One evening in late October, I was catching up with a friend when I suddenly found myself breaking down.
"I’m going through a hard time," I told her, choking back tears. "I had the worst summer of my life."
The first statement was true, evidenced by my zombie-like daytime interactions and random, tear-filled outbursts on the subway (sorry, New Yorkers on the A train). But I'll admit that the second was pure melodrama, sputtered only in retaliation to how the event I had most been looking forward to all summer had played out: my first Ironman.
Starting in May and continuing through September, I dedicated weekday mornings and full weekends to swimming, biking, and running to prepare for the 140.2-mile course of Ironman Maryland on October 1. I’ve run 10 marathons before, but I approached my training to this particular race with a new level of determination. I hired a triathlon coach, found a core group of training partners, and even upgraded my steel-framed bike to a triathlon-specific, carbon-fiber model from Specialized bikes.
I was dedicated. And come October, I was ready to crush the distance.
Unfortunately, the Ironman gods had other plans. On the morning of the race, the swim start was first delayed, then abruptly cancelled due to unsafe water conditions. We were left with only the bike and run portions of the course. While not insignificant feats, it was not the race course we had expected.
Crossing the finish line of my first Ironman-sanctioned race should have spurred feelings of elation, victory, and pride for pushing through a difficult challenge despite unfortunate circumstances (not to mention terrible weather conditions). But I didn’t feel any of those things. Instead, all I could feel was an overwhelming, crushing sensation of sadness and the scary prospect of the unknown.
I Lived the Post-Race Low
Once I returned home, I continued feeling lost. I tried to fill the void not training left me with, but couldn’t seem to find any motivation in what I was doing, whether it was in the gym or in my writing. I suffered through painful workouts when I should have been resting and spent way too many nights drowning my sorrows with a pint of beer.
I found myself questioning my self-worth and purpose, and I cried. A lot. I was beginning to wonder if something was seriously wrong with me. After all, triathlon is supposed to be a hobby.
Then I saw a post online from a member of the Facebook group Pathetic Triathletes who was experiencing similar struggles after her own race—one she was able to complete in its entirety, I may add. The sympathetic and relatable responses to her post got me thinking: Is it normal to feel sad after a big race is over?
Science Backs It Up: The Struggle Is Real
Bouts of post-race depression are more common than we think.
"Having a feeling of being let down, or even a short wave of depression, following a well-prepared race can be a normal experience," says Dr. Jeff Brown, author of The Runner's Brain and the Boston Marathon's lead psychologist.
Not only has your training regimen dictated almost every day of your life for several months, Brown reminds us, but your brain and body are used to meeting regular goals, navigating training challenges, and mentally preparing for a big event. Once that routine and goal are gone, feeling a little lost can be pretty standard.
Ben Oliva, M.Ed, a mental performance coach at SportStrata who specializes in working with athletes, cautions against using the word "depression" (he prefers the term "post-race low" instead), but he agrees that it’s totally normal for athletes to feel a certain way after a big event is over.
"When you’re training for a race, you wake up every day and have something to shoot for, and you're going to have positive feelings and energy that go along with that," Oliva says. "So the difference between normal sadness and that feeling athletes experience right after a big race is really a loss of energy and motivation."
It’s More Common Than We Think
After polling some of my friends, it turns out I’m not alone in having dark thoughts post race. After the 2016 New York Marathon, runner Chris Lopez spent a month feeling "sh*tty," plagued by thoughts that he had underperformed when he didn’t reach his goal time. After the 2016 Berlin Marathon, competitor Molly Kreter remembers feeling "let down and unimpressed," despite running a personal record.
It’s easy to understand Lopez’s frustrations with not reaching a much-coveted goal—one he’d worked hard pursuing. But in Kreter’s case, running her best marathon time didn’t exempt her from feeling down. According to Oliva, both of these post-race frustrations stem from the same place: a lowered motivation due to the lack of challenge directly ahead.
"It’s easy to recognize why you’re feeling low if the outcome of your race isn’t what you hoped for," Oliva explains. "But if you run a good race and then afterward you’re not feeling great, it’s a little more confusing."
Endurance athletes aren’t the only people affected by this phenomenon, says Jonathan Fader, PhD, director of Performance Coaching at SportStrata. There are lows associated with many other happy events, like giving birth, retirement, or even a big sports game.
"What athletes [and non-athletes] don’t normally recognize is that oftentimes, the most enjoyable part of something is preparing for it," Fader says. "When a training plan is over, not only is your body creating the physiological climate endorphins provide, but there’s often a social group associated with training that you’re no longer in constant contact with."
The good news is that whether or not your race went perfectly or you struggled throughout, there are ways to cope with life after the finish line. Oliva recommends athletes make a transition plan to recovery—just as they would prep for the race itself.
"Many times after a race, athletes ask themselves, ‘Is this normal? Should I be depressed?’ and the answer is, ‘Of course!’" Oliva explains. "While most people plan for their race, and their physical recovery from a race, it’s important to plan a mental recovery too."
By preparing, you can change that unhappy, isolated feeling into one that recognizes why you feel that way and what you can do to get back on track.
Here are eight ways to plan ahead and avoid falling into a similar rut after your next race:
1. Treat the race as a learning experience.
Criticizing yourself for not lubing your thighs adequately for the run portion of a triathlon won’t help you have a better experience, but knowing how much lube you’ll need for the next race is actually helpful, Oliva explains.
2. Go over what worked on the course—and what didn't.
Often, athletes can only focus on what went wrong during a race, sparking negative emotions. Fader suggests scheduling a debriefing with your training partners and coach ahead of time to go over both the good and bad parts of the course a few days later.
"Take yourselves through the race and pick up all the different parts of the course, even the ones you maybe weren’t mentally present for," Fader says. "You probably did a lot of things that were cool, but may have been overshadowed by that low."
3. Focus on the process rather than the outcome.
Sometimes, when endurance events don’t go the way we want them to, it can cause us to question whether all the effort we put into training is worth it, furthering our frustration. That’s why both Fader and Oliva stress focusing on the process of training and the race itself.
"It’s the hike, not the destination, that’s actually enjoyable," Oliva says. "Most of the time, race day circumstances are not in your control. Discovering a way to find enjoyment in that, and being grateful for that experience, is a powerful way to transition away from the ‘Was this worth it?’ mentality. If the outcome is the only motivation behind what you’re doing, you can create very negative feelings if things don’t turn out with a gold medal or big trophy."
4. Keep your training partners close.
Friends you can grab drinks with are great (and necessary), but there’s nothing quite like a buddy who’s helped you through a 100-mile training ride.
"Find a way to stay connected with your training partners," Oliva says. "In the same way that they helped you train hard and work hard for the event, they can help you bounce back and remember the things you did well."
5. Remind yourself why you do what you do.
It’s helpful to remind yourself why you run or participate in the sport of triathlon in the first place. "Something really helpful for me on a personal level is going for a run without a watch or training regimen," Oliva says. "Those training regimens can be very intense, so ditching your watch can be really refreshing and a good reminder that running is enjoyable."
6. Embrace other activities and interests.
Preparing for any athletic event can be time-consuming, so embracing activities and even people you may neglect during training is a great thing to celebrate post race.
"Balance in your life is really important," Oliva says. "Mentally, it can be really helpful to balance the intensity of the training season with the activities you had to give up, or minimize, during that time."
7. Take some time off.
While many people feel guilty about taking a break from training even between races, Oliva recommends doing just that. "Mentally, you can come back a lot stronger if you’re willing to really take a break and give yourself permission to do so."
8. Sign up for another race.
Signing up for another race can certainly help you feel better, giving you a new challenge to work toward and an event to look forward to. But if you’re simply trying to avoid the feelings associated with your most recent finish line, Oliva cautions that you’ll be creating an unpleasant cycle that will continue to fulfill itself.
Once you’ve taken the time to rest, embrace neglected activities, and regroup, however, taking on a new challenge is perfectly normal.
"You can’t control what happened in that last race, but you can improve your training, your enjoyment, and your feelings during the process of preparing for your next event."
After many weeks of sleepless nights, sad Spotify playlists, and questioning my own sanity, I traveled with three of my friends—two of whom I’d trained with for the Ironman—to run the Philadelphia Marathon. Just six weeks after our Ironman, we treated the endeavor as more of a road trip than a race weekend. After all, we needed a relatively low-key race weekend after our experience in Maryland.
After a Saturday spent laughing, playing practical jokes on one another, sharing a Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough beer, and generally goofing off, I ran my 11th marathon feeling relaxed, strong and confident. I even ended up running my second best marathon time ever.
Running a good race felt, well... good. But the best part was that I remembered why I loved endurance races in the first place. It’s not just about the race results or the God-awful-but-precious photos my mom got of me high-fiving my father on the course.
It’s the journey—the crazy endorphins and the friends I’ve made along the way (in this particular case, a congested drive to Philly and three men who make me laugh from my nose) that make me come back for more. If only I’d tapped a sports psychologist prior to writing this, I would have been smiling—and training confidently again—a whole lot sooner.