You reach the finish line, waving at the crowds who are roaring in joy and cheering you. Your dream has finally come true and you achieve what you had set out to do. All those months of planning, preparation, and hard work have borne fruit. You’ve completed your marathon and you feel like you’ve conquered the world. But the feeling is only a fleeting one and you’re not sure why, when you should be elated at your accomplishment, you’re feeling down and confused about your mental state.
This state of mind is called the post-marathon depression or after-race blues that affects many runners.
Why it happens
Training for a marathon consumes every aspect of your life. It’s thrilling and enjoyable but at the same time strenuous and demands high levels of commitment. In the case of some people, for months the sole focus of their lives is on putting on the running shoes and pounding the asphalt—sometimes for hours at a time. For them, nothing exists beyond their event, and their minds and bodies are completely focused on a selected goal. There is no free time for them. If not actual practice, they are busy visualising their moves and tactics. Then there is the diet, injury [rather avoiding it], mileage and timing to think about.
All of this takes up a lot of time, energy and involvement. It keeps you engaged and on the move. While preparing for long distance races, serious runners are lost in a world of their own—sometimes they barely socialise. Once the race is over, you may experience a void or an empty space that previously used to be filled by training sessions. The training and preparation that was such a big part of your life is now gone.
During the training period, you’re constantly stimulating the body to release endorphins. These endorphins do a wonderful work of improving the runner’s mood and give her a feeling of euphoria during exercises and practice sessions. The high continues through your training and peaks on the days close to the final run. However, once you’ve met your goal and there is nothing more to keep you as stimulated, there is a sudden drop in the endorphin level, which causes a temporary feeling of unexplained sadness and emptiness.
The physical condition, the sore muscles and overall fatigue, at times forces you to question if the entire process was worth the trouble.
Overcoming this phase
There are various strategies that you can adopt to treat and prevent post-marathon depression.
- Runners usually feel a real “high” after finishing the race and are naturally enthusiastic to share experiences. However, next morning, the fatigue and discomfort starts setting in. This descent is a normal reaction to meeting your goal and not having a new one. To cope with it, do not plan anything new for at least a week. In this time, assess your performance in the race and analyse the good and the bad things that you did in the race. You could pen down your observations as they might help you in the next season. This technique is called “reviewing”, where you evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
- Give some time for the burn out phase to pass and then consider setting future goals. However, these goals need not necessarily centre around a marathon—they could be from your personal to professional life.
- You could switch to playing a sport in the period before you start training for the next event. But do not force yourself if your body is not responding.
- When you were busy training for so long, your family and friends missed spending time with you. Mingle with them and get completely disconnected from the racing scenario to relax yourself emotionally and overcome feeling low.
- Your body needs to recover from the marathon. Hence, it’s mandatory to relax. However, stopping exercise completely might cause you more harm. So, maintain your fitness by doing light but regular exercises. This will also help you come back to your schedule easily since your body will be in good shape.
- Consider hiring a coach or a professional to help set goals at the beginning of the next season. Keeping a training plan ready for the year with training periods, rest periods and solid goals will help get you focused on the future and ready to move forward.
- It is essential to expect the void and frustration that follows a marathon. If you are mentally prepared for the empty space, the post-marathon journey becomes smooth and enjoyable.
Signs of post-marathon depression
- Sudden, unexplained feeling of sadness.
- Feeling of a lack of aim/purpose in the immediate future.
- Negative thoughts accompanied by low energy levels and loss of appetite.
- Extended sleep hours where you sometimes sleep for hours at a stretch.
- Feelings of anxiety, irritability and hopelessness.
- Difficulty in concentrating on day-to-day tasks.
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