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Sit at a bar with a few outspoken professional runners, and you will hear stories about which unsavory characters are using what new performance-enhancing wonder drugs. In between swigs of beet juice and tonic, you may even get a little sad. Then, if you are lucky, through a solemn silence in the doping discussion, someone will make a delightful fart joke. And you’ll laugh.
Here’s the cool part, though: that laugh may be one of the strongest performance enhancers of all.
For years, sports psychologists and coaches have espoused the positive effects of positivity—and research has accumulated to back up the claim. In one study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, cyclists who were told they were performing five percent better than they actually were rode faster than those who were told they were going five percent slower.
Similarly, a 2006 study in the British Journal of Arts and Social Sciences found that happiness was a significant factor when predicting optimal performance in individual sports like running.
In other words, if you approach training as a purely physical endeavor, you may not be fulfilling your potential. So here are three simple ways to bring more joy to your trail runs, which I’ve picked up from the athletes I coach and my own experience.
1. Smile Every Mile—Literally
We’ve all heard the dismissive taunt, “You never see a jogger smiling.”
Aside from the obvious initial response that runs through my head (“Muppet-flubber you!”), I always let the joker know that they aren’t looking at the right runners. Stoic pavement pounders who run out of a sense of duty may not be smiling, but trail runners smile plenty, at least internally.
Smiling may be easiest at the finish line, but mid-race positivity can help you get there. Photo by Richard Bolt
Still, even on the most epic trail, it’s possible to get mired in negativity. Make a conscious effort to grin from ear to ear now and then; whatever narrative is cavorting through your cerebellum, it is hard to be negative when you’re grinning like a lunatic. And lactic acid seems to burn less when you have the good juju flowing.
One athlete I coach forces a five-second smile every time her Garmin beeps out another mile—possibly thinking about something joyous, or possibly just stretching her clenched jaw. Either way, she finds the act of smiling can release positive energy that seems to propel her forward physically. And at worst, she gets to make that muppet-flubber look like a misinformed apple-hole.
2. Laugh when going downhill
There are few times in everyday life when you have the opportunity to feel like a kid. Yes, you could hop on a moonbounce at a birthday party, but when your ill-timed jump launches little Johnny into space, the other adults in the room might not be so amused.
Fortunately, we trail runners have a different outlet for childlike glee—downhill running. Most of my moments of transcendence have come on twisty downhill singletrack, and many runners tell me similar stories. Have you ever yelped in joy while careening down a trail? Then you know what I’m talking about.
There’s a trail runner that knows the importance of happiness. Photo by David Roche
Next time you are going downhill, try letting out a small laugh, a wee chuckle or a micro-guffaw, and notice what happens. You may feel a little happy chill down your spine. You may remember why you love trail running. You may feel like an idiot. No matter what, adding a little laugh every now and then makes life and running way better.
3. Say “Hi” and “Thank You”
For most runners, a major performance limiter is the brain. The brain can tell us not to get out the door, it can tell us to stop when it hurts and it can tell us that the time-value of pancakes outweighs the importance of running two more miles.
With the possible exception of pancake cravings, the brain’s influence can be harnessed and limited rather than succumbed to willingly. A primary way to do that is to escape the confines of your skull and engage vigorously with the outside world.
It’s hard not to stay positive when the scenery is this good. Photo courtesy of XTERRA
Group runs do this for many runners. But, if you are a solo runner like me, taking joy in the world around you can have similar positive effects. My primary rule regards racing: Thank every single volunteer. But the principle extends to training runs as well: Give everyone you see a positive glance, even if you don’t interact formally. Opening up to the world and engaging positively can help diminish the negative thoughts of a self-focused brain.
The psychology of running is far too important and complex for us to confine training strategies to physical approaches. Science proves that happiness works. The key is to get happiness to work for you. At the very least, you will bring a healthy sprinkling of joy into the world.