How to Deal With the Post-Race Blues

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In 2020, Emily Sisson dropped out of the Olympic Marathon Trials at mile 22. Four years later, she crossed the finish line in second, earning a spot on the podium and a ticket to this year’s Paris Olympics.

Though one result was a heartbreaking disappointment and the other a career-defining triumph, the New Balance-sponsored athlete tells GQ the two races had something in common: The post-race blues, that come-down feeling of sadness and directionlessness many runners experience after the race they’ve been working towards for months is finally over, and life seems to have lost its structure or purpose.

As spring marathon season comes to a close, we’re due for an outbreak of the post-race blues. But whether you set a personal record or have the worst race of your life, it’s totally normal to feel sad in the days after a race, says Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist and running coach.

“We spend so much time preparing for these events; we anchor our time and our schedules and our psychological well being around them,” he says. “And when it’s over, we’re looking forward without that same type of event on the calendar. So there can be sadness in pursuing something so meaningful, and then to have it come and go.”

Dr. Ross says there’s likely a physiological element to the post-race blues, too: Race weekends can be filled with exciting-but-draining events, in addition to the incredibly taxing race itself. “We put a lot of energy into it, and then when it’s over we’re physiologically depleted, and our dopamine stores are at an all-time low,” he says.

Falling short of your goals can intensify the post-race sadness, says Mark Coogan, who coaches elite runners at New Balance Boston, making you feel like all the work and time invested was for naught (even though, of course, it wasn’t). But achieving them can come with its own psychological challenges, too, points out Dr. Ross, because of what’s called the arrival fallacy. “It’s this notion that once we achieve something, we’re going to have this identity change,” he says. “But what will happen is that when people hit their PR, and that pot of gold doesn’t come with it, they’re left scratching their heads, wondering why they’re not feeling the way they anticipated they would feel.” This, he says, often leads to signing up for another race right away. “When people repeatedly do that, and they don’t find that internal change, that’s when they can really start to feel some heavy psychological burden.”

But the post-race blues don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, says Dr. Ross. Here’s how to manage all your distance-running feelings.

Don’t think too far ahead.

Seeing the build to a big goal like a marathon (or even a 5K!) as a journey, not a destination, is easier said than done. But three months is a long time to be focused on one singular race, and the more you emphasize those few hours of racing, the sadder you’ll likely be when it’s over.

Instead, focus on small goals throughout your training, suggests Sisson. “I tend to do best going into races when I don’t think too far ahead in the build-up,” she says. “That will naturally put less pressure on race day, because you’re focused on the steps along the way,” like the track workout you’re hoping to nail next week, or the 10K you signed up for midway through your training block.

Be clear about your goals upfront.

After running the London Marathon last month, I was sad to realize that I’d been so tunnel-vision focused in the last few miles that I hadn’t even noticed passing landmarks like Big Ben. I was proud of myself for digging deep, and for pushing all the way to the finish line, but felt guilty that I hadn’t been present, and had missed out on so much.

As it turns out, it’s really hard to do it all while running a marathon; to optimize your performance and have fun and be present. Being clear about what we’re aiming to do from the beginning, says Dr. Ross, can help us avoid the kind of guilt and sadness I felt post-race. “There’s this human tendency of never feeling fully satisfied,” he says. “We always look towards what we didn’t do. So if we declare it up front, we can find pride and connection to what we choose to do, and it can help diminish that post-race blues.”

Making these goals performance- or experience-based (“I will push as hard as I can” or “I will stay present and take in everything around me”) rather than outcome-based (“I will run under three hours”) can also help you feel proud after the race, regardless of the time on the clock, says Dr. Ross.

Don’t jump right back into training—or another race.

Resist the very-real temptation to jump right back into running—and to sign up for another race, says Coogan. “It’s a big deal mentally, and people only have so much willpower,” he says. “If you don’t let your mind and body recover, I don’t think your next race is gonna be as successful as it could be.”

Plus, says Dr. Ross, you may not be in the best mental place to commit to another race quite yet, especially if your last one didn’t go well. “The post-race sting will dissipate if you allow it to, and you’re not too impulsive,” he says.

Instead, take at least a week or two to rest and reflect, suggests Coogan. He recommends reincorporating forms of exercise that you may not have had much time for during your training, like biking, and slowly returning to running casually when you’re ready.

Embrace the fun you couldn’t have during training.

Use your post-race weeks to do what you couldn’t do during your build, says Coogan, whether that’s sleeping in on a Sunday, going on a long, challenging hike or bike ride, or staying out late at a concert. “Have some fun, because you sacrificed so much for this, and you’re a person, you’re not just a runner,” he says. Maybe even plan some of these activities in advance of your race so you have something to look forward to once it’s over.

Make time to process your race.

“People often think that the race ends at the finish line,” says Dr. Ross. “But I’m a big believer that the post-race reflection period is very much part of the training process. There’s this amazing opportunity to use sport as a mechanism to learn about you as a person: What did this mean to you? What happened in the moments of challenge? How did you embrace discomfort? And what are you going to do with all this newfound learning?”

Taking the time to process your race—whether internally, in a journal, or with friends, family members, or a therapist—can also help you find closure, says Dr. Ross. “A big part of closure is about integrating all that learning into who you are and who you want to become,” he says. “That is, I think, the most important part of the whole process.”

Originally Appeared on GQ

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