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How to deal with setbacks after a big race?

The Post-Marathon Blues

This article is courtesy of The Feed contributor Dr. Justin Ross, PsyD.

Well, the 2022 racing season is almost complete, with one of the world’s biggest events, the New York City marathon, seeing over 47,000 finishers in some hot and humid conditions. Now I know there are still a few big events remaining on this season’s schedule, including the California International Marathon (CIM), a handful of 70.3 triathlons, and of course, your local Turkey Trot, but chances are, your A event for this year is likely done and dusted.

You may even be finding yourself sad now that your race year is complete and be experiencing what we sometimes refer to as “the post-marathon blues.” This concept, not limited to running events mind you, has gained quite a bit of attention in recent years, helping to normalize the experiences that endurance athletes find after completing meaningful events.

What is The Post-Marathon Blues

The Post-Marathon Blues refers to the onset of sadness, let-down, or irritation that may be experienced after completion of a race or big event. For many, this sadness is a bit surprising or unsettling, with many people battling some version of the thought, “shouldn’t I be happy” on what I just accomplished. The combination of experienced sadness along with this level of questioning often magnifies the discomfort.

Well the good news is that this type of psychological crash (if you will) is 100% normal and affects athletes from the amateur to the professional ranks. There are likely a few factors at play here.

  • Months of high level goal pursuit. As endurance athletes, we often orient our calendars for months at a time to compete in these events. This daily process of training serves as a guidepost and anchor in our lives. Once the race is complete we often look ahead without any future oriented event and can feel a sense of loss that our now completed race, something that provided such a high degree of meaning and purpose for the previous few months, is now in the past, not oriented in the future. We can feel a sense of loss when this occurs.
  • There’s a term we psychologists use called thearrival fallacy” which focuses on the difference between how we expect we are going to feel and the reality of how we actually feel. We will often get into this thinking pattern of “once this, then that.” For example, I’ve worked with many runners who believe they can only consider themselves a runner once they hit an arbitrary, yet personally relevant, metric, such as completing a certain race or running a certain time. As is often the case, the psychological expectation isn’t necessarily met once that feat is accomplished and we are left dealing with the discrepancy between our expectations compared to our in vivo reality.
  • Emotional hangover. Race day can bring together a significant amount of excitement that involves big spikes in adrenaline, cortisol and peak emotional experiences - especially when the events involve travel and high level hoopla with pre-race events, expos and connection with other athletes. We can experience a subsequent rebound of decreased energy, focus, and emotional intensity following these types of peak experiences, leaving a sense of feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained.

Professional Recommendations

  • Normalize your experience. You’re not alone. Feeling sad doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. Your feelings need to be validated. Others are experiencing the same thing as you.
  • Reflect. I know it’s tempting to sign up for another event or to start looking at the next training block. But this can sometimes serve to hopscotch over a true reflective period of processing and reviewing everything that went into this event. Before you sign up for another race, take some time to look back from a place of appreciation, gratitude, and learning about all the factors that played into preparing your mind and body. This mental review is an important means of getting closure on all the elements that were necessary in your training cycle.
  • Send thank you notes. Yes, this may be a new piece of advice, but it’s one that can take gratitude to another level. Write thank yous to everyone that helped you in some way during your training. Your coach is an obvious example, but think about writing these to your spouse and your kids, thanking them for their understanding of your time away from home and your desire to reconnect.
  • Focus on the neglected. Training takes time, and likely means that other parts of your life may have been neglected. Take some of this time to re-invest in those key areas of your life.
  • Move differently. Rather than immediately hopping back into your usual training patterns, consider focusing on some other sports or exercise options. I hear pickle-ball is a thing now :)

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The Feed. / Monday, November 14, 2022