Next time you head to the starting line, open wide and let out a yawn.

We yawn when we’re tired, lethargic or just plain bored. So why do so many athletes yawn prior to big performances? During the Olympics it’s not uncommon to see marathon runners yawning as they toe the line, or swimmers as they step onto the blocks. Eight-time Olympic medalist speedskater Apolo Ohno is notorious for it. Even paratroopers are said to yawn before jumping into oblivion.

Experts suggest that yawning may actually provide a competitive advantage, as it stimulates the precuneus, a structure in the brain that affects consciousness and attentional focus.

Yawning also regulates the temperature and metabolism of the brain. By cooling down the frontal lobes, they are thought to work more effectively and, in turn, allow for greater concentration.

“It takes a lot of neural energy to stay consciously alert,” explained Andrew Newberg, M.D., director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

“Yawning probably evolved as a way to cool down the overly active mammalian brain.”

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Indeed, there is a good reason many competitive athletes are seen yawning during warm-ups. “Through the benefits of cerebral cooling, yawning may provide an increase in attention and focus immediately prior to races,” said Andrew Gallup, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

Newberg agrees. “Yawning at the beginning of a race can get you in a quick state of relaxed alertness, ready to perform,” he advised.

Implementing yawning into your pre-race routine is worth testing out. “Given its potential benefits, it seems reasonable to integrate it into exercise programs as a quick way of relaxing the body and brain and enabling it to perform optimally,” said Newberg.

Next time you head to the starting line, open wide and let out a yawn. You’ll find yourself more focused, relaxed and psyched when the gun fires. It may be the most effortless aspect of your pre-race preparation.

While training takes months of work and physiological adaptations, yawning merely requires the thought of a yawn. You just yawned, didn’t you?

This piece first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.