After months of training for a race, you crossed the finish line. Congratulations! Regardless of whether you exceeded your goals or fell short, many runners fall into a period of post-race melancholy. The intense and sustained effort combined with the high-energy atmosphere of a race can leave you feeling somewhat empty when you realize you don’t need to wake up to train the next morning or the morning after that.
People even experience this after big social events. While somewhat in jest, Urban Dictionary’s definition of “post-party depression” can definitely be applied in the post-race scenario: “The severity of symptoms may depend on a number of variables, two of which being the duration of the event and general level of epicness. The symptoms of depression may include, but are not limited to: feelings of emptiness, loneliness, disconnect, gloominess, and general sadness.”
While I can’t relate to post-party depression, I have certainly encountered the post-race blues following marathons. After investing so much time and energy into training, you can feel a bit aimless for a period of time. No longer does life revolve around daily workouts and that big goal. Ordinary life feels, well, ordinary.
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One theory as to why we experience this is a result of the withdrawal of stress hormones, like cortisol, from the bloodstream. Another thing that might explain it is something called “the Contrast Effect,” which suggests that our perception of the differences between two things—in this case in-season and post-season—is exaggerated when they occur right next to one another. In the same way that you may judge a heavy object to actually feel heavier if you pick up a light object right beforehand, a period of recovery after a big event can feel jarring after all of your months of training leading up to a race.
Here are seven steps to get you through those post-race blues and back on track towards your next goal.
1) Accept the Results
Whether you met, exceeded, or fell short of your goals for a race, don’t spend too much time dwelling on results in those early days. Work on accepting whatever emotions you’re experiencing without ruminating over them. “It’s really important that you just experience those feelings of letdown after a race,” 19-time Canadian champion and coach Lucy Smith says. “Getting people to be aware of those feelings that come up, but not get too attached to them is the trick.”
Doing a download on your race gives you important information to be carried into the next event. What went well? What didn’t go well? What will you do differently next time? These are all good questions to ask yourself, but Petruzzelli suggests waiting to launch these queries until a week or two after the big race. “Refrain from reflecting on successes and failures until after emotions have subsided,” she said. “This is where the attitudes of nonjudgement, letting go, and self-compassion can be key.”
3) Practice Gratitude
Feeling grateful for being able to train and race can help lift your mood and put things into perspective. At a recent lecture I attended, gratitude researcher and author Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis discussed the ways gratitude can heal and energize us both mentally and physically. “Gratitude alters our gaze,” he said. Take a few moments to write down 3-5 things you’re grateful for related to running. In your low moments, go back to those or add to the list.
4) Reframe Recovery
I’ll never forget when a coach told me that “rest and recovery are part of the training process, not the lack thereof.” It was a lightbulb moment for me because I had always thought of it as the latter. When you’re able to look at post-race recovery as part of the larger picture of training, you gain some perspective. It’s important to take down time to insure future running success.
5) Reallocate Resources
It’s likely you sacrificed a thing or two for training. Maybe it was sleeping in on weekends, going to watch your kid’s soccer games, grabbing happy hour with friends, or going out on date nights with your partner. Reintroduce the things you’ve been missing out on. This can help fill the void in those precarious weeks after a race.
6) Get Support
Commiserating with other runners or a coach often normalizes feelings of post-race blues. The majority of athletes go through it and that support can be vital. If the emotions last longer than a couple of weeks, it may be worth seeking out professional help to make sure there’s not a larger issue at play.
7) Set New Goals
“Start planning what the months after the race are going to look like, along with next season’s race calendar,” Smith said. Having new and exciting goals on the horizon help you view training as a long-game. Plus it gives you a chance to strategize how you’ll use the things you learned in races going forward.