Anyone who has ever committed considerable time and energy to training and competing in an endurance sport, knows the feeling. During training and the race, you are motivated, excited, and energized. As you cross the finish line, you are psyched, elated, and joyous at having accomplished your goal. Up to that point, endurance sports are fun. Then, a day or two later, it hits you. You feel down, lethargic, listless, directionless, even sad. You start to worry. You ask yourself, “Why am I so down after such an exciting race?” You try to resist it by getting back to your training, but this just makes it worse. You wonder if it will ever go away. You have been struck by “post-race depression” (PRD)!
What is Post-Race Depression (PRD)?
PRD is a common affliction that most endurance athletes experience after big races (note: PRD is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather a transitory and natural reaction to achieving, or failing to achieve, a major competitive goal). Such “post-big-race” down periods are normal and, despite endurance athletes’ best efforts, usually unavoidable. The fact is, endurance athletes shouldn’t try to avoid these feelings. PRD actually plays an essential role in your recovery from the intensity of training and racing. Yet PRD is a source of uncertainty, concern, and just plain discomfort for endurance athletes.
Races such as an Ironman or any race that means something to you require tremendous physical, psychological, and emotional investment. That investment causes you to put considerable time, energy, and effort into your training and to make substantial sacrifices in other parts of your life. In other words, your life becomes all about preparation for the big race; you become the race! It is this investment and the conclusion of your efforts that lead to PRD. These down feelings are especially likely if endurance athletes fail to achieve their competitive goals. This lack of “payoff” can create feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment that can exacerbate the normal and healthy PRD that endurance athletes would otherwise experience and can make recovery from PRD longer and more difficult.
When the big race is over, PRD occurs for several reasons. First, your body has been performing at a high level in training and then in the race for so long, it needs to take a break. Because it no longer needs to be up, your body shuts down. In fact, most of the “depression” (I don’t mean it in the “I need to be on anti-depressant medication” sense which is extremely rare) is physiologically based. The body, in a sense, decides to take a vacation so it can rest and rejuvenate. As our thoughts and emotions are fundamentally physiological, this physical downturn also expresses itself mentally in “down” thoughts and emotions.
PRD also has a direct psychological and emotional component. For months of training and during the race, your goals, thoughts, and focus have had a clearly defined objective and direction; your life had purpose. With the event concluded, that purpose is gone and along with it is a short-term loss of a significant part of your self-identity (the part that is, “I am an endurance athlete.”). This lack of direction causes you to feel lost and rudderless. Questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What now?” are common. You may feel unmotivated, question your recent performance and your ability, and be uncertain about your future as an endurance athlete.
An emotional letdown is a powerful and uncomfortable part of PRD. After being on an emotional high from the intense training and the race itself, the combination of the physiological decline and psychological loss of purpose inevitably leads to down emotions such as depression, sadness, listlessness, irritability, and a general malaise. These emotions can be mild or quite severe depending on your personality, your experience with endurance sports, your coping skills, and how you performed in the recent race. It is not uncommon for endurance athletes with PRD to lose interest in other aspects of their life, withdraw from previously enjoyable activities, feel sorry for themselves, and generally do a lot of moping around, especially if they performed below expectations in the race.
How to Overcome PRD
Given that some level of PRD is inevitable after big races, the key question is not how to avoid it, but rather how to deal with this uncomfortable post-event experience so that you can get through it as quickly as possible and use it to help you prepare for your next big race.
The first step in working through PRD is to accept that it is a normal and necessary part of training and competition. Allowing PRD to run its course and using it to your benefit will help you minimize its severity, duration, and discomfort. PRD, though clearly unpleasant, plays a vital role in your recovery from big races, much like a rest day after an intense week of training is essential to increased fitness. A common feeling with endurance athletes suffering from PRD is that it will never go away. This perception alone causes you to feel even more down and makes PRD worse. A part of the acceptance process is acknowledging that the feelings are okay and that they will pass in time.
Because endurance athletes are such active, intense, goal-directed people, it is common for them to attempt to resist PRD by setting a new goal and returning to intense training before they are physically or psychologically ready. If you try this strategy, you may prolong the PRD and you are more likely to get sick because your immune system functioning is down as well. Or, you may get injured because neither your body nor your mind are prepared for the renewed physical demands.
Instead, allow yourself to experience and naturally pass through the PRD. Be good to yourself. Ensure that you get extra rest, eat healthily, have a regular massage, take yoga, and try not to tax yourself too much. As difficult as it may be, don’t engage in any vigorous exercise for a while (the length of the break of conditioning depends on your fitness, the time, distance, and physical demands of the just-completed race, and your level of experience). Enjoy not having a goal or direction. Revel in doing things you couldn’t do when you were training: having weekends free, going to sleep after 9 pm, spending more time with family and friends, and eating food you actually enjoy including some treats such as a big, fat, juicy burger, curly fries, and an Oreo shake (okay, that is not healthy eating, but it tastes so good and you have earned it!). Revel in not having your life revolve around your training and races for a change. This “indulgence” will give your body the rest it craves and your spirit the lift it needs. It allows your mind and body to rejuvenate more quickly and enables you to return to your usual high-energy self sooner.
A difficult part of PRD is feeling like you have lost a part of yourself and that you feel “starved” for affirmation. But setting aside that big part of your self-identity periodically is healthy because it shows you that you are a person before you are an endurance athlete and that endurance sports are a part of your life, not life itself. Because you are not “feeding” the physical part of your self-identity, turn your attention to other significant parts of your self that you find nourishing, perhaps social or creative activities. This alternative “nutrition” will provide you with other meaningful sources of validation that will help you to generate positive emotions that counteract your malaise and enable you to continue to feel good about yourself despite the absence of reinforcement from endurance sports.
Lastly, do things that you enjoy simply for the experience—no goals, no purpose. Try being a “human being” for a while instead of a “human doing.” This reconnection with who you are rather than what you do is an essential part of keeping endurance sports in perspective, gaining the most joy out of your participation, and ensuring that you maintain some balance in your life despite your investment in endurance sports. It also makes certain that, when you do return to training, you continue to participate for positive, healthy, and life-enriching reasons, and you are physically, psychologically, and emotionally ready to master the challenges of the new goals you have set for yourself.