I’ve talked to a number of runners that have found running to be a good substitute for a previous drug addiction. Maybe this is just a coincidence but I have a hunch that endurance sports in general, running in particular, tend to attract those strong enough to break the bonds of drug addiction and need something to take it’s place. They’ve told me that running has a way of filling the void of highs and lows that are associated with an addiction. Most people would consider running a healthy alternative and much less destructive, but the low points after a race can have a significant effect on our mental outlook.
Post-Race Blues is not Uncommon
With the highs that exercise and running can produce, there are also the lows. In some cases, very extreme lows can feel like depression. Similar chemical signals are involved in both. While I’ve not had a drug addiction and can’t speak to exactly what that is like, I have definitely experienced the highs of a successful race. I’ve felt the endorphins releasing like flood waters of the Mississippi, as well as the very obvious post race depression that can also accompany those highs. Feeling like life has no purpose, and getting out of bed is harder than the 100-miler you just ran. Ironically, this post-race depression is rarely from a poor performance or a so-called “bad” race.
Think about it though, you’ve gone through nine months of the most exhausting and rewarding training in your life, you’ve beaten the odds in the lottery, and you’re ready for anything – even this 100-miler. You run the 100-miler in 23 hrs and 54 min, just under the 24 hr cut-off, and you’re elated because you’ve just met your life-long goal. Now, enjoy the awards ceremony and pick up that shiny belt buckle because buddy, tomorrow’s Monday and it’s back to work. And when you think about it like that, it seems obvious that with such a level of commitment, exertion, and then transitioning back to life, that a person might feel a bit shell-shocked from all the changes in hormone levels.
That’s a lot to handle in a short amount of time, with a lot of emotions flying around in a very exhausted human. I had tears in my eyes when I rounded the track in Auburn at the end of the Western States 100 in 2014. You know you’re exhausted when it becomes that hard to hold your emotions in check. I was so happy to be done running 100 miles, and it was also a huge accomplishment for me.
It’s easy to see why this happens regularly to endurance runners, and why there are numerous advice tips on the post-race blues: sign up for another race, analyze your race, be prepared with a plan, get a hug from your mom, etc. So I wanted to get a few stories from real runners of what happened during their post-race blues, and how they got through it. Unfortunately, tales of post-race depression don’t make for great reading because, well, they’re pretty depressing and usually involve a lot of ice cream and couch time.
I believe we each have our own way of dealing with it, but the advice that’s out there is pretty helpful. Ryan Ghelfi, an ultrarunner from Ashland on the Nike Trail Team, has a bit of a different take on how to cope that I particularly liked. “I usually find something completely non-training or non-running related to do as soon as I can after the race,” he says. “For instance, after The Gorge 100K I went up to Washington and climbed some big ass peaks and skied down. Climbed up Mount Hood, too. Kind of a scary top – 500 feet of the firmest ice my fat skis could handle. After about 10 days, I’m back to running a little bit and looking forward. So I can go through it all over again. That is the cycle.”
If we keep that cycle going, there’s always another motivator or another race on the horizon. As soon as we shut that cycle down, that can often lead to a longer period of spinning your wheels, which is harder to break out of.
For me, the post-race depression has been significantly worse when I’ve poured my heart and soul into training over a period of months or years so that I have a good race. The result of the race is usually irrelevant – could have gone great, could have gone poorly. It’s usually the performance of your life that precedes the lowest point because it’s such a huge transition. The low points after races are when I feel pretty worthless, don’t know what to do with myself, am easily aggravated, and have extremely low motivation.
Understanding what’s going on and being mentally prepared for it, is all we can ask of ourselves. There are things that will help us cope and get through it easier, but recognize that it’s still going to be there after a big race.
Originally published 2016 print issue.