Raise your hand if a spectator gave you a boost during a race—if a funny sign made you smile, a jelly baby saved you at mile 20, or a stranger’s high five put more oomph in your steps. Now, keep it up if you’ve been a solid spectator yourself. Hand still up? It should be—and not only for a vague sense of race karma. Turns out, cheering for other people might actually help make you a better runner.
The reason why is something psychologists call “self-efficacy by vicarious experiences,” a fancy way of saying that you’re more likely to believe you can accomplish something when you see other people getting it done. “You think, If they can do it, I can do it, too,” says Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., professor of sports psychology at Minnesota State University in Mankato and author of Beyond Grit: Ten Powerful Practices to Gain the High-Performance Edge.
Simply believing you can do something has pretty powerful perks. For one, you’re more likely to stick with a commitment when things get tough. For example, Penn State University researchers looked at people with knee osteoarthritis and found that those who were more confident in their physical abilities early in the day, were more active throughout the day despite pain. And in a separate University of Illinois study, people who had an I-can-do-it attitude were more likely to stick to their exercise regimens long-term.
Kamphoff, a competitive runner herself, saw this effect first`-hand while watching the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. “I never saw myself as an Olympic runner, but my pace was similar to some of the people in the back,” she says. “So, I imagined myself in their shoes, and it gave me more motivation in my training.”
While Kamphoff didn’t end up qualifying, her renewed commitment to running helped her win the 2012 Omaha Marathon a few years later. Here are three other ways spectating can boost your own performance:
1. You’ll feel less stressed
People who support others have less activity in brain areas associated with stress than those who receive support, according to a Psychosomatic Medicine study. Stress affects performance: university-aged athletes were nearly twice as likely to develop injuries during stressful exam weeks than during periods of low academic stress, according to The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
2. You’ll learn from all parts of the pack
Spectating allows you to see racers you don’t get to as a participant, and there’s something to glean from each pace group. “If you’re usually at the front, you might think running is all about competing; if you’re in the back, you never see how the elites really glide,” Kamphoff says. Spectating allows you to take note of the form and focus of the pros, while gaining inspiration from the grit of the back of the pack.
3. You’ll know what to expect
“When people tell me they want to qualify for a [race], I tell them to watch the specific event,” Kamphoff says. “Taking in the exact surroundings and seeing other people model the course is a powerful thing.”
A version of this article appeared on Runner’s World US.