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How to Handle the Post-Race Blues

A woman runs through the woods during an ultramarathon trail race

If you’ve run a race before, you’re probably familiar with the anxious jitters, the constant carb loading, and the intense preparations that come with race week. You might feel nervous about finishing or excited to put all of your hard training to the test. But what happens once the race is over?

What are the Post-Race Blues?

“Post-race blues” is a term coined by many runners to describe the feelings of sadness that can set in once a race is complete. While the post-race blues isn’t clinically defined, it is a common experience in the running world.

The post-race blues may be considered a form of situational depression. Medical News Today defines situational depression as, “an adjustment disorder with depressed mood.” Their article on the matter says clinical depression, (defined as a “major depressive disorder,” and requiring more extensive treatment) can develop if the person doesn’t recover.

 A man stands on a track with arms crossed, looking into the distance

Feeling upset after accomplishing a goal can seem counterintuitive, but it can happen to any runner no matter the outcome of the race. Many professional athletes have expressed a similar sentiment, describing crippling depression that set in after the Olympics. HBO examined this issue in their 2020 documentary, “The Weight of Gold.”

Pro runner Alexi Pappas described her own post-Olympic depression in a New York Times Opinion piece, as well as her 2021 book, “Bravey.” While feeling sad after a goal race isn’t quite the same as experiencing depression, it can still be tough for runners to work through. Why do runners experience post-race blues, and what can be done about it? We spoke with a coach and a runner to learn more.

Why do runners experience the post-race blues?

Training for a race is a huge commitment that requires lots of time and energy. Athletes can spend hours every week running, strength training, foam rolling, cross training and more to prepare for the big day. Once the race is over, runners are often left wondering “what’s next?” It doesn’t help that most runners need to take time off after a race to recover. Switching from a rigorous training schedule to recovery mode is a mental shift that can be challenging for some runners.

Julian Gomez, a former Florida Atlantic University cross country runner, shared his experience with post-race blues. “The last race of a peak season used to give me post-race blues. Finishing that race and not having anything else to look forward to until the next major season rolled around was tough,” he explains.

A woman stands in a creek with her running shoes in hand

For many runners, training for a race can be all-consuming work, leaving little time for other hobbies or goals. It can be difficult for runners to fill the time they once spent training with other activities. Turning your attention to a non-running related activity or goal can be helpful when dealing with post-race blues.

“After a race, there is an empty spot that was once filled with thoughts of running, plus planning pace, nutrition, training times and so on. It’s like the moment you graduate and say ‘What’s next?’ It’s completely understandable,” says Craig Jenkins, a marathoner and USATF certified coach who works with the West Boynton Road Runners Club.

Overcome an anti-climactic racing season

With the increased popularity of virtual races due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some runners experience an anti-climactic race day. Gone are the crowds, cheering and competition of the traditional race day experience. This can leave runners feeling even more depressed after the race is over. Creating your own post-race celebration with friends and family can help make a virtual race feel more fulfilling.

“My husband rode his bike alongside me while friends hopped in and out of the run to keep me company. They also parked along the course and blared music, beeped and held signs. It was so encouraging,” said Maegan Dougherty, a two-time Boston qualifier who ran her virtual Boston marathon in September 2020. “We all met back up at the finish where there was a big enough parking area to be a safe distance apart but still chat and celebrate.”

A man stretches outside in a grassy field

Create a post-race plan for rest and recovery

While post-race blues are an emotional experience, it’s important not to overlook the physical impacts as well. It’s expected for runners to feel worn down and exhausted after a big race.

“You’ve trained hard, tapered and then used up all of your energy stores in one big race. Besides muscle fatigue, longer distances frequently cause a temporary decrease in lung capacity. Be sure to give some credibility to being legitimately run down and needing more rest,” explained Jenkins.

This is why it’s so critical for runners to take time off for recovery after a big race. According to a 2017 article published in the Journal of Sports Medicine by Fuminori Takayama, it takes seven days for runners’ aerobic capacity to recover after racing a marathon. Your muscles and tendons typically take longer to recover, usually about a month. Runners may feel fine during easy runs, but it’s important not to push it with too much speed or strength work too soon after the race.

Even though runners may feel fine in the days following a marathon, taking time to recover is a crucial part of preventing injuries. “Easing back into speed and long distances will keep you injury-free. You know that slower friend you have? Join them for runs in the recovery phase and reconnect after you left them behind on race day,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins advises runners to set up a post-race plan ahead of time to deal with any negative feelings that may arise. “Some runners plan for active recovery, with mild walks growing into simple runs over the week. Others go cold turkey on exercise for a set period of time. The key is to focus on whatever has worked for you in the past,” he said. Having a specific post-race plan can help with the aimless feeling some runners experience after a goal race.

For Gomez, a change in mindset is what ultimately helped him overcome his post-race blues. “Once I reset my goals, I was better able to navigate the post-race experience,” he explained. “Thinking long-term and not putting too much emphasis on a goal race is important. Every race and training block improves you overall as a runner.”

For runners, working through post-race emotions is just as important as treating any injuries that may arise. In her New York Times Opinion video, Pappas says, “What if we athletes approached our mental health the same way we approached our physical health? Athletes should feel no shame and get help right away.”

If you experience sadness that doesn’t resolve or if you think you might be suffering from clinical depression, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional.

By Caroline Bell. Caroline has been running competitively since high school. When she’s not writing for the Fleet Feet journal or training for her next race, you can find her looking at cat pictures on Instagram. She lives in Florida with her cat, Jade.

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