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After winning the inaugural world marathon championship in 1983, Grete Waitz said she felt “as hollow and empty as the tunnel” she walked through to exit the stadium. Joan Benoit wrote in her memoir that she felt empty after big races; sometimes, she said, she couldn’t shake her foul mood for weeks.
This post-race malaise may be one of the few things most of us have in common with all-time greats. It doesn’t hit everyone and doesn’t happen after every race, but this fall — the season of long-anticipated, long-delayed major marathons — it may strike more runners than usual. Marathoning, often a profound experience, will be especially so this year. And the aftermath may be more difficult.
The good news, if post-marathon blues hit you: you’re not going crazy, you’re not alone, and you don’t need to hide it.
In fact, it’s constructive to acknowledge what you feel. Mark Coogan, coach of New Balance Boston (which includes Olympians Heather MacLean and Elle Purrier-St. Pierre) sees a positive trend toward recognizing “that athletes are not just robots, but people” — an acknowledgment that, no matter your level of ability, running and competing are hard, and not just on the body.
A Grand Obsession
“I always had a huge crash after a marathon,” says Ben Rosario, coach of HOKA NAZ Elite (and Olympian Aliphine Tuliamuk). Rosario points to the removal of the goal that has been your north star. “Marathon training brings with it a level of addiction — you’ve spent months on this one thing that got you up in the morning and drives your decisions. And then it’s gone.”
Amy Begley, 2008 Olympian and coach of the Atlanta Track Club agrees. Leading up to a major race, she says, “You have blinders on.” But after can be like “coming down from an amazing high,” Begley says. “There is this black hole you come back to, and a lot of people don’t understand. People say you should be happy and excited.” Sometimes, you are; other times, less so. And it is not necessarily tied to your results.
Expectations, Meet Reality
We may even feel worse after triumphant races. Marathon champion Jack Fultz, now sports psychologist and team coach for Dana Farber, recalls that of all his marathons, he felt the let-down “most poignantly” after winning the Boston Marathon in 1976. Expectations — how we think we will feel — often exceed reality, says Fultz. We end up feeling like something’s wrong with us because we’re not as happy as we think we should be.
It doesn’t have to be the marathon, and it can hit even after the biggest possible successes. Five-time Olympian Nick Willis, now Athlete Experience Manager for Tracksmith, recalls feeling most lost after his 1500m medal-winning performances in 2008 and 2016. “It was much harder to get back to being focused on anything,” he says. “I sort of drifted for several months before getting back into anything serious.”
Neurochemical shenanigans may also play a role. We don’t know as much as we’d like about how marathoning affects the brain, but we do know that it takes a while for the brain to reset. Exercise increases levels of mood-influencing compounds in our brain — we feel better after running. But marathoning is more than just a bout of exercise for most of us. It is long, intense, and, for most of us, the culmination of a long journey toward a personally meaningful goal.
One mood influencer, dopamine, is connected strongly with the pursuit of goals – if we are taking steps toward achieving a goal we have set, the body releases more dopamine to make us feel good about it. Marathon training releases dopamine into our system, and the race itself causes a spike. But once we have achieved our goal, we lose that particular dopamine fix. The more meaningful the goal is to us — if, for example, you finally achieve your goal of qualifying for Boston — the harder the crash may be, and the harder we may find it to get refocused.
Researchers have found that another mood-influencer, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) fell below baseline levels three days after a marathon. (However, the same researchers found that, on average, marathoners’ moods were still elevated three days post-race. Plus, says Astrid Roeh, the lead author of both papers, “One would assume that changes in BDNF would take more time to affect mood.”) Our brain workings are still murky, but it does seem plausible that the post-race emotional let-down may have a similar cause to our physical soreness: Our bodies are repairing the stress of the effort.
Because the causes of the emotional let-down are complex, there’s no simple solution to getting over it. Common advice is to set another goal. Benoit wrote in her memoir that she often pivoted her focus to the next big race as quickly as possible — but, she allowed, that usually didn’t help.
Better, perhaps, to get away for a while. “Be cautious about how quickly you jump into either signing up for another race or getting back into training,” says sports psychologist Justin Ross. “Registering for another race or resuming training too soon just becomes a hopscotch move over processing what you just accomplished.”
The coaches concur. “The ones who try to jump right back into the next thing end up having bigger problems,” says Begley. “You have to take a breath.” Coogan agrees, adding, “Do the things you haven’t been able to do. Go have fun – try to be normal.” Rosario prescribes going to Disneyland: “Get away from the running world. Indulge yourself. Give yourself time to let that excitement come back naturally.”
That’s not always easy, however, and can cause problems of its own. “We still have goals and dreams,” says Amy Cragg, a two-time Olympian who now coaches Puma’s elite team in Chapel Hill, NC, “and it doesn’t make sense to say ‘don’t think about them.’” Normal-person time can leave you feeling that you’re letting yourself go, and your goals are getting further out of reach.
Rather than not trying to think about your running goals, try to broaden your focus to include non-running goals, suggests Dr. Loretta Breunig, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, who also blogs regularly for Psychology Today. “Variety stimulates dopamine,” she says. She cautions, however, that your new goals “have to give you a sense of pride.” Runners run because we find meaning in running — but we don’t have to be single-minded about it. “Lean into other aspects of your life,” advises Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, sports psychotherapist and founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy.
Staying active is important with any strategy, and not only because it will help you feel like you’re still making some progress toward your goals. If there is a neurochemical cause for feeling dispirited — your brain is used to exercise — it is good to get that fix somehow: Easy running if your body is up to it; biking, swimming, walking, or just getting outside with friends if it isn’t.
The Wisdom of Canines
Keeping your race in perspective can help you feel less adrift after it. “Try to ground yourself in what’s really important,” says Jonathan Green, coach of Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel. “Races are a special thing, and we should really try to enjoy them in the moment, but running is just left-foot, right-foot — there are bigger things out there.”
It’s easy for runners to magnify the importance of running, according to Roth-Goldberg. “Athletes devalue other aspects of their lives,” she says. We need to be reminded that running isn’t everything. “Running can be a big important part of your life, but it doesn’t define you,” Rosario says. “If you think things will change because of how you run, you’re mistaken.”
Sometimes we need a reminder that our individual worth is more than just our running. Rosario likes to quote something one of his athletes, Scott Fauble, likes to say: “Your dog doesn’t know you ran a marathon.”
It’s a valuable reminder even for professionals like Fauble, the top American finisher at the 2019 Boston Marathon — for those of us running for the joy and the pursuit of our own personal goals, it’s even more important. Be the person your dog thinks you are — which is much more than a marathoner.
The Companionship of the Long-Distance Runner
Further, marathon running is not just a solitary experience, and often runners are missing the comradeship of the training and raceday as much as they are the actual running. “People often fail to recognize that training and racing has a social connectivity piece,” says Roth-Goldberg.
Post-marathon, runners might need to rely on other parts of their social circle. “Support systems — families, spouses, coaches — need to be ready,” says Begley. But be patient if they don’t understand why this thing that obsessed you hasn’t made you happy. Cragg advises, “Find yourself a good sounding board.”
If athletes are really stuck after a major race, Begley encourages them to volunteer with club practices or events, or to be pacers for training groups, or to help a friend train. These “race enabling” activities, she says, will help runners get out of their own head, and examine their reasons for running: “Thinking about helping others can help you discover something new.”
It’s (a Lousy) Part of the Process
No solutions are guaranteed to work; the downs (and, it’s worth remembering, the ups) that we experience are, says Breuning, “part of what makes us human.” Post-marathon, you may still find yourself in a dark place. If you do, remember that it isn’t the mark of mental weakness — any more than not being able to walk down stairs after a marathon is a mark of physical weakness. Both are signs of a hard, honest effort.
Give yourself time to heal, physically and mentally. If your moods seem especially dark or hard to shake, consider seeing a therapist, the same way you’d seek medical help for a nagging injury.
Cragg was prepared for the let-down after Rio. “I still felt lost, but I was OK being lost,” she says. “OK” is also how Willis says he felt during his post-Olympics drift, and for a while, that was… OK. But, he says, “I tend to feel most alive when I’m passionately working towards a goal.”
And that’s probably how we are wired. Though we are not all Olympians, we are runners. Elites and duffers alike, we try to keep the arrow pointed north; the very fact that we seek the challenge of a marathon suggests that it is our nature to put a goal out there and pursue it wholeheartedly. If we must wander the desert for a while afterward, that may be the price we pay to once again reach the promised land.