A few days ago, Susan completed a marathon. Her hard training paid off: she did well. Now, along with the expected body stiffness, why, she wonders, is she feeling so out of sorts? She’s cranky, snapping at people, has no appetite, can’t find a comfortable position for sleeping, can’t focus at work. If she didn’t know better, she’d say she was depressed.
Then there’s her good friend, Sharon, who also ran this same race. Coming back from injury, Sharon wasn’t even sure she could complete the race. She did, but had been miserable—and achieved a miserable time. She too is moody, unfocused, and irritable. She keeps re-playing the race in her head, thinking “If only…” and “I should have….”
We might expect this reaction from Sharon. After all, she had set a big goal and not met it in the way that she expected. But Susan? Well, it’s a surprise only if you think that human beings are simply “thought [and feeling] machines.” In fact, we’re biopsychosocial beings. Mind and body are absolutely linked and interacting.
In this blog, while I’m using endurance sport for my example, there are similarities of reaction after any long anticipated, big event. Completing a major feat, into which you’ve poured a lot of time, energy, intention, and identity—maybe money, inconvenience, and sacrifice, as well—means that among other things, you’ll probably feel some degree of let-down when it’s ended. It may be a medical Boards exam, a theatrical run, or getting married. Although the physical depletion may be somewhat different in the immediate post-event moment, the psychological and social exhaustion may have many similar aspects.
Why does this happen—and equally, what can you do about it?
The “why” of post-race depression
Explanations for the “why” of post-race depression range from the purely physiological to the totally psychological—with plenty of room in between. Most of the research that’s been done occurred in relation to the running boom of the 1980s, used male subjects only, and they were mostly ultra-marathoners. That’s fine; it just means that the degree to which the research applies directly to everyone has its limitations.
Body depletion: At a physiological level, measures of ultra-marathoners have showed that the body’s experience of stress doesn’t return to baseline until a week post-race. General recovery takes about two weeks.
Basic psychological traits: People who are generally good at adapting their mood to the realities of situations seem to experience more pleasure and less of a dip in mood than those with lower “trait emotional intelligence.”
Discrepancy between predicted and actual performance: Your mood is more likely to be negatively affected right after a race if you did more poorly than you had anticipated.
The impact of not exercising: Exercise, in and of itself, has positive effects on people’s mood. If you’re not exercising right after a race, you’re not “feeding” yourself those biochemicals (science really doesn’t yet know exactly what they are, but the handy popular term is endorphins) that the body and mind crave and love. You’re also identified (by yourself and others) as a runner…Who are you if you’re not running? Who do you connect with if not your training partner?
Opponent process theory. This is an elegant theory that—true confessions—makes my head hurt…but it may appeal to you. The essence (if I understand it correctly) is a psychological or psychophysiological variant on Newton’s Third Law of Physics: for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Having worked really long and hard for this goal, the end release may shift you into a trough of exhaustion and lack of motivation. Here’s a lay explanation: http://gettingstronger.org/2010/05/opponent-process-theory/
Training/racing as distraction. Training and racing serve many functions. Both take lots of time and lots of focus. This may be a legitimate way to not think about or work on aspects of your life that you find stressful or difficult. Marriage shaky? Work unfulfilling? After the race, those issues are still there—and now they get to stare you in the face.
Pre-existing condition. Some people are already depressed, but not acknowledging it. A colleague used a metaphor to illustrate this point: “Post-performance lows or slumps are akin to a smoke detector. When the smoke detector goes off it doesn't mean you need to fix it. In fact, the sound of the alarm suggests that it is working well and more important, the person hearing the alarm needs to strongly and immediately consider the presence of something much larger, like a real fire.”
What do I do about it?
Some people who’ve been there/done that have some good ideas. Check out:
Here are some further suggestions:
Normalization. First and foremost, recognize that your experience—at least for a week or two—may be really normal, typical, and expected. It may at least take the edge off of that potential negative psychological loop that Susan and Sharon might be headed for.
Prevention. Anticipating this possibility, make some plans ahead of time. You might arrange to:
* spend time with friends you’ve had to brush off while training
* have a great novel at the ready or a season of your favorite TV series cued up and ready
* plan some light physical activity that won’t stress your already done-in body parts.
Reflection. Take some time to think, talk, or write about what this experience was like for you. What did you enjoy about it? What was difficult? What did you learn or re-learn about yourself? How does that inform your future? Recognize that initial reactions are going to be highly influenced by emotion. It is only with a bit of time that you can understand the entirety of your experience. Both elements are useful—but they’re not the same!
FIT. Frequency, intensity, and time (duration): In order to optimize training, you already think in terms of changes in frequency, intensity, and time. You can also use this concept and acronym—FIT—to measure whether you’re coming out of that emotional slump: Am I not quite so exhausted? Less irritable? Not moody for so long?
If you’re a mental health practitioner, sport psychologist, or advanced graduate student in one of these fields, registration is now open for the 2014-2015 season of Tele-Consultation Groups on sport and performance psychology. For details, check out http://www.theperformingedge.com/tcg.html
Whether regarding post-race depression or the Tele-Consultation Groups, feel free to get in touch with me via my website, http://www.theperformingedge.com