You’ve spent months training for that big race, and finally cross the finish line. Grab the finisher medal, devour the post-race feast, maybe indulge in a few drinks with friends. You’re feeling fantastic! The next day there will be some soreness, but more feasting, celebrating, and maybe writing a race report. Your post-race spirits remain high.
And then a couple days go by.
The soreness is gone, but your body needs more time to recover (you know this rationally, but you’re dying to get back out there anyway). You have a huge void in your schedule where training used to be. Maybe you’re starting to feel crummy for not exercising. “Am I losing fitness?” the thought pops into your head anxiously. And maybe you’re starting to feel pretty lame in general. No endorphins after your workout, no Strava kudos or other social feedback congratulating you on your physical achievements.
Cue the post-race blues.
Ironman in particular has a highly effective solution for getting rid of these negative feelings: they quickly send you emails with discounted early entry rates to the next year’s races. You sign up. You feel better. Ah, to have a purpose!
This is NOT a healthy way to deal with post-race blues.
Signing up for another race is just a bandaid on a larger problem.
The Cause of Post-Race Blues
A study1 in 2016 showed that there is a physiological reason for negative moods in well-trained athletes in the weeks following cessation of exercise. Researchers looked at two groups of male runners: the control group was composed of runners without exercise addiction symptoms and the experimental group was composed of runners with exercise addiction symptoms. Both groups went through a monitored two-week withdrawal period from running. The mood assessment at the end of the trial showed (surprise, surprise) that the exercise addiction group experienced depression, confusion, anger, fatigue and decreased energy levels. Bloodwork confirmed this: the exercise addicts had lower levels of anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pain and depression. After the withdrawal period, they got to run again, and were monitored with blood tests and another mood assessment. Unsurprisingly, their moods improved post-exercise.
So, if you’re feeling really down in the two weeks after a race, it’s an indicator that your brain has adapted to needing a lot of exercise to make you feel good.
This strikes me as a problem.
Of course, we participate in sport because we love it for its own sake and we love how it makes us feel. Perhaps we love the social component of training with fellow athletes. Unquestionably, regular movement has immense health benefits. But if you’re at a point where you need intensive, daily activity to be happy, then maybe it’s worth investigating how sport fits in to the big picture of your life.
Solving Post-Race Blues
After a big race is the perfect time to reflect on your athletic identity and make goals for the future. This doesn’t just mean looking at your training log and physical gains then making a training plan for the next season. What about the bigger picture? Hold your training schedule up against your daily calendar. How much time have you put in to perfecting your sports performance? How much time have you spent making positive memories with family and friends (that didn’t revolve around sport)? How much time have you put in to your career? And here’s the kicker: how much time have you spent being creative or pursuing other interests that don’t make you a faster athlete?
When the post-race blues hit, don’t fuel the addiction by immediately signing up for another race. Go through the withdrawals, even though they suck. Translate your amazing athletic skills (goal setting, discipline, commitment) to another aspect of your life, and develop pride and well-being in something unrelated to sport. Here are a few thing I’m committing to this off-season:
- Make an epic balcony garden and actually keep it alive (who remembers to water plants after a 5-hour bike ride?).
- Go on a weekend trip, attend an art or food festival, or have some kind of adventure at least once a month.
- Cuddle my partner for a few minutes every morning before getting out of bed (no need to rush off and get that long run in!).
- Attend a social function with work friends every other week (these meet ups always conflicted with my training schedule).
- Draw cards and hand-write notes to every friend who has moved away.
- Read a chapter of a fiction book (not related to sports, nutrition, or health) before bed.
It’s been over a month since my last race and I’ve had bouts of being cranky, bitter, anxious, and sad. After months or years of preparing for a big race, it’s really hard to wrap your head around valuing other things beside the training plan. But it’s so worth it. Because taking an off-season resets your body and your mind, which doesn’t just make you a better athlete, but a better person.
The Big Takeaway
Sign up for your next race when you want to; not because you need to.
- Antunes, H K, et al. “Exercise Deprivation Increases Negative Mood in Exercise-Addicted Subjects and Modifies Their Biochemical Markers.” Physiology & Behavior., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26812592.