Beating the post-race blues

You've crossed the finish line, indulged in the post-race celebration, and still wearing your finisher's medal is starting to earn you some strange looks.

Now what?

For many athletes, the period immediately after a big event, such as a marathon or triathlon, can be depressing. For Melissa Korpi, a morning Internet news producer for an Austin, Texas television station, it was the kind of funk she didn't know how to shake.

"The longer I train for a race, the more let down I am when it's over," says Korpi, 27, who started training extensively for running and triathlon events a few years ago. "After the race, I just don't know what to do with myself."

It's not just you

If these feelings sound familiar, you're not alone. After investing so much physically, mentally and emotionally into training for a big event, this kind of letdown is normal -- and very common, experts say.

"The event has been the major focus for a long time, maybe even months, and then it's over," says clinical and sports psychologist Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology. "It's an abrupt transition, and the athlete hasn't prepared for it."

Steve Sisson, assistant women's track coach at the University of Texas at Austin and a former UT All-American runner, says the feeling of malaise doesn't matter if the athlete is a first-time competitor or an elite going for gold.

"Even if they've had a successful race, some people freak out, especially if they want to get better," he says. "They meet a certain time, then think, how can I beat that?"

Losing focus and friends

While preparing for a race, you may spend weeks or months honing in on that single goal and organizing your life to adhere to a strict training regimen. That laser focus and prescribed schedule keep you going when you're challenging your body to do more. The loss of this direction naturally leads to feelings of aimlessness and despondency. The emotional roller coaster you've been on also takes a toll.

"As you get back into your pre-training routine, the excitement is gone and recovery sets in," says Lesyk "That's when it hits the hardest."

It's not just in your head. There are physiological reasons for the post-race slump. You ask so much of your body for so long during training and the race. Once you've met your goal and need less from it, the body responds by shutting down to recuperate, says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., and Terri Schneider in their book The Triathlete's Guide to Mental Training (Velopress, 2006). "This physical downturn also expresses itself mentally in thoughts and emotions."

And if you've been training with a group, losing that regular social support and interaction can be hard to take, as well.

Aimee Larsen Kirkpatrick, 33, of Kaneohe, Hawaii, didn't know anyone in Hawaii when she moved there in 2004, so she joined an all-women's triathlon training group. She recently finished her first half Ironman and says once the event was over, she felt lost.

"The first two weeks were fine. It was great not having to get up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for an 80-mile bike ride, or race to meet my teammates for a workout after work," says Kirkpatrick. "But after two weeks, I began to feel disconnected. I missed my teammates, the camaraderie, the focus."

Getting through it

Many athletes try to make themselves feel better by immediately attacking a new challenge, but that's the last thing you want to do. Experts say it's a question of balance -- and acknowledging that the body needs to rest after such a hard effort.

"That depression is your body telling you it needs a break," says Taylor, a sports psychologist in San Francisco and an Ironman triathlete. "If you've really spent yourself in a race, especially a long distance race like a marathon, you won't feel like yourself for a while, and your body needs rest and recovery."

But it's important to continue to do some physical activity afterward, albeit on a much lighter schedule and level of intensity. John Bartholomew, Ph.D., an associate professor at UT Austin whose research focuses on the link between exercise and mental health, recently found that just a single workout can lift the mood of those suffering depression. So instead of collapsing into a sedentary existence, keep moving. Reconnect with training group friends for a easy recovery jog or bike ride.

"People who run races don't exercise, they train," Bartholomew says. "Ideally, you'd like to see people divorce themselves from their performance and realize the overall benefits of training."

But it's also important to use the post-race period to catch up on all the things you couldn't do while you were so busy training. "What you do after the race doesn't have to be sport-specific. Re-invest time with family and friends," says Lesyk. "Every moment of training could have been used for some other purpose."

Kirkpatrick got together with training buddies to do anything other than workout. "We made a point to reconnect our lives outside of training. I also spent more time with my husband, since we hadn't seen much of each other while I was training. We went on dates and took a weekend away to Maui."

Above all, keep things in perspective. Taylor says it's helpful to take a step back, appraise how the race went, and move on, especially since many athletes' identities are often tied closely to their life in training.

"You need to find other forms of self-validation. Remember why you started doing the sport to begin with, and have fun with it," he says.

Lesyk agrees: "Sometimes we think it's about a goal, and we forget that there's joy in getting there."

Amy E. Lemen is an Austin-based freelance journalist who deals with the post-race blues by taking time off and indulging in margaritas and Mexican food.

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