Smiling Might Be the Easiest Way You Can Become a Better Runner Right Now

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I’m all about easy fixes that promise to make me a better runner. Sometimes they work, like when I finally decided to wear prescription sunglasses during workouts instead of going at it blind. Sometimes, not so much, like when my colleague at an old job received a sinister, black headphone-looking device meant to shock your brain for increased focus and pain tolerance. It just gave me a headache.

I know, I know—the only real way to speed up is through extensive training and proper recovery. But I’ve tasted too many weird concoctions promising to reduce soreness or boost energy and slept with too many monitors promising better rest (well, really just one. But it used sensors all night to track my movements. So, too many) to not be excited about a new study, reported by Outside’s Alex Hutchinson.

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Want to improve your running economy (essentially, how efficiently your body consumes oxygen) by as much as two percent? Smile while you run.

According to the study, published this September in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise, researchers from Ulster University in Ireland tested the grinning theory with 24 trained runners. They each completed six-minute treadmill sessions at 70 percent of their V02 max (a hard, but not all-out effort) four times. On one block they frowned, another they focused on relaxing their hands and upper body, another they ran normally, and yet another, they smiled. Each did the session in a randomized order.

Fourteen of the participants saw the most improvement in running economy while smiling—up to two percent. That may not seem like much, but it can mean seconds or even minutes slashed off your time during a marathon.

To put the number in perspective, over the past few years Nike has spent millions of dollars developing a $250 shoe, which promises four percent improvement in running economy. So, getting half that that for free seems like a pretty good deal to me. According to Hutchinson, it’s roughly equal to the improvement you would get after spending months doing plyometrics and lifting weights.

Of course, there are some caveats: The placebo effect being one, and according to Hutchinson, even the gender and attractiveness of the researcher being another.

Still, grinning seems effective enough that—whilst pouring cash into the development of the Vaporfly 4%—Nike took notice. During his attempt to break two hours in the marathon earlier this year as part of the shoe conglomerate’s Breaking2 project, Eliud Kipchoge used frequent smiling as a technique to relax, according to reporting by Wired’s Ed Caesar.  

If it is good enough for one of the fastest endurance runners in history, and means I don’t even have to spend more time in the gym to see improvements, expect me to grin as wide as I can on my next long run.

It’s a quick fix worth smiling about.