How to Beat the Post-Race Blues

When Tiffany Hoffman finished her first marathon in Chicago in October, she felt elated. The support from the crowd and teammates had buoyed her for 26.2 miles, as she completed in a time far faster than she’d expected.

“Crossing that finish line and hearing your name called—there was relief, and such joy that the goal was accomplished,” she tells SELF. “It was something I’d never experienced before.”

But not long afterward, she found herself on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. She knew her body needed rest—but she missed seeing her training partners from Chicago’s Peace Runners 773, where she is a team leader, nearly every day. When she tried to run again, she felt slow and awkward. At some points, she even questioned whether she’d run another race.

Hoffman, a licensed professional counselor in Chicago, knew she wasn’t alone in falling into a bit of a post-race funk. Many people experience a low—those post-race blues—after a big athletic event, Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS-S, founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy in New York, tells SELF. And for events like marathons, which can require 16 to 20 weeks of training, the letdown can be even more pronounced.

Once the medal is around your neck and the post-race celebrations are over, you may be left with a feeling of loss and emptiness.

“There’s so much build-up and so much excitement, and then all of a sudden, it’s just over,” Rachel Gersten, a licensed mental health counselor and cofounder of Viva Mental Health + Wellness, tells SELF. “It’s not like it slowly tapers off. It’s just done.”

Those bittersweet vibes can occur regardless of how the race went, which can often take runners by surprise. You might understand feeling a bit bummed if you had to drop out of the race or fell short of your time goal. But even your dream race can bring a sense of pre-grieving, Gersten says: “That magical day where everything clicks—if you have one of those, I think you also recognize that this either may never happen again, or it might be years until [you] feel this good at a race.”

Whether you’ve just wrapped a big fall race, or have one on your schedule in the future, here’s what you can expect afterward—and some ideas on how to cope, from three therapists who are also endurance runners themselves.

Prepare for the rise and the fall.

Simply anticipating these emotions can go a long way toward helping you move through them.

“If there’s a bad thing coming and you can’t change how bad it is, knowing that it’s coming does often make it easier to deal with it,” says Gersten, who just completed her fifth New York City Marathon.

After all, if you expect to be riding high, but suddenly find yourself struggling, you might feel guilty or wonder if there’s something wrong with you, Gersten says. This can send you into a spiral of negative thoughts. But if you can, instead, normalize those lows as a typical part of the process, they’ll have less of an impact.

To allow yourself a little emotional wiggle room, consider taking the next day off (or take off one more day after you get home, if you’ve traveled). That means no work and no other big obligations, if possible (and absolutely no working out). Keep it loose, and use that time how you want at the moment. “Give yourself that period to feel how you’re gonna feel—to either be excited and to have a really fun day, or to just sit on the couch and feel your feelings,” Gersten says.

Take care of your body.

Any big effort—especially a race as long as a marathon—requires significant recovery. Since the Chicago Marathon, Hoffman has been putting extra emphasis on refueling and hydrating, foam rolling, and staying alert for lingering pain that might be a sign of an injury.

These steps enhance your mental recovery as well as your physical. Take refueling, says Roth-Goldberg, who’s also a certified eating disorder specialist and intuitive eating counselor. Some people struggle to eat enough in the days and weeks after a race, either because they’re too fatigued or because they think that since they’re running less, they need to cut back.

But proper refueling not only provides the raw materials to repair the damage done to joints, bones, and muscles; it’s also important for your brain. “Your body’s used to eating with a certain frequency, and maintaining that can be really helpful for blood sugar and mood as well,” Roth-Goldberg says.

Make a real effort to celebrate your achievements.

If you’re up for it, you can start the night after your race: Go out for a special meal, and wear your medal if you’d like. If you so desire, keep it on for the next few days, too—then, find a way to display your swag proudly. Think about what feels celebratory to you and what brings you joy—maybe it’s a concert, a night out, a massage, or even a day of self-care at home. And if you know you won’t feel up to celebrating right after the race, you’re definitely not alone. After you’ve taken some time to rest, pencil in some future festivities.

On the other hand, if your race didn’t go as planned, or if you didn't hit a PR you had set, giving yourself a pat on the back might not come as naturally. So first and foremost, know this: You’re allowed to feel disappointed if you missed your goal. But also, recognize the fact that you put significant time and effort into a meaningful pursuit, Gersten says—something that’s worth honoring. “Remember, it wasn’t just about that day, it was about the big picture,” she says.

And no matter what, you can find something that went well, Hoffman says. Maybe your cadence was faster than in past races, your breathing more relaxed, you made it through training without any serious injuries, or you high-fived some friendly spectators along the course. Maybe, as was the case with the most recent NYC Marathon, an uncharacteristically hot day made the race surprisingly challenging—and yet so many runners persevered.

Write about the race and your feelings surrounding it.

Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to tell your race story serves a few key purposes, even if you aren’t the type to share a recap on social media. First, there’s the practical: Remembering the things you did well, or could improve in the future. On the emotional front, the exercise offers you time to pinpoint and process any feelings you have about how things went, Roth-Goldberg says.

If you find yourself unsure or struggling in the time afterward, journaling can also help you sort your way through, Roth-Goldberg says. Prompts can include: What do I feel capable of doing today? What do I think would help me today? What am I proud of from the event?

“That may help you figure out what you need to build in or how you want to kind of fill that void,” she says.

Recap with your running buddies, and reconnect with your other friends.

Another factor that makes post-race blues so common is the sudden change in your social scenario, as Hoffman experienced. “When you’re around a lot of people, you’re all training together—those endorphins get released, and we’re happy, we’re having fun,” she says. “And then all of that goes away and now your mood changes.”

If your group was a short-term one, getting together to rehash the race—maybe even a few weeks afterward—can give you something to look forward to, allow you to work through your emotions with others, and bring a sense of closure, Roth-Goldberg says.

If you want to keep running in a group, consider joining a more permanent run club, when you’re recovered enough to get back out there. Hoffman’s Peace Runners are part of a rapidly growing running scene in Chicago, but wherever you are, chances are you can find a squad that meets nearby on a regular basis. (Here’s how to find an inclusive run club.)

In the meantime, you can make some plans with non-running friends, who you probably didn’t see as often during training, Roth-Goldberg says. Doing activities you may have missed out when you were focused on the race—concerts, happy hours, brunches with people who aren’t wearing sweaty running clothes—can help you ease back into a new routine.

Use motivational sayings, just like you might for the race itself.

Before each race, Gersten comes up with a new motivational phrase to get her through the journey. She writes it on her hand on race day and repeats it to herself as the miles go by. This year, in honor of some of the challenges she faced, it was a quote from a Billy Joel song: “Don’t forget your second wind.”

Make your mantra meaningful for you, she says, and it’ll stay relevant even after you cross the finish line. “Running is a metaphor for life,” she says. “If it gets you through a hard day, it'll probably also get you through a hard race—and you can use your racing mantra for the next day, because it might be harder to get through the next day than it was to run your marathon.”

You can also play around with different mantras, depending on your emotional needs, Roth-Goldberg suggests. If you’re struggling with identity or finding your place outside of structured training, try “I’m more than just a runner.” If you’re down on yourself for your performance, a self-compassion mantra such as “I did the best I could” or “May I give myself the compassion that I need” might resonate instead.

Consider setting a new goal—running-related or totally separate.

Once the finish line is in the rear-view mirror, you may miss the act of striving. If the idea of lining up for another race or even just another run excites you, you can start to put some dates for training runs or future races on the calendar, Gersten says.

But she, Hoffman, and Roth-Goldberg all caution that this requires a bit of self-awareness: For some people, setting a new goal is like a Band-Aid for the letdown. If you jump right into the next big training cycle without processing the last one or adequately recovering, you might wind up injured, burned out, or otherwise crashing harder later on.

If that’s the case, another option would be to set a goal outside of running. You can keep it in the physical realm: Maybe it’s in the weight room or on the yoga mat, places Hoffman has been focusing since her race. Yoga classes, or weight training programs can offer the structure that’s missing once a running regimen ends, and as a bonus, these practices can usually help as you ramp back up to running again. “All of these [workouts] tie together when it comes to running, because we have to make sure that we have a strong foundation to be able to continue to run,” Hoffman says.

But your next goal doesn’t have to be physical at all. After completing such a challenging physical endeavor, you also may find it beneficial to your mental and overall health to set a goal outside of fitness entirely. For instance, you could aim to get back to knitting, read more books, or plot out your garden for next spring. Another aim to consider: Make more time for meditation. Mindfulness practices, like meditation, breathing exercises, or using vibrations or sound baths, can bring a sense of acceptance and peace, Hoffman says.

Talk to a mental health professional.

If you’re already going to therapy, don’t hesitate to share how your day went and any of the emotions surrounding it—it’s an important part of your overall well-being. “I think there's a myth that this isn't something you could discuss with a therapist, but I absolutely plan on discussing [my race] with my therapist,” Gersten says. “I’ve had clients who have run the marathon and discussed it with me. It’s definitely something that you can talk about in therapy.”

And if you’re not in therapy now but have considered it, the post-race period might be a good time to take the next step. Of course, there are real systemic barriers to mental health care in this country, Gersten says, and that can make access difficult. (If you’re interested in learning more, here’s how to find an actually affordable therapist.).

Again, anyone can benefit from therapy anytime, but there are some signs you might want to prioritize it. Not wanting to get out of bed—or being too sore to do so—the day after a long race like a marathon is normal, Gersten says. But if your lethargy or desire not to leave the house or see people lingers for more than a few days, talking to someone is probably a good idea. The same goes if your disappointment in missing a goal turns into global statements about your worth. “If you feel super-fixated on this idea of , ‘I set this time goal and I didn’t hit it and now I’m not a good person, or I can’t do anything right,’that’s a red flag,” Gersten says.

Support someone else in achieving *their* goals.

Now that Hoffman is over a month out from her race, she has worked through her post-race emotions with her team. Each week, after their group run, she leads the Peace Runners in a “processing circle,” where they all talk through mental health concerns.

She’s eased back into running, keeping her pace relaxed. And, she further lifted her spirits by supporting her team. On November 5, she ran the Hot Chocolate 15K in Chicago with teammates, including some who were completing their first-ever races. Not only was it a nice thing to do, reveling in their excitement helped her tap back into her own enthusiasm. After all, being a cheerleader for others can also remind you that your own efforts are worth some fanfare, too.

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Originally Appeared on SELF