I found my secret race-day weapon when I was a junior in high school. I’d just started running the mile. As a former 300-meter hurdler, the contrast was stark, and I needed something to get through it. Not only did I have to run a little over three more laps around the track, I still had to run them hard. So, I started smiling. The whole time. Literally, the entire race.
At first, smiling was simply a way to trick my opponents into thinking I was taking it easy and having a good time. I thought it might throw them off just enough to give me an advantage. It did give me an advantage but for a very different reason. Smiling, it turned out, actually made running my race easier. Not only did spectators start to call me the “girl who is always racing and smiling” (this is true; they would literally point to me and say this), but my times dropped, too.
There’s loads of anecdotal evidence out there to support the argument that smiling while you race gives you an advantage, but to naysayers, there’s scientific proof, too.
A 2018 article in Psychology Today lead with the following line: “It’s feelings, not thinking, that make great athletes great.” The article explored how intelligence (thinking) helps athletes solve problems and think critically on the competition field, but overthinking holds them back. That’s because performance—running a race, for example—happens in the unconscious mind, the part of your brain that doesn’t require analysis. It’s the autopilot, I-got-this, muscle-memory bit that you need to not only push through the discomfort of a proverbial wall on race day, but also cross the finish line and set a new PR. While the article explored the feeling of physical preparedness, it also delved into an even more important topic: emotional readiness.
That’s where my high-school smiling trick comes in. Despite the fact that the mile is a challenging—I’d even say painful race (or miserable, depending on who you talk to)—by curling my lips into a grin, I tricked my brain into being more happy and relaxed, which helped me switch off my overthinking mind in order to more efficiently drop into the automatic one I needed to race well.
What’s more, a study out of the University of Kansas found that smiling may actually help lower your heart rate and reduce overall stress. While this is a beneficial daily-life hack, when it comes to racing, it could certainly translate to faster—and also more pleasantly memorable—finish times.
“Sometimes you just have to fake it 'til you make it,” says Darcy Piceu, an elite mountain ultrarunner who lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado. “Even if you feel terrible. It’s all about your outlook.”
Piceu has run her fair share of grueling mountain races and experienced the lowest of lows smooshed uncomfortably next to the highest of highs. This is ultrarunning, and a pleasant grin goes a long way in getting you from A to B. She says smiling and a positive outlook can be the difference between a bad day and a great day, even a DNF and a win.
“When I come into aid stations, I always try to have a smile on my face,” she says. “All of those people are there to support you, so you shouldn’t be grumpy with them. And also, I know that if I’m smiling, it can really shift my outlook.”
This goes beyond the race course, too.
Deena Kastor, one of the most decorated US distance runners of all time, also expounds on the topic of happiness and racing in her recent book, “Let Your Mind Run.” Kastor makes her perspective obvious even before the first chapter. She says, in the closing line of the prologue, “Building a positive mind gives any pursuit surprising ease, lifting one to unimaginable heights …”
Kastor argues mindset is your life. If you choose to be happy during life, during training, during racing, it will shape your experience. In a 2018 interview, she told Fleet Feet that she even attributes her longevity in the sport of running to a positive attitude. “The secret to being injury free and also having a long career is attributed to both recovery and optimism,” she says. “With recovery and optimism, my stress levels are low, my joy is high, and my desire to see myself improve is constant.”
Nancy Jurgens, 41, a 2:50 marathoner from Raleigh, North Carolina, who’s training to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials, says Kastor inspired her to overcome her fear and doubt about training and racing. Learning to foster positivity even when she felt unsure helped Jurgens run stronger and encourage other runners to do the same.
“I now run with joy, and I run fearlessly,” she says. “That’s my new thing. If you feel like you’re not ready, run with joy because you can.”
Jurgens took this approach to the 2018 Boston Marathon. It would have been easy to not even toe the line that year. Race-day weather was almost every runner’s worst nightmare: freezing rain and a stiff, bone-chilling wind. Despite grumbling from fellow runners, Jurgens decided to lace up. Clad in an interesting array of layers—latex gloves under mittens, a shower cap under a hat buried beneath a rain-jacket hood—she crossed the line, smiling, in 3:02.
“Everyone (it seemed) had hypothermia,” she says. “It was such a crazy run. That day, I found that you can’t control anything but your own mind. And I see how important positivity is when it comes to these sorts of runs (like Boston) that I didn’t think I could do.”
So, start smiling more. Perhaps it seems like an oversimplified way to feel better. But seriously. Try it. Fake that smile all the way across the finish line if you have to. We’re pretty sure you won’t be faking it anymore once you get there.