Published 6 October 2021. Written by Chris Worfolk.
It is done: you've completed your big race, rested, woken up the next morning expecting to feel amazing but instead you feel down. Some athletes refer to this as the post-race blues. In this article, we will explore what is going on and what to do about it.
What is it?
Post-race depression is a drop in mood after an event.
You won't find it as a definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But it is widely reported by athletes.
You may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Low mood
- Feelings of disappointment
- Lack of motivation to train
What causes it?
To date, not much research exists on the topic. However, one study suggested that it is caused by a discrepancy between an athlete's predicted performance and their actual performance (Micklewright et al., 2009).
This would make sense, except that athletes who report hitting their target goals or being satisfied with their performance, report the phenomenon as well.
Another possible explanation is simply that the positive feelings associated with the build-up to the race are removed, and therefore while our mood is not abnormally low, we notice the contrast between pre-race and post-race.
Finally, we should also consider physical fatigue. The cognitive model in psychotherapy teaches us that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected. After a race, we will usually be tired and sore, and spend time sitting around, sleeping more and recovering.
While this recovery time is important, it is also the behaviour often associated with low mood, and therefore may have a causative effect on how we feel.
So, what do we do about it?
Rest and recover
If our mood is low because our body is tired, then the good news is that this will fix itself sooner rather than later. As our body recovers, our mood will naturally pick up. This usually happens within a few weeks, but can take longer for long-format races.
Some people may advise you to get back to training as soon as possible to improve your mood more quickly. But consider that your physical body genuinely does need this rest and recovery time.
Instead, draw a line between behaviours that impede recovery and behaviours that impede mood. For example, swapping your runs out for a gentle walk will allow you to get some fresh air and connect with nature without putting training load on your body. And if you are skipping run club to recover, consider connecting with friends in other ways.
We live in a society where being sad is taboo. But it's okay to be sad. It's normal to feel loss or disappointment when things do not go to plan.
While these feelings are a problem is they affect how we function in everyday life for a prolonged period of time, at which point we cross the line into clinical depression, we don't need to push these feelings away as much as society suggests.
An alternative is to be mindful. Notice those feelings. Make room for them. Let them be there. Soon enough they will get bored and wander off.
Do something fun
It sounds simple but deliberately planning something enjoyable to do after the race can help rescue your mood.
This doesn't have to be anything big. While a pre-booked trip to the zoo might be your thing, it might also be a case of recognising you are feeling down and deciding to give yourself some extra time to engage in a hobby (cooking, reading, video games) or treating yourself to some food with a much higher fat content than you would do pre-race.
Set reasonable goals
Before you get to the start line of your race, ensure your goals are achievable and ideally conservative.
That does not mean you cannot set some lofty stretch goals. But remember that things can go wrong, or simply not quite as well as planned. To cater for these factors that are often outside of our control, our base goal should be something highly achievable.
What counts as achievable? For me, often simply completing the race is my base goal with certain times forming stretch goals. But if I was to take on something like UTMB, where just getting around within the 48-hour cut-off is difficult, the base goal should be "completing the first 20 kilometres" or "getting to the first aid station".
Let's dial that back for normal athletes. Let's say you are attempting to run your first 10k. Maybe your goal is to get around, but your stretch goal is to run the whole way. Or to run the first 5k.
Reconnect with training
When you are ready to get back to training, there is no need to jump back into a tightly structured programme.
First, reconnect with the reason you started training in the first place. Was it to do a particular race? Or was it to feel good about yourself, improve your physical and mental health, or any other reason that still remains the goal even after the race has come and gone.
Then, have fun with it. Make it social and spend time working out with friends or your local club. Do unstructured sessions you couldn't do before the race because you had a plan. Cross-train or try a new sport entirely.
When we are working towards a big race, it is easy to get caught in focusing on that. We often choose it to get the result we desire and that can mean reducing the amount of fun we have while training. Re-add the good stuff.
Set a new goal
This is the number one suggestion I see for dealing with the post-race blues and I urge caution.
Don't get me wrong: it does work. When you sign up for a new race, you get that goal, that structure and that anticipation back. And that can be a good thing.
However, as I have tried to emphasise throughout this article, these emotions are not inherently bad. It is okay to feeling sad and being comfortable processing these emotions will make you a stronger, more psychologically flexible person for doing so.
If we jump straight back into the racing/training cycle, we never develop our ability to cope with these feelings and are forever dependent on having to sign up to yet another race to improve our mood.
Instead, I would encourage you to spend some time letting your mood return to its usual state, reconnecting with your love of training and then when you are feeling yourself again, decide what your next goal will be.
Post-race depression is a drop in a mood that occurs after a big event. While it has received little research it is widely reported by athletes. Most athletes find their mood returns to pre-race levels within a couple of weeks. The steps outlined above can help you through this process.
Micklewright, D., Papadopoulou, E., Parry, D., Hew-Butler, T., Tam, N., & Noakes, T. (2009). Perceived exertion influences pacing among ultramarathon runners but post-race mood change is associated with performance expectancy. South African Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(4).