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Swearing like a sailor might be so second-nature to you that you may not even realize you’re doing it. Whether it’s a “hell yeah,” when you nail a new PR, a “f**k this” when you realize you’re only on mile 20 of the marathon, or a “you’ve f**king got this” when you’re digging deep on the squat rack, you don’t have to be a Roy Kent-level swearer to appreciate that throwing in an expletive or two feels good.
But why is that?
There’s actually some solid psychological study behind the idea that swearing can make you a more engaged athlete (one study also found that swearing occurred more frequently in the context of sports). From pain relief to confidence-building, here’s what we know about how your body and mind respond to curse words.
Taboo Language and Physical Performance
First, swearing is cathartic. Studies have shown that repeating a swear word generally increases pain threshold, something that can be beneficial to runners pushing through the pain cave.
In a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers took that theory a step further by trying to understand why known swear words affect our pain perception and if new made up words could elicit the same response. Though the new words (“fouch” and “twizpipe”) were rated by the subjects as being more emotional and humorous than the control neutral word, they did not have the same effect as “f**k,” which was also rated as a humorous and emotional word.
So while the invented swear words had some of the same properties as the existing taboo word, the researchers hypothesize that our history with the word—when and how we learn it—is important to how it functions in a pain-reducing context.
On the flip-side, Richard Stephens, lead author of that 2020 study and several others on pain relief and swearing, also found in this study that the more habituated one becomes to cursing, the less the hypoalgesic (decreased sensitivity to pain) effect.
The novelty and impulsivity of it plays a role in its effectiveness, something Stephens noticed before he began to study the behavior. “It started from everyday life and noticing that people swear when they’re in pain,” he says, recalling expletives used when he had an accident using a hammer or his wife’s language choice while giving birth to their daughter.
Stephens’ research has also found that swearing can improve performance on tasks of physical strength and power.
“I think our research is really only showing what everybody knows. We’ve given a bit more validation to the idea by trying to test this out objectively,” says Stephens, who teaches psychology at Keele University in the U.K.. What is still unknown is the mechanism behind the bodily response.
One potential explanation could be that swearing is triggering an aggressive response within us, and with that, releasing adrenaline. And, indeed, we know what adrenaline can do to our running performance. But the hypothesis needs to be examined further.
“I think it’s part of the relationship with pain,” says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., a renowned “expert in cursing” and professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. “It’s venting, whether there’s an audience or not.”
Building Emotional Resilience
Inserting a swear or two into your vernacular can also be beneficial in relieving stress, expressing joy, or even building confidence. The act is generally understood to be a means of expressing emotion, something we all need to do to prevent overwhelm.
As a runner, golfer, hockey player, and avid sports fan, Jay says he’s seen swearing in every sport. “My experience both as an athlete and as an audience member is there’s a great correlation between frustration, anger, and swearing,” he says.
And running can be an emotional activity where you might feel frustrated, tense, uncertain, angry, scared, elated, calm, inspired, or grateful on any given outing (just to name a few feelings). Swearing can be used to express the gamut of those emotions—positive or negative.
“It comes with every form of emotion. It intensifies the experience,” says Jay.
Vocalizing those feelings out loud as you run can help you take a mental break from the strain of the activity. Vocalizations, whether that’s reciting a mantra, affirmation, or singing a tune, “can become meditative and serve as a reset to enhance focus,” says Michele Kerulis, a fellow of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and counseling professor at Northwestern University.
Last, cursing can also lower your inhibition, something that can be beneficial or harmful depending on the circumstance. You may want that if you’re going for a lofty PR.
Going Beyond the Swear Word
Of course, there are times when swearing is inappropriate or simply not allowed. In those cases, you should absolutely watch what you say. And forcing yourself to fling a curse word around is not going to be as effective if you’re someone who has a moral or religious objection.
“It comes down to the psychology of personality,” says Jay. “What will work for one person won’t necessarily work for another person.”
Self-censorship aside, there may also be an actual benefit to thinking beyond the knee-jerk curse-word on the tip of your tongue.
Kerulis, who specializes in working with athletes, asks her clients to dig deeper into the meaning behind their expressions. For example, if an elated runner yells “Oh, shit,” when crossing the finish line. “In these instances, I encourage runners to celebrate with more words to really enjoy their accomplishment. The more they can describe their feelings and reason for running—their “why”—the easier it is to go to this cognitive space when they need to dig deeper for emotional motivation during tough runs in the future,” she says.
And while swearing might make you feel more confident in the moment, Kerulis recommends other tactics, like redefining failure, accepting feedback, and using internal motivation to solidify a confident mindset. “Swearing can serve as a temporary expression and I believe understanding the emotion behind the swearing can help people better understand their levels of confidence,” she says.
Understanding your words and feelings, which Kerulis emphasizes in her work, can also help you develop a more positive mindset.
Whether you’re accustomed to cursing or not, self-reflecting on your behaviors and impulses can certainly help you grow, as a runner and as a human. But after a hard day, if you need to let out a hearty ‘f**k,’ while you’re soaring on a run, that’s OK, too.