in those moments when it all went right - and, if not too painful - when it all went wrong. What was the mental self-talk, were you smiling or gritting through, deep in the pain cave?

I’d be willing to bet, you’ll find a strong correlation between better performance and how happy you were in the moment. Try out smiling next time you’re gritting through the hard stuff in a race or training session and let us know how you get on!

Smiling and exercise performance 33shake chia energy gel

Keep your nutrition smiling too, no matter how tough your race gets, with 33Fuel’s Chia Energy Gels - uniquely formulated with just four natural wholefood ingredients for powerful, stable energy with delicious taste and zero stomach trouble.


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