So we begin to wonder, do we normally look like that while cycling? Well, the answer is yes. Our facial expressions during an endurance event typically morph from the giddy, why-am-I-doing-this smile in the start chute to the bloodshot, why-is-the-earth-trying-to-swallow-me-up frown where even the muscles used to smile refuse to obey as you pass the photographer.
Towards the end of 2017, a new study was published that shows how smiling has significant impacts on our physical performance and gives us important clues for combatting The Frown. The benefits of smiling in everyday life are quite obvious. Being less grumpy is just a good recipe for a fulfilled life. But isn't it another story when it comes to the suffering we feel on the bike? Why would our facial expression have a direct impact on how we perform?
Noel Brick and colleagues at Ulster University had 24 runners consciously alter their facial expressions during running tasks in order to assess the impact on performance of smiling, frowning and consciously reminding oneself to relax. The results?
Firstly, they found that oxygen consumption was lower during smiling than frowning. Secondly, most of the runners were more economical in their movements, and finally, the perceived effort was higher during frowning than smiling.
In plain words, this means that choosing to smile periodically while you are running (and we would argue during cycling too) will make you perform better. Less oxygen required by the muscles, better economical movement and reduced perception of effort will combine to help you be faster and enjoy it a lot more.
The reason why smiling has such a big impact is not yet clear but there is more and more research emerging from the psychobiological domain that’s helping us understand how intricately linked the brain and our psychological DNA are to our performance. Along with other psychological methods like motivational self-talk and attentional focus, smiling has now emerged as a training method – it is something you now absolutely have to include in your training regime for your next event and utilize as a strategy for pushing through the turmoil you’ll face at your race.
The problem is that The Frown creeps up on us and sneakily reduces our performance. So how do we get into the practice of smiling more often? Attach a mirror to our handlebars? Well no, not quite. Besides making sure you run with a comedian alongside you, which your training partner may or may not have as laudable experience on his CV, the easiest way is to attach a sticker to your handlebar with the word "Smile!" Why not add an emoji too, or Tipex the word onto the top of your shoes given that The Frown tends to make our heads hang, so you'll be reminded at the right moment?
The key thing is to get into the habit of smiling on a regular basis and to be able to smile when you need it most … when you’re in the hurt locker. There’s also another benefit to this strategy – psychological warfare. Dishing out a beaming smile alongside your competition will sow a serious seed of doubt in their mind, making them believe you are coping at this pace, thereby unleashing their negative self-talk demons which is scientifically proven to reduce performance.