Dealing with Post-Race Depression

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Runners are a driven, focused bunch. Often, this self-discipline is fueled by a relentless and empowering sense of optimism. Achieving your physical goals, after all, requires a lot of mental training as well. Unfortunately, runners – and other athletes – can also deal with challenging bouts of depression after the event is over. Why does this happen, though? More to the point, how can you deal with and overcome post-race depression?

Your Brain After A Race

Post-race depression is a pretty frustrating and confusing thing. For months, you’ve been working hard, dedicating countless hours of thought and action to achieving one thing.  And you did it.  But, somehow, after the race is over you feel depressed.

This is, unfortunately, extremely common. One study found that, even among Olympic swimmers, 34 percent of athletes polled had elevated levels of depression after the competition was over. Surprisingly, the top performers in this sample group had the highest rates of depression. Clearly, then, you can’t jut assuming that post-race depression is based on being disappointed in your performance. You might have actually set a personal best and accomplished all of your goals for the events.

So, what’s the problem? Why do athletes get into this post-race low?

The issues, it turns out, may be rooted in the very thing that pushed you to perform: your laser focus. Depending on the type of event you were competing in, your training may have spanned months. During that time, that one goal dictated just about every decision you made. You trained when your goal said you needed to. You ate what your goal said you needed to. Everything was centered around that one thing. Which is now gone.

It’s also important to realize that, while you were training, you were constantly accomplishing things. As you worked toward your one big goal, you conquered many smaller ones, pushing yourself to stay motivated and using critical thinking to navigate around potential problems in your training. Over time, then, your brain and body get used to that constant sense of accomplishment.

Think Ahead

Post-race depression, then, is really about feeling directionless, regardless of how you performed during the event. In order to keep yourself out of this low, take preemptive steps before you ever even finish your big race but signing up for something else.

For example, if you’ve been training for a specific marathon, sign up for a shorter race slated for a few weeks after the big day. As soon as the marathon is over, you’ll have to start planning for the next goal which will prevent you from feeling the lack of motivation that characterizes post-race depression.

Conveniently (but not at all coincidentally) this step neatly complements another powerful motivational strategy: cross-training.

Switch It Up

Changing your running style or training for a different sport altogether can yield numerous benefits. And that post-race lull is in the perfect time to dive into something new.

For one thing, cross-training will challenge your body in a new way, preventing overuse injuries. A well-chosen training program, though, can also fill the gaps in your standard training – giving you the chance to work on your strength, power or flexibility.

But a pre-planned cross-training event can also give you something fresh and exciting to look forward to. Granted, you might chose to continue running in this period. Which is totally fine. Just select a different training style. You might spend this time trek through more scenic trails than you would normally use during your standard training or do some other sort of fun, destination event just to mix things up a bit. However you choose to spend this time, use this opportunity to do something fun and new to keep you motivated.

Take A Break

Of course, you might decide that you need to just take some time off from training completely. This approach is especially important if you experience any type of injury while getting ready for your big event, or even during the race itself.

As mentioned, athletic training can take up an enormous amount of time and energy. As a result, other aspects of your life might suffer or go totally neglected. Now is your chance to catch up. While taking a break might be a difficult thing to do, learning to give yourself permission to take time off is an important skill. Doing so will help you maintain balance and keep things in the proper perspective.

Reevaluate

If you do decide to take some time off between events, you also have a great opportunity to sort of audit your training program. Of course, you can do this even if you are getting ready for another event – it’s just easier if you can set everything aside and focus on the evaluation.

Look back over your training and performance on race day. As an athlete, chances are pretty good that you’ve maintained an impeccable record of your progress. What worked? What didn’t? What did you enjoy or hate? Is there anything you can change for next time?

Although the post-race low can be a real challenge, these simple steps can help you both get through that rut and improve your future performance.

Sources

  1. Wolanin, Andrew PsyD; Gross, Michael MA; Hong, Eugene MD, epression in Athletes: Prevalence and Risk Factors, Journal, Jan 01, 2015
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