I had an incredibly enjoyable final long run of taper the Sunday before the marathon, spending the first 6 of my planned 8 miles with one of my sole sisters. The marathon training team had 12 on the schedule which I cut, also giving me the opportunity to see the continued evolution of what remains of the monuments on Monument Avenue in the Fan. The weather was perfect, starting at 43 degrees, and gradually warming up into the low 60’s. The air was crisp. The skies were sunny. The breeze was slight.
After a few weeks of not running together, my friend and I had the chance to catch up on lots of things. I was already thinking about writing a post about this topic, but my friend commented that she wasn’t sure what she was going to do once marathon training team was over. She, like many of us, is using MTT as a distraction from the stress of everything going on in this world. That simply reinforced my need to discuss this issue.
While training, we can remain focused on our goal of completing the marathon. It’s a healthy way to deflect from everyday life stresses. This season, we have the additional stress from the pandemic, new routines from that, and the ongoing political climate problems in our country right now.
We spend so much energy preparing for the big day, but once the celebration of the accomplishment is over, there is a void where all of that energy held space in our lives. It’s a blessing that the work is done, but the curse is the empty space which leaves room for other emotions to enter. It’s a weird kind of grief.
I have definitely been through this with each marathon I’ve run. The worst season for me was in 2015 when I ran both Chicago and Richmond. The races were 5 weeks apart, and it was really hard on my body. What I didn’t really expect was the major emotional down after these races were over.
I think that those of us who chase crazy goals like running marathons are generally high achievers in other aspects of life as well. We push ourselves to do more than just our best. So to not have a goal to chase can leave us feeling out of sorts.
Often with my patients, I bring up common emotional responses to major life events like having a stroke or enduring a trauma. For example, in almost all patients who have had a stroke, it hits them in about their third or fourth day of rehab that they have survived an event that could have killed them, and are now dealing with the grief of losing function. Their bodies have been in fight or flight for days, maybe even weeks, and now they have the time and space to breathe and think. That’s when they get overwhelmed. This is such a universal phenomenon I’ve found in my over 21 years of practice that I actually talk about it during my evaluation of these patients if they are cognitively intact. If this response is normalized and expected, and if we approach it more like a grief process than depression, I’ve found that most patients are more accepting of help to sort through their emotions.
Although running a marathon is generally not a life or death event, it does cause a great deal of stress to our bodies, both physically and mentally. So my purpose of bringing this up through my blog is to normalize this phenomenon, much in the same way as I try to help my patients understand that what they feel after a major medical event is also common. Sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re normal, right? It’s grief of loss of focus. It’s having the time and space to think about other things happening in our lives and in the world. And it’s the loss of that physical outlet for anxiety.
So, how do we deal with it?
A common strategy is to sign up for another race. In that way, it kind of sounds like an addiction. But I’ve been running a spring half marathon since 2014, so… it’s now a part of the regular schedule. Spring half, at least one fall full. But it doesn’t even have to be that ambitious. Sign up for something fun! Maybe you have a child who has been inspired by your journey and wants to run, too, and a 5k is an easily attainable goal you could help them train for!
You can also change your focus for your workouts. Do you feel like your body needs a break from running? Try another type of exercise. Maybe you want to focus on your flexibility, so you join a yoga studio. Maybe you want to focus on strength, so you try CrossFit. With CrossFit, there are lots of smaller goals you can check off to note success. New skills, new PR’s on weightlifting, better times to achieve in benchmark WOD’s. Maybe you want to check a triathlon off your bucket list! This is a great time to work on swimming indoors and cycling in preparation for a possible summer race. Maybe you can get lost in nature and go hiking. There are so many pretty trails I want to explore this fall! There are multiple ways of exercising that don’t necessarily involve running.
Another great way to cope is to maintain those friendships you formed in training. I’ve mentioned before that my group of sole sisters has been built through my involvement with several training teams. These women are all so very important in my life, and I admire each of them for their own special gifts and talents. They have put up with a lot from me over the years, and I appreciate their presence in my life! Our little group grew because we spent the time and energy to foster those friendships not only by continuing to run together, but in getting to know each other outside of running.
In anticipation of this completely normal set of emotions after the race, try to plan a few fun things to do in the weeks following. Get together with old friends you haven’t seen in all of your months of training. (Socially distanced, of course). Plan a hike in the mountains. Take a day trip to the beach. You know, all the things you may not have had time to do while training.
Acknowledge and spend a little time remembering your accomplishment by taking your bib, medal, and a race photo to be framed. Michael’s almost always has a sale on custom framing. Last year, I framed my throw away race jacket from the Marine Corps Marathon. I took the time one year post-marathon to make my own medal display.
Perhaps the best thing you can do to cope is just to talk about it. I can guarantee your athletic peers have felt similar emotions following a big race or competition. Normalizing this experience and validating these feelings can go a long way in taking that heaviness off of your spirit. And if that’s still not enough, the roots of these feelings may run deeper.
Always seek professional help if you can’t get out of a funk. There is absolutely no shame in this. In fact, I think that depression and anxiety are pretty common problems among amateurs in our sport. Many of us run as an outlet for stress. That race expo shirt that we all laugh at that says, “I run so I don’t punch people.” Yeah. That’s kind of not a joke, right?
So, yes, post marathon blues are definitely a thing. No, you’re not crazy if you experience this. In fact, I would really be surprised by people who don’t have a few days of letdown after the excitement of a big race is over. But do talk about it. Maintain those new friendships with your running partners. Plan a few non-running fun things to do in the weeks after race day. And find a little something to focus on that involves exercise, but do give your body a break. And absolutely seek help if you need it.
Have you experienced the phenomenon of post marathon blues? What strategies have you found to help cope? I’d love to hear about your experiences if you’d like to share. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.