Positivity is a Performance Enhancer

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On June 23, Courtney Dauwalter and Jim Walmsley ran two of the best races in history at the Western States 100 (on a year when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit). How did they do it? Well, they are unbelievably fast and mentally tough and work their butts off. But maybe another small clue is in some photography from the race. Often, in the heat of the day and in the thick of competition, they were…smiling.

Yeah, running is fun. But running at that level is probably not the type of fun that makes you want to jump up and down with a big grin like you are six years old on a trampoline. It’s more like “type II fun”—suffering that is fun in retrospect.

Both Courtney and Jim didn’t look like they were suffering at all. They looked like they were at an elementary-school birthday party, hopped up on cake, playing games in the backyard. It must have hurt. After all, they ran two of the greatest races ever. But you can’t tell by looking at the photos.

And going down the list of top finishers, many had that same smile. 9th place finisher Corrine Malcolm, for example, was cracking hilarious jokes left and right, like a stand-up comedian honing her routine before a big Netflix special. Reports from the course said that 2nd place Kaytlyn Gerbin was showering the whole crowd with joy and humor, too.

According to spectators, it was like that from the front of the race to the back. Even in the blistering heat, there was an 81 percent finish rate. If pictures are any indication, most of those racers had the most fun ever (at least when cameras were flashing).

But maybe there’s something else we are seeing in those photos. Maybe those smiles were not just caused by great performances…maybe the smiles are a big reason for the great performances.

Psychology and exercise physiology may be converging on a secret of those Western States finishers. A little bit of positive thinking can help you go a long way.

Smiling, Positive Self Talk and Running Economy

A January 2018 article in the “Psychology of Sport and Exercise” journal sought to examine the effects of smiling, frowning and relaxing while running. They had 24 trained runners do six-minute bouts on a treadmill at 70 percent of velocity at VO2 max (essentially an easy run pace). When smiling, they used less perceived effort and energy to go the same pace, translating to improved running economy of 2.2 percent over control and 2.8 percent over frowning.

The study had some limitations. It was at a lower intensity than many race scenarios, for one. Also, the effect was more pronounced in male study participants versus female participants. But it generally demonstrated a principle that applies beyond your running life: if given a choice between being the person that is quick with a smile and being the person that withholds enthusiasm, choose the smile.

Other studies show running economy benefits for relaxation training (like this one from 1999 in the “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” journal). Learning to relax and let it flow is complex, though, and multiple studies (like this one from 2016 in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology) have indicated that many runners might not have the tools to use the principles. A 2016 study from the “Psychology of Sport and Exercise” journal even found that focusing too much on relaxing may conversely make an athlete relax less (i.e. focusing on breathing patterns may make breathing less efficient).

Like sleeping or romance, it seems that the more you think about relaxing, the harder it becomes. Smiling could be one way to get around that conundrum. The “facial feedback hypothesis” indicates that a smile or a frown can actually influence emotional experience. And studies show emotional state has an impact on running economy and performance, with positivity usually making faster running feel easier.

The same thing might be achieved through external or internal positive reinforcement. For example, this 2012 study in the “Journal of Sports Sciences” found that runners that were given compliments had better running economy. It doesn’t have to come from the outside, either. This 2014 study on cyclists in the “Medical Science Sports Exercise” journal found that positive and motivational self talk improved performance. A 2011 meta-analysis in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science” put it all together to find that positive self talk works for both performance and learning.

Gradually shifting the narrative in your head, moving it toward unconditional self-acceptance, might be the most important thing you can do for your training and racing. It’s okay if it takes time, though—internalizing the idea that ‘you are enough no matter what’ is really hard in practice (and may be impossible if dealing with certain mental health issues).

Cognitive Reappraisal and Performance

Smiling and self-talk may be particularly beneficial because they harness the power of something called cognitive reappraisal, a practice focused on the way you engage with sensations. Cognitive reappraisal is countered by distraction, trying to forget you are doing the task altogether.

Studies have shown that distraction does not benefit performance at higher intensities (that’s why music might be helpful on an easy run, but has not been shown to be helpful for hard workouts or races for most runners). It seems important to engage with the task at hand for highest performance. That’s where cognitive reappraisal comes in.

A study that was just published in the journal “Motivation and Emotion” tested that hypothesis by taking 24 trained runners through three 90-minute treadmill runs. There was a distraction run—where runners would think about things outside of the run. There was a control run. And there was a cognitive reappraisal run—where runners adopted a neutral outlook on the experience, engaging with what they felt much in the way of a journalist documenting it. The cognitive reappraisal group had lower perceived exertion.

Like the previous studies, it comes with a ton of disclaimers (there was no actual change in performance metrics, the researcher’s own interventions could have changed the outcomes). But similar approaches have been used by elite athletes forever.

A 2015 review in the journal “Sports Medicine” found that imagery, self talk and goal setting positively influenced performance, all of which can be be elements in a cognitive reappraisal approach. Positive psychology is a field that essentially harnesses these techniques to improve well-being, and some researchers have even called for a separate field of positive sport psychology. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it all together, incorporating positive self talk and state of mind (among other factors) into his description of “flow state,” when a person is fully immersed in an activity and the enjoyment that comes with it.

You can’t achieve flow with a frown, that’s for sure. You probably can’t reach it when you are distracted. Instead, you need to engage with the moment and the positive feelings associated with it. In other words, it really helps to smile like Courtney and Jim.

Embrace the Light Side

Even if you aren’t racing the Western States 100, positivity will probably improve performance over time. Stress is a big determinant in performance and response to training. As outlined in this fascinating 2018 article in “Sports Medicine,” the neurobiological context of training and racing plays a large role in not just performance, but how the body adapts. So it’s possible that two identical training sessions (or long-term plans) can yield different results based on mindset (though physiological parameters like that are close-to-impossible to predict with certainty).

This is a field where there are numerous input variables, and the stimuli that act on those variables are almost limitless. As a couple of the studies pointed out, it might be tough to ever get a one-to-one association between measurements of emotions in a lab and those felt in a race or training run. Often, it’s most helpful to talk to mental health professionals. Different things work for everyone, and in the real world, everyone is really different.

Positivity is usually a good bet, though. The Dark Side is powerful, but corrosive. And as some of the studies indicate, it might make top performance impossible over time due to its negative effects on relaxation and mental outlook. The Light Side, meanwhile, can give athletes superpowers. Or, at the very least, it can provide a couple percent improvement in running economy (…more like Luke Skyrunner).

I hear your groans, and I deserve them.

So smile (when you can). Engage with what you feel (don’t get discouraged). Practice positive self-talk (it takes work). It might improve performance…or it might not. But it sure as heck is more fun.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play

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