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What Do Runners Think About? How Much Running Sucks

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What’s going on in a runner’s brain? A lot of thoughts about running, according to new research in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Runners might have one-track minds, sports psychologists from several universities found. 

A group of runners of various ages training for long-distance races (half-marathons or longer) were given recording devices to use to take down their thoughts over the course of a seven mile or longer run. They were instructed to speak their thoughts aloud, to try to get a sense of what runners’ thought processes are like. The researchers found the thoughts they recorded tended to fall into certain themes, almost all of them about the running itself, not some outside daydream. They were thinking about their pace and the distance they were running, the pain and discomfort of running (no surprise there), and their surroundings. They thought about things like their hip pain and how steep the hill they were climbing was. 

Granted, the study was very small (just 10 individuals), and the technique used to determine the runners’ thoughts—asking them to think out loud in a recorder—might have lent itself more to talking about things like the immediate surroundings and pain. Who knows what embarrassing, weird thoughts these participants might have had but decided not to disclose? These runners were also training for a long-distance race, not just going for a quick run around the park, so they might be more focused on their performance leading up to a race than a casual runner would be. 

But it does provide hope for all of us non-runners that you can complete a seven mile jog even if the only thoughts that come to you are about how much pain you’re in. 

[h/t: Science of Us]

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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