“Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not,” the ex-president of former Czechoslovakia Václav Havel once said. Wise words indeed from a countryman of the legendary Emil Zatopek, who won an incredible four Olympic gold medals. But what Mr Havel may not have realised is that laughing (at yourself, or the world in general) can also be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to keeping going when the going gets tough in a race or training run.
“Humour helps us cope with difficult situations,” says London-based clinical sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson (SportsPsychologist.com). “Just think of gallows humour, when people make fun at or around the time of death – including their own. It helps us to cope with the enormity of a challenging situation. Compared to facing the hangman, for example, a marathon can seem like an instantly more doable challenge!”
Dr Rhonda Cohen (sportpsych.co.uk), sport and exercise psychologist at Middlesex University and author of Sport Psychology: The Basics (Bloomsbury Press, £22), has an interesting alternative explanation: “We try to keep our bodies in a state of homeostasis or balance,” she says. “The ‘relief theory’ states that humour relieves the discomfort we experience when we’re running hard and hence feeling off balance. Laughter is therefore a healthy reaction to uncomfortable physical sensations.”
So how exactly does laughter help us feel better while running? “When we laugh, our body relaxes and releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which are also potent morphine-like natural painkillers,” says psychotherapist Samantha Carbon (samanthacarbontherapy.co.uk). “I believe that whatever your ability, limitations or situation, having a sense of humour while running can help. If humour can work in terrible situations such as being imprisoned in a concentration camp, which Viktor Frankl wrote about in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, then it can support us too when we’re having a tough time coping during a run.”
Thompson agrees that endorphins are key to feeling good while running: “These calming, happy chemicals help us to feel better and more relaxed,” he says. But he also credits the contagious nature of laughter with having incredibly positive effects. “When we laugh, others are more likely to laugh,” he says, “and this binds us to them and sends out the message that everything is fine, which helps us relax. Being relaxed in turn helps to reduce nerves and muscular tension, improving our frame of mind and physical performance.”
Humour is also a good way to mentally distract you from emotional and physical pain. “It can act as a cushion between the individual and the event and reduce the intensity of a situation,” says Carbon. “When I snapped my Achilles tendon years ago, I remember my former polevault coach telling me a few jokes as I was being carried off the field. Without a shadow of doubt the humour he shared with me distracted me from the pain that eventually kicked in.”
Laughter can also help to reduce perceived effort and Cohen has an interesting theory about how this works, too. She suggests that humour can ease the stress of a situation because it makes us feel not only more positive, but more powerful. “When we laugh we feel stronger and more capable – it gives us a sense of superiority, which is important when tackling a challenge you may not be 100% sure of succeeding at.” So, it seems, the race-poster slogan I once spotted in the Chicago Marathon was right, “The reason your feet are hurting is because you’re kicking so much ass!”
Interestingly, it’s not just helpful to use laughter during a race, using it before the event can be beneficial too. “The build-up of nerves ahead of an event can increase anxiety so it’s a good idea to find a way to connect with your fellow competitors,” says Carbon. “Joking around at the startline can change the mood and perception of the pain that lies ahead by making light of it and putting everyone at ease. Usain Bolt is great at doing this – his amusing gestures and positive mood help him to stay relaxed before major sporting events.” Being friendly and funny at the startline also means that, should you see each other again later in the race, you can use the power of a smile and greeting to help you push through the pain. And don’t forget that having a sense of humour post-run can be beneficial too. “It will help you let go of mistakes and rebound more quickly,” says Carbon.
Itching to harness the power of humour in your next run? Here the experts give their advice for putting smiles into the miles…
– “Wear a crazy costume or a silly hat – not only will it make you smile, but it’ll make others grin too, meaning you might benefit from their support,” says Dr Victor Thompson. “Or imagine that you are all being chased by a giant Mr Tickle and when he catches you, he’ll tickle you mercilessly.”
– “Ahead of a run, instead of pumped-up music, listen to a comedy sketch,” suggests Samantha Carbon. “During difficult moments reflect on the jokes you heard to get you over the line. You can also try mid-race games, such as singing ‘Another one bites the dust’ when you pass each mile marker, or pretending you’re playing Pacman and that you’re gobbling up each runner you pass.”
– “Buy a plain wristband and decorate it with something that makes you laugh – a word, picture or slogan,” suggests Dr Rhonda Cohen. “Another idea is to make or buy a funny shirt to wear when you run, such as “I laugh in the face of a hard run”. Or enter races with an unusual theme – investigate sumo races, mud runs and colour runs which are guaranteed to put the fun into every run.”