One of the hardest parts of mental-health challenges is feeling alone in your own struggle, as beautifully described in this May 2018 article in Nature. Yeah, on some level, you might know that if you zoom out, things may be OK … eventually. But that is little solace in some situations, and sometimes even that is impossible.
A 2011 study in Psychological Science theorizes that for some people in some moments, the world between two ears has a way of closing in and stifling any perspective outside of bad thoughts. In the midst of a mental-health struggle, the five-inch universe from ear-to-ear can sometimes feel like all there is. And that feeling of being closed-in and closed-off is immensely difficult.
So this article is on a mental-health consideration for runners that is rarely talked about on social media: the post-race blues. The goal isn’t to solve the post-race blues—that is just as impossible as solving depression and anxiety. Instead, the goal is to just let you know it’s OK, lots of people are right there alongside you, and you don’t have to keep it between your two ears.
Post-race blues are like mid-run diarrhea: super common, but rarely talked about on Instagram. By understanding a little bit about post-race blues, the hope is to lift any stigma about it, to help make that time spent in the universe between your ears a bit more pleasant.
What are post-race blues?
The post-race blues are not defined clinically. They are probably an amalgam of various psychological principles, depending on the person. As always, see a medical-health professional whenever it may be helpful, from a therapist to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
While there is no clinical definition, event- or achievement- based letdowns are common in everything from trail running to the business world. There are stories online of people paying off student-loan debt and feeling immensely sad, or getting a promotion and crying for days. In 2016, the Atlantic wrote an article on “Post-Olympic Depression,” describing how some athletes can even wind up with clinical depression.
In running, there are so many anecdotes about post-race blues that maybe there should be a pamphlet that is handed out alongside a finisher’s medal. Theories abound online, so let’s go over some possible explanations (with the caveat that online theories also say that the moon landing was fake and Stevie Wonder isn’t blind, so take it all with a grain of salt).
Post-race blues could involve situational depression, with the blues developing at least partially in reaction to an outside stimulus like a poor race or injury. Situational depression is semi-controversial because it doesn’t meet some of the requirements of clinical depression, but as described by the Atlantic article, it can lead to that outcome for some people.
It could be related to the “arrival fallacy,” a term coined by positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier, where reaching a long-term goal reduces happiness levels since the “atmosphere of growth” was what mattered most all along.
It could be a combination of psychological principles, a type of post-achievement let-down where reaching a goal moment leads to a loss of purpose that manifests similar to other depressive episodes. ESPN described it as Post-Race Let Down, or PRLD. Google “post-achievement depression” and you’ll see 94,000 hits of people with similar experiences in wildly different parts of life.
Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason. You don’t want to get complacent after killing the antelope, because the lion could be coming any moment.
Maybe it’s biological. Hard events release the stress hormone cortisol, affecting homeostasis in the endocrine system.
It could be genetic, involving a family history of clinical depression. It could be hormonal, stemming from a lack of endorphins in the days following an event. Or it may just be a byproduct of trying to get by in a complicated world. If someone says they have all the answers, you probably shouldn’t trust them with your credit-card number.
For more detailed answers, please see a mental-health professional. If you’re just looking to get over a little post-race low, know that whatever the cause, it’s not a choice you made that you should beat yourself up over. In the mental-health draft, no one uses the first pick on being sad or low or depressed (well … maybe the Cleveland Browns would make that pick).
Your emotions are real, whether related to post-race blues or anything else. It doesn’t make you a worse athlete or person to feel your emotions, no matter what they are. You are enough, unconditionally.
So how do we deal with post-race blues?
The best way to deal with any mental health issue, no matter how small, is to talk to a professional. Pro athletes often have therapists for mental health right alongside their massage therapist and physical therapist. If that’s not available, here are four more things to think about to get you started.
Talk to people about it. For most people, life trapped in your own brain can become immensely difficult. Let others know how you feel; chances are they have felt the same way too. You might not get a cure, but you may get a few belly-laughs from shared stories.
Let your body recover. The trauma of racing can affect the endocrine system, it can break down muscles, it can cause inflammation, and it can generally make you go from feeling like a finely tuned machine to a scrap heap. Physical healing can take a couple weeks or more for particularly hard events, so be patient and don’t hurry back to get an endorphin rush. However, light activity like walking, slow jogging and spinning on the bike may be helpful in some cases.
Elevate process over results. At this point, that line is so cliche that you can probably imagine it on a motivational cat poster. But the cliche comes from truth. Results are dust in the wind, a brief moment in a long life. It’s OK to care about results to add meaning and purpose to the life process, but to put them on a pedestal is almost always a mistake setting you up to have the arrival fallacy give you a rude awakening. I have seen athletes win some of the biggest races in the world, and post-race blues come for them just like they come for all of us. There is no result that will ever satisfy the achievement monster lurking in most of us.
There is only one true finish line in life, and most people aren’t in a rush to reach it. So constantly remind yourself that results are not the end goal of your journey. Or, as we tell our athletes in a pre-race email, “We are stardust with delusions of grandeur. None of this stuff matters except the memories we make. So DECIDE NOW that they will be good memories no matter how the race actually goes.”
Give it time. There are very few people that are fully satisfied with themselves all the time. And those that are have either achieved enlightenment through lots of contemplation, or they have not thought about themselves in the context of the universe much at all. Post-race blues are a subset of mental-health struggles, and mental-health struggles are a side effect of life itself.
Fortunately, they are called “post-race” blues because there is a time element. They might last a few minutes or a few months, but usually they will pass (unless indicative of broader mental health concerns, in which case it’s especially important to talk to professionals).
So write down on a piece of paper an affirmation or two. “I am enough” or “I am freaking awesome” or “I love me some me.” If you’re in the midst of post-race blues, you might not believe it right this second. But hopefully, with some time, you will soon be able to see just how true those statements are.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play