I was 0.3 miles from the finish line of my final leg of a recent Ragnar relay race when I completely broke down on the side of the tree-lined trail in the mountains outside of San Diego. I managed to focus on my breathing and get myself to the finish line—albeit, embarrassingly, in tears.
I wished I could have told the other runners around me it wasn’t the eight-mile trail run that broke me. It was the 48 hours leading up to it during which I camped (er, slept in the rental car) in the freezing cold, ran two other relay legs (one at midnight with a headlamp), and moderated a fireside chat. It was the elevation. It was the altitude. It was the total sleep deprivation. It was the stress of public speaking. It was the fact that I didn’t bring any water—and my whole fueling strategy was totally out of whack.
Really, though, it was probably the culmination of all of those things—and suppressing how they made me feel until they came tumbling out of me. I’d reached the weight limit on my emotional baggage, so to speak, and I’m certainly not alone.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, take this recent case study, during which researchers tracked the emotions and coping strategies of two expeditioners on a 400-ish mile journey to cross Lake Baikal, a frozen lake in Siberia. One teammate experienced some version of this mix of emotions and had to figure out how to cope so she could finish the last stretch, notes one of the study authors Carla Meijen, PhD, a sports psychologist based in London.
But it’s not just ultra-long distances and events that make people emotional. Personally, I’ve also experienced the cries close to marathon and half-marathon finish lines. This is a common response among athletes who Austin-based performance coach Lennie Waite, PhD, has worked with over the years who are experiencing a lot of stress (e.g., job turnover, grad school rejections, relationship problems, general work overload), went through the death of a loved one, or are dealing with grief in some way. “You try so hard to push forward, one foot in front of the other, then it all suddenly hits you because you've reached your limit of emotional baggage,” she says.
The Endurance-Emotion Connection
Endurance athletes are particularly susceptible to these types of reactions purely due to the fact that we’re out there for so long and at a relatively low intensity, says Meijen. When you’re running a one-mile race, by contrast, you’re pushing so hard you don’t have time to really sit with your emotions. During a 48-hour relay or even a half-marathon, Meijen says, “you probably spend quite some time fighting off some demons, plus you're just bloody tired physically, right?” Right.
Physical exhaustion could greatly impact our emotions, says Ad Vingerhoets, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He points to research that shows how sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex on the amygdala, a critical brain structure for emotion. “I can imagine that physical exhaustion also may have similar effects,” he says.
The other explanation Meijen offers, which certainly resonates with me: You’re this close to the finish line so your physical exhaustion is real, but you’re also realizing what you’ve accomplished—a sense of self-pride and natural high comes into play. In other words, those tears could be a combination of tears of pain and tears of joy. Also in the emotional cocktail could be a sense of “now what?” that’s not totally dissimilar from the post-race blues some athletes experience.
One more consideration: “Altitude lowers your threshold for crying,” per Vingerhoets. “We don’t know why but it could be that your brain does not receive enough oxygen.”
The TL;DR is that getting emotional during any type of workout can have both positive and negative repercussions, and knowing how to cope in the moment can not only help you get to the (literal or metaphorical) finish line but also leave you feeling fired up for the next one.
The Upside Of Letting It All Out
When you see someone else crying, it’s a signal that something’s wrong, and as humans we’re inclined to stop and see how we can help them. The same should hold true when it’s you that’s crying, even if you’re the one to ask yourself, “What’s wrong?”
Some athletes avoid or suppress their emotions, Meijen explains, which could lead to them tuning out and pushing through pain (rather than discomfort) signals and forgetting about their pacing strategy and form. So, your emotions could be trying to tell you something: that something’s not quite right. If you tune that out, you could miss out.
Another positive of feeling the feels is that doing so takes less energy than suppressing them does, says Meijen. She points to a study in which people cycling on stationary bikes were shown an upsetting video. One group was told not to react or show their emotions, and it turned out that group found cycling required more effort than the group that was allowed to react as they normally would. “When you suppress your emotions, eventually they'll catch up with you—as it costs quite a lot of energy,” Mejien explains.
The one thing an emotional release might not actually do for you? Provide catharsis afterward. Vingerhoets points to research he co-authored of over 5,000 participants who were asked about their most recent crying episode. While half did report mood improvement, 40 percent reported no difference and 10 percent felt worse after crying compared to before, he says, noting the ones who did feel better may have gotten a lift from how others around them reacted to their crying, rather than from the tears themselves.
How To Cope During Your Workout
While suppressing or avoiding your emotions during a race or workout is probably not going to serve you, coping with them in a healthy way will. After all, if you’re like me with a little over a quarter of a mile to get through, or the expeditioner in Meijen’s study who still had a stretch of ice in front of her, succumbing to a cry fest may not always be the most practical outcome, right? Below, Meijen provides strategies to try, whether your own fitness emotional response manifests in actual tears or some other emotion, like anger, frustration, or a mix of them all.
Just as everyone's emotions will be unique, so will the strategies that work for us. So, Meijen suggests trying out a few of these in shorter, lower-stakes workouts so you have a handful in your “toolbox.”
Focus on the journey. “If you're focusing on the outcome, that can be quite detrimental,” says Meijen. “But one of the things that can really help is to get back to the process.” So rather than thinking about the finish line that’s X miles or minutes away, simply think about putting one foot in front of the other.
Pull strength from others. Engaging with people around you can help you manage fatigue, per Meijen. She notes it can be as simple as smiling at another racer or spectator.
Tune inward. As mentioned, sometimes emotional pain can be a sign to tune into any physical pain. Take some time to scan your body and notice if you’re slouching, for example, or if your stride has changed from when you first started out.
Try positive self-talk. In one study, runners completing a 60-mile ultramarathon who were instructed to use motivational self-talk to cope with exertion and other stressors found the strategy helpful and continued to use it six months afterward. Think: I can do this, I’m strong and capable, or anything else that resonates with you.
Plan for all the emotions—and share that plan. The two expeditioners in Meijen’s case study had very different coping preferences for when things got tough. If you’re working out with a group or partner, Meijen says it can be beneficial to chat with them beforehand about how you’ve handled tough situations, or just general fatigue, in the past and how you plan to handle any hard moments this time around. “Having that conversation beforehand makes it a lot easier than in the moment when you're really tired, and stressed,” she notes.
The Emotional Debrief
Whether you get teary-eyed mid workout or not, taking some time to process your emotions after a big sweat or race or event is wise, says Meijen.
“If you are constantly going from event to event and never allowing yourself some time to sit with your emotions, then you're never able to decompress your feelings,” she says. “And if you're not able to decompress your feelings, they're just building up, and there might be a moment that either you explode, burn out, or lose the enjoyment for the activity.”
Ask yourself what went well, what areas you could improve in, what coping strategies you used and how they worked, etc. Reflecting on what you accomplished and all the associated feels, positive and negative, can actually give you fuel for the next thing, whatever that may be for you.
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