“When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to not feel your legs.” – Eliud Kipchoge
There he was, the first man ever to run a marathon under 2-hours, smiling the whole way. The crowd lining the streets roared as Eliud Kipchoge achieved what was once thought to be impossible.
After such an accomplishment, who wouldn’t be smiling? But there is more to Kipchoge’s smile than just the joy of success. There is a convincing argument that your facial expression can have a significant effect on your performance. Perhaps the stoic expression adopted by many professional cyclists isn’t just a “poker face” designed to trick the competition. Maybe adopting a calm expression while exercising can actually make you faster.
The idea that facial expressions can change the way you feel has been around for a long time. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin proposed that a facial expression can intensify your feelings, whereas suppression of a facial expression will lessen your emotions. This idea was dubbed the “Facial-Feedback Hypothesis (FFH).” The basis of this hypothesis is that your facial expression plays a causal role in how you experience emotions.
There are several different sub-categories of the FFH, but the one that has gained the most traction is the modulation theory, which supposes that our expressions can either amplify or suppress our feelings.
The FFH is an exciting prospect for athletes. Can we truly change the way we feel simply by changing our facial expression? It would certainly seem so. From the mid-1900s to the present day, multitudes of studies have affirmed the FFH.
As most athletes know, going hard hurts. For endurance athletes, it’s often those who can dig the deepest and push past their “comfort zone” that are the most successful. Physiologically, studies have shown that there is a close link to the mood of an athlete and biological markers.
Review of literature has shown a close link in the onset of blood lactate accumulation and a decrease in positive affect. In other words, when an athlete begins to push over their lactate threshold, their mood becomes more “negative.” It is at this point that your mind begins a negotiation process. You must decide how badly you want it. Is the reward at the end of the session worth the pain that you are going through? If your motivation exceeds your perceived pain, then you will be able to continue. If your pain is stronger than your mind, you will give into the pain and let off the pace.
What does this have to do with your face? In short, if we can decrease the amount of pain that you perceive, you will be more likely to win this “mind-battle” and push past your limits.
Fascinatingly, your smile does not have to be genuine to elicit a response from your body. A study in the 1980s had participants hold a pen in their mouth, either with their teeth or their lips while watching a series of cartoons.
By holding a pen in the teeth, the muscles used to make a smile were contracted. When held in the lips, the smile muscles were inhibited. Participants were not informed of the purpose of the study. The results showed that the participants who held a pen with their teeth found the cartoons to be much funnier than those who held the pen with their lips. Simply by contracting the muscles used in a smile, the participants’ mood was improved.
This same concept applies while exercising. A 2012 study showed that participants had significantly lower perceived exertion while cycling while smiling than while frowning. The participants also reported a more positive mood while smiling.
Your face doesn’t just change your mindset. When contracting muscles associated with a frown, researchers have found a drastic increase in heart rate. It is thought that contracting these muscles can signal a stress response in your body in a similar way that your heart rate would increase if you were angry or anxious. It is hypothesized that by frowning, you are practically telling your body that you are under distress, even if you are in a calm emotional state. By smiling or maintaining a calm expression, you can essentially tell your body that you are not in difficulty.
Perhaps you’ve never thought of your facial expression as a means of enhancing performance. However, by being mindful of body language, you can modulate your experience. Hard efforts will feel easier and you will be able to push the pain barrier a little bit further. Maintaining a calm or happy expression while under distress can help you to channel the positive emotions, and suppress the negative.
Most athletes want to find every way they can to improve their performance. While being mindful of your facial expression will not make you a world champion overnight, it is an easy (and free) modification that can certainly improve your performance.
The next time you are out training, think about your facial expression. During an interval, do you tend to grimace? Try maintaining a calm facial expression or even a small smile and see if it makes a difference. Most athletes notice when they do this they realize that they are not hurting as much as they thought!