Forty-eight hours after Tracey Mayling finished her first marathon in New York City on Sunday, the high from the cheering crowds and exercise-fueled endorphins had worn off. It was replaced by irritation as she reflected on her performance. “There are all these things I wish I would have done differently,” says Mayling, a 34-year-old financial services consultant from Manhattan. She wishes she hadn’t gotten stuck in a long bathroom line and missed her running wave. And she regrets not running alongside the pacer who might have helped her reach her goal time of 4:15. Instead, she finished 11 minutes slower.
The self-criticism was paired with another unexpected emotion: Sadness at the thought of losing the close friendships she’d developed with her running buddies during training. “I have this sense of, ‘Now what?’ Are we still going to hang out on Sundays and run?” she says.
Experts call the discombobulated feelings many athletes wrestle with after a big competition the “post-race blues.” They can range in severity from a short-term funk to more serious clinical depression. “It’s similar to the feeling people have after a wedding or finishing a big project or finals in college,” explains Jim Afremow, PhD, author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive. “When we accomplish a goal, it’s easy to lose your focus and feel adrift.” He once had a client who suffered from the syndrome after pitching his first Major League Baseball game. “He said, ‘I’ve been spending my whole life working toward this. I did it. Now what am I supposed to do?’” says Afremow.
Getting Back to Normal
The initial challenge for many athletes lies in flipping the switch from focusing on a big goal to transitioning back to a normal routine. This can require everything from re-jiggering your exercise schedule, to catching up with work, to family or social obligations you put on the back burner during intense training. The psychological adjustment can also be difficult. “Training gives us self-esteem and an identity and a physical release. It’s also exciting to say, ‘I’m training for a marathon!’” says Afremow. “Sometimes there’s disappointment because we had expected a marathon to transform us.” And it’s not always rewarding to return to our regular lives, which are often filled with family demands and a backlog of deadlines.
After Mindy Bobe, 36, finished her first marathon in New Orleans in 2012, she savored the chance to sleep in the following week, instead of getting up in the pre-dawn hours to fit in runs before her two young boys woke. “I was on such a high afterward. Crossing that finish line was a really big deal. You have such strong emotions because you’ve worked so hard for so long, and then it’s over so quickly,” says Bobe, a pre-school teacher from Daphne, Alabama who writes the blog Road Runner Girl. “But the next week I was depressed. I thought, ‘What can I do next? Is there anything bigger than this?’”
She signed up for a half-marathon right away and now makes sure she has another race on the books before each competition. “That way I go right back into training mode,” she says.
Living with the Letdown
Even if you can quickly get back into the swing of things, athletes are susceptible to ruminating about what they could have done better for weeks after a race. “We all tend to be extra critical of ourselves, and for perfectionist athletes, a performance is never good enough,” says Afremow.
Weeks after Carlos Londono completed a half-Ironman in Princeton, New Jersey in late September, he chastised himself for not sticking to a strict training schedule. He had high hopes of finishing the punishing 70.3-mile triathlon in under six hours. Instead, he shaved just 10 minutes from his 7:14 finish at his first half-Ironman in Maryland earlier in the summer. “I said to myself, ‘You’re such a slacker,’” says Londono, 47, a management consultant from Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. He told himself he should have gotten up earlier on the weekends to fit in longer bike rides and run more frequently on the treadmill when he was on the road for work. “It was a constant mental fatigue. If I wasn’t telling anyone, I was thinking about it a lot.”
It took Londono nearly a month to appreciate what he had accomplished. Most notably, he took nine minutes off his swim time. During his first half-Ironman swim, he had panicked and struggled to finish. The second time, “I mentally overcame my fear of open water, and that’s big,” he says. “When I feel a tendency to be critical, I go back to that thought and remind myself of my progress.”
A Healthier Perspective
Got a case of the post-race blues? It’s normal to feel adrift for a while, or experience a range of emotions once that bib finally comes off. Here are some tips to help get you back to your old self again.
1. Have some fun. It’s easy to forget what life was like before all-things-running overran your life. Ward off the blahs by planning something fun for yourself in the weeks after your race. “This is the time to let your hair down and indulge your carefree side,” says Afremow. Have a couple beers. Go on a trip. Plan a great date night. Take a week off from running. It might seem scary — but a short hiatus could spark a new appreciation for the sport.
2. Set a new goal. “Even if it’s just a 5K, you want something to look forward to,” Afremow says. If you’re disappointed about your last performance, you’ll have a fresh opportunity to focus on a new goal. Try something different like a mud run, or inspire a newbie runner to lace up for their first fun run with you. You’ll find it’s rewarding to invest your efforts into something other than calculating your splits.
3. Redefine your definition of success. Disappointed you didn’t finish the marathon in four hours? With so many factors out of your control, it’s important to acknowledge that meeting your goal sometimes just isn’t in the cards. Instead, how about looking at your 4:15 finish as your own silver medal? Or, think of finishing as your bronze accomplishment. “Establish multiple goals and create your own personal podium,” says Afremow. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Think about the many ways you were awesome.”