When you’re in the middle of a tough interval workout or you’re grinding through the last few kilometres of a race, the tendency is to tense up, grit your teeth and muscle your way through it. The result? Some pretty gnarly “game faces.” But does this actually make you run faster? While it may seem counterintuitive, when the going gets tough during a run, relaxing your body is actually more likely to help you pick up the pace, and the best place to start is your face.
Tensing up your face signals the rest of your body to also tighten up, which forces all your muscles to work harder in order to fight through that tension. Think tight shoulders, stiff arm movements and legs that feel like they’re pushing through mud. When this happens, you start to slow down, even though you feel like you’re putting in more effort. An easy way to prevent this is by relaxing your face, specifically your jaw and your eyes.
Lloyd Winter was the coach of the San Jose State University track and cross country teams for three decades, and he wrote the book Relax and Win. Having studied the psychology of performing under pressure, he knew that relieving tension was key to running well. One of the most important cues Winter gave his athletes was to keep their jaws loose, right down to their lips and tongues. This, he said, helped your whole body to relax and allowed you to run faster.
Of course, Winter was coaching in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and today we know a lot more about sports psychology and physiology than he did at the time. Despite this, his theory still holds true. Modern research suggests that our brains will force our bodies to slow down during hard physical efforts in order to protect us from over-exerting ourselves to a dangerous level. We also know that our brains do this long before we actually reach a dangerous level of exertion, leaving a bit of wiggle room for pushing through that psychological barrier. When you clench your jaw and furrow your brow, causing your body to tense up, your brain gets the message that you’re doing something very physically challenging, and so it will step in to slow things down. By keeping your face (and thus your entire body) relaxed, your brain won’t think you’re working so hard, and you’ll be able to maintain your pace.
So, the next time you’re reaching the tough point in a run, workout or race, check what’s going on with your face. It turns out that one of the easiest ways to relax your face is to smile, so if you notice you’re grimacing in discomfort, smile, let your jaw hang loose and feel the difference.