Post race blues or even mild post race depression is not something that gets talked about in the running community that much but it’s a very common phenomenon.
People are more likely to talk about feeling like a rock star crossing the finish line, having a sense of euphoria or super powers post race, pride, a generalized relaxation, calmness, relief and a mental high.
But often these good sensations start fading anywhere from a few hours to a few days post race and you’re left feeling anything but great. You’d think that post race blues might only happen after a disappointing or horrible race but it can also happen after conquering a new distance or an amazing PR. It can also happen to some people during periods of injury or hitting a plateau in training.
How to Deal with Post-Race Blues
Compounding the feeling of being down is that it often seems like everyone around you is celebrating amazing accomplishments and having the best runs or training cycle. Sometimes being on social media a lot can worsen the sad feeling because people typically post about their best selves and moments. Meanwhile you’re comparing that to what feels like you’re worst self (or that negative inner dialogue that we all have from time to time).
Like most cases of blues or mild depression there’s usually a physical as well as psychological reason behind it. Many athletes describe it as a hollow feeling, a lack of purpose, coming down from a high, feeling low, grumpy, irritable, getting back to reality, a loss, sadness, lack of motivation, and guilt. Some people even start crying and can’t seem to stop.
There may be the tendency to overanalyze their race experience and dwell on what they could have or should have done differently. It can also be accompanied by physical sensations such as fatigue, listlessness, generalized achiness, a desire to sleep a lot, overindulgence in food and/or alcohol, and avoidance of social situations and other activities.
Psychologist Mimi Winsberg, who is also an IRONMAN age-group champion, says that during training and racing, we’re immersed in a cycle of stress and then release, bolstered by high dopamine levels, endorphins and even endocannabinoids. She says that sometimes post race,
There is a loss of the physiological and chemical high we get from working out, and there is a loss of power and energy as we are physically and emotionally depleted. And of course, there’s the simple fact of no longer having a clear goal: “You’ve been thinking about (your goal) for a long time, you’ve structured your life in ways to achieve that goal, and you’ve involved friends and family. When the goal is accomplished you think you’re going to be happy, and then you realize it’s actually the process that’s more fun than the actual goal. There are multiple layers of loss.
Your Action Plan
1. Recognize that this feeling may be a possibility so you aren’t shocked and dismayed if it occurs. Knowing that many runners often feel like this keeps you from feeling alone. Talk about your feelings honestly and you’ll probably find out that other people have experienced something similar.
2. Put it into perspective. While running is often a hugely important area of our life it shouldn’t be the totality of your identity. If running is all you have or all you care about then it’s very probable that you have an exercise addiction and need to get back to a place of better balance.
3. Take the necessary time to rest and recover. Don’t jump back into strenuous activity too quickly or put pressure on yourself. Focus on getting extra sleep and keeping your exercise nice and light for a few days (or commit to a few days of complete rest). Many high level athletes take two weeks off from all training and exercise after a big race.
4. Use the extra time that you have to do other things you enjoy and may not have had time for while in heavy training. Get together with friends, spend extra time with family, and participate in other hobbies. Make sure that you’re getting fresh air and sunshine which can be healing and boost your mood.
5. Enjoy your post-race celebration but don’t let it turn into a prolonged eating and drinking binge. Many athletes are more strict with their habits during training and a dietary free for all that lasts days or weeks is going to take a toll on how you feel physically and mentally. Often crappy or highly inflammatory foods can leave you feeling worse.
6. Sign up for another race or event far enough in the future so that you have proper time to recover. Having something else to look forward to and direct your energies toward can help. If you’re feeling burnt out by a particular event or distance try signing up for something completely different. Maybe a 5k, trail race, obstacle course event, swimming lessons or a yoga class can help bring you out of a funk. When you recover properly in most cases your motivation will find you again.
7. Get help. If you’re experiencing periods of intense sadness, extreme fatigue, lack of interest or energy in things you normally enjoy, apathy, hopelessness or any thoughts of harming yourself it’s very possible that you may be dealing with moderate to severe depression. It’s important to not feel ashamed but to seek help.
Depression is not a weakness or failing of some kind. It’s not something you can will away. Often a hormonal imbalance in the body or chemical imbalance in the brain is what you’re experiencing. This may or may not have been exacerbated by heavy training or lack of recovery. Get an appointment with a trusted medical professional so that you can pursue the best course of treatment. In addition it may be helpful to talk with a therapist.
We did a whole episode about running and addictions (like exercise addiction) here.