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Better Trail Running Through Science


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Whether you’re looking to run your first 100 miler or just want to hone your skills, science is a powerful tool to help each of us advance our goals. But it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, the staff at Run Amok has curated the plethora of recent studies, and added our own useful interpretations.

Let’s take the scientific method for a run.

RELATED: Ask the Coach: How Much Should I Hydrate During a Run?

1. Water Is Overrated

Approaching the finish of the California International Marathon, David Laney grabbed some water at the last aid station, swished it around in his mouth and spat it out. Laney had been reading Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curious Elastic Limits of Human Performance. In one study, participants had the joy of nasogastric tubes inserted into their nostrils. Some received water through the tubes, some drank it through their mouths, and a few lucky souls had it subsequently pumped out. (A control group wondered if $50 to take a nap with a tube up their noses was worth it.)

The results? Participants who got the pump treatment had the same performance benefits as those who got to keep their water. According to Dr. David Lipman, an exercise physiologist in Amsterdam, “The study suggests that one of the benefits of drinking is that it stimulates receptors in our mouth and throat, which reduce our sense of thirst.”

Run Amok conclusion: Water is for sissies.

Pro Tip: The next time you run, fill just one flask with one mouthful of water. It worked for Laney. He ran 2:17:02 that day. What’s your marathon time?

2. Fake It Till You Make It

Thanks to researchers at Northern Ireland’s Ulster University, we now know that smiling while trail running can improve results and lower perceived exertion. It worked for Eliud Kipchoge, who smiled intentionally every few minutes as he cruised to a new marathon record in Berlin in September.

The study has caveats. Women didn’t see quite the same benefits as men. (One hypothesis: a guy claiming to be a scientist paying you to smile feels like it could end with a call to 911.)

Still, let’s take the study at face value.

Run Amok Conclusion: Grin ear to ear when you run. Even if you don’t enjoy the same results as Kipchoge, your competitors will give you space, and you might finally get a race photo that doesn’t suggest you’ve got a hunting knife between your shoulder blades. 

Pro Tip: Guys, in particular, remember to stop grinning when your run is over. (See 911 call, above.)

RELATED: Should You Strength Train for Running?

3. Cool It

Last year at the Western States Endurance Run the mercury peaked at 106. Race organizers recommended that runners apply ice to their groins, necks and armpits.

That might be about to change. According to one study, cooling our nerve-dense hands seems to be the most effective means of lowering body temperature.

Run Amok Conclusion: Run with ice-filled rubber gloves!

Pro Tip: When the ice melts, pour it from the glove into your mouth. But don’t swallow. (See Tip #1.)

RELATED: Smile Away the Miles

4. Turn Up the Testosterone

Testosterone level correlates with performance. So, are there any ways to amp it up without sinking to the ethics of Romanian powerlifters? Yes, according to Steve Magness, author of Peak Performance. Options include watching replays of your sports successes, having a positive coach cheer you on or watching video clips that are aggressive, humorous or (we mention this casually) erotic.

Run Amok Conclusion: Go for it. But we’re not advocating for doping, porn, Ultimate Fighting videos or, worst, Jerry Lewis reruns. No PR is worth that.

Pro Tip: Watch any five minutes of any Rambo movie.

RELATED: Women Are Underrepresented In Exercise Science, And That Is A Problem

There are more studies:

The easier your run at the finish, the less painful you’ll consider it overall. “Shocking” tastes like pickle juice can stop cramping. What others tell us strongly influences our perception of how hard a run or race is. Ambient air temperature correlates with the amount of human growth hormone in your arteries, which aids performance.

So: Skip the water, load up on pickle juice and, as your coach fibs to you about a race, punch a hole in some sheetrock.   (First make sure no one is around. See 911 call, above.) As the injury appears, duct-tape your ice-cube gloves onto it.

bill nye GIF

—Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, where he founded the tour company Run the Alps. In his free time, he smiles placidly while out for every run.