Some Runners Feel Totally Lost After a Big Race
I felt a complete lack of structure and motivation after I crossed the finish line.
It was a perfectly normal Saturday afternoon, and I was sobbing over my lunch. It wasn’t that the roasted cauliflower on my plate was so spicy that it brought me to tears, though the heavy-handed dash of cayenne pepper certainly didn’t help. After a few minutes of crying on the couch as my (confused) boyfriend comforted me, I realized why I felt down.
Six days earlier, I ran the New York City marathon. Leading up to the race, I followed a structured, 17-week training plan that consisted of three easy runs, one speed workout, and one long run each week. Most of those mornings, I cursed this routine. I didn’t want to wake up at 5 am over the summer to beat the suffocating heat and humidity that came with daylight. It sucked saying no to Friday night drinks because of 18-mile Saturday morning runs. I dragged myself down the stairs in the darkness of early dawn thinking, why why why why why.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Yes, part of me hated training, but a bigger, stronger part of me loved it. In fact, I needed it—without training, I would have been completely unprepared to run the hilly 26.2-mile course on November 5. My morning runs became integral to my everyday life, because for four months, training meant I woke up each morning with a clear goal, an automatic structure to my day, and the motivation to get up and move.
After I crossed the marathon finish line, I rode out the high for a day or two and tried to enjoy a week of rest. But ultimately, I felt like a big, lazy blob of a human. I’m not being dramatic: “For a lot of people, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, it’s nice to have an organization to your day,” says Steve Portenga, a Denver-based sports psychologist and former director of performance psychology for USA Track and Field. “Everything is planned for you, and then you run, you finish, and it’s over. You’re lost.”
Runners often call this bad mood explosion after a big event the post-race blues. Angela Fifer, a sports psychology consultant and owner of Breakthrough Performance Consulting, validates this phenomenon. “You come off this really big high and all of a sudden, there’s no anything,” she says. “There’s no training run, people stop talking about the race pretty quickly, and then you start thinking, What’s next?”
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When you’re prepping for a big race, your training schedule often ends up driving conversations, regulating your sleep-wake cycle, and dictating your entire schedule—so it’s no surprise that runners often feel like there’s an inescapable void in their lives when they take a break.
Your mood may plummet because you suddenly have nothing to work towards. “During a training period when we’re going after a goal, we get really immersed in it,” Fifer says. “Afterwards, we feel this lack of fulfillment and lack of pursuit toward something.” Importantly, physical goals are ones we set for ourselves by choice, unlike work goals, which always come with added pressure from employers and colleagues.
If you’re running by choice, it probably means that it’s important for how you relate to the world, how you see yourself, and how you think others see you. “Many people give a lot of worth to what they do athletically,” Portenga says, so during off periods, you might feel like you’re missing not just a hobby, but a part of yourself.
Any time athletes have a big transition coming up—whether it’s a temporary recovery after a big race or permanent retirement from a sport—Portenga likes them to answer this: Can you handle it? “I want them to feel like they can say yes,” he says. “Whenever there’s a transition coming up, I like athletes to have some sense of what’s going to happen during that transition so they’re not worried about it when they get there.”
I should have addressed the question of "what's next" long before I crossed the finish line. Instead, I felt like shit for almost a week after my big race. After crying through lunch and discovering the source of my sadness, I grabbed my laptop and signed up for two December races: a half marathon and a short and sweet 5K. Then I went for a run around Central Park, my first since the marathon. I felt the effects immediately—I was myself again! My solution was simply to commit to a new training cycle, a new athletic goal, but that’s not always the best option. “When we’re so drawn to that community and the goal pursuit and the social aspect of it, a lot of people continue to do it,” Fifer says. “But it’s important to listen to your body and make sure that you’re only continuing when your body is ready.”
If your body needs a break but your mind wants to stay connected to the sport, Fifer suggests volunteering at races during your rest period. Once your body has fully recovered, testing out a different sport can keep you active, engage new muscles, avoid overuse injuries, and make you a more well-rounded athlete: Fifer used to focus mostly on running, but during her downtime she started swimming and thought, Why not bike, too? Now, she’s a triathlete.
Whatever you choose to do in your off time, don’t revert to a couch-potato lifestyle for an extended period of time. “If you’re goal-driven, not having a goal can be miserable,” Portenga says. “If you’re a person who likes the order you get from training, you need to find some way to replace that.” That doesn’t mean it has to be physical. You can fill in that extra time by signing up for a cooking class, catching up with friends who you abandoned while you were training, or finishing that dresser you started refurbishing last summer. The goal is to not end up crying during lunch.
“Having a plan for what you want to do in that time is really important,” Portenga says. “You have this extra time, so instead of just being a blob, what are you going to do? Even if it’s just relaxing and binge-watching something, at least you feel like you’re using that time for something you want, as opposed to just being stuck, staring, figuring out what to do.”
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