Contrary to popular belief, the marathon is not over once you cross the finish line. All the hard work and the mental nervousness will not cease to exist as soon as you are wrapped in that cozy mylar blanket. Experienced marathoners know this isn’t quite how things work out.
Whether you ran a great race, had a so-so performance, or just had a really bad day, within minutes after collecting yourself and coming to your senses, the post-marathon blues inevitably begin to set in. The post-marathon blues are the thoughts and actions that consume a runner’s mind for weeks after the race has finished. Preparing for a race that requires a long, intensive training block and can’t be run every weekend has that effect. It’s like the buildup to the Christmas as a kid — plenty of hype and excitement leading up to it, and then when it’s all over you feel a little deflated that have to wait another year before doing it again.
After a great race, most runners want to keep training to maintain their hard-earned fitness and see how far they can push their limits, while those that have a bad day might spend the next few hours searching the Internet for the soonest possible race where they can extract their revenge. Perhaps even worse, runners who have a mediocre race–especially if it’s the result of something out of their control–will dwell so long on the “what could have been” scenarios that their training will usually end up suffering for weeks.
So, regardless how your race went, how do you protect yourself from dwelling on the race and letting it negatively influence your training decisions? Let’s take a look at a few different answers in the following pages.
Redeeming Yourself After A Bad Race
Regrouping after a bad marathon is the most difficult kind of post-marathon blues to overcome. After putting in months of hard training and sacrifice you’re left sulking at the finish line with seemingly nothing to show for your efforts.
Worse yet, unlike a 5K or a 10K, you can’t just turn around and take another shot next weekend. Your muscles are damaged and you need to give them the proper time to recover or you risk overtraining in the short term and, inevitably, injury in the long term. For many runners, jumping right back into another race will more often than not lead to a vicious cycle of compromised training and poor race results.
What can you do after a bad race:
1. Think long-term.
A bad marathon doesn’t mean you didn’t make any progress. It’s important to remember that training is never wasted and doesn’t exist in a vacuum for that one goal race.
Each successful training segment builds upon itself. You train to achieve a new level of fitness, and once you’re able to reach this goal, you can build off that previous training block and continue to reach higher summits in your subsequent workouts. Each month you can train without unnecessary interruption is like putting money in the bank. That accumulated fitness will stay with you and allow you to build an even bigger base of training for the next race.
Running one bad race, as disappointing as it may be, only means that you didn’t have the chance to exhibit your newfound fitness. It doesn’t mean you’re not a better runner now than before you started your training segment.
2. Build confidence back by running a shorter distance race.
If you can learn to appreciate that you’re still making long-term progress despite the fact that your goal race didn’t go as planned, you can schedule a shorter race 4-6 weeks after your marathon to prove to yourself that the marathon was just one bad race.
While it isn’t instantaneous relief, turning your attention toward a shorter race still allows you to take the necessary recovery time after a marathon, yet enables you to display the hard-earned fitness you accumulated while training for the marathon. A well-timed short race can be the short-term confidence booster you need without sacrificing long-term goals.
2. Focus on the process, not the result.
Finally, remind yourself of this age-old lesson: “Focus on the process, not the result”. While it’s always preferable to finish off a marathon training segment with a new personal best, the real joy in running should come from the fun you had in training during the months leading up to the race and the new mental and physical heights you achieved along the way. Whether it was a great conversation you had with someone on a long run or conquering that workout you never thought possible, these are the moments you should remember.
Not Wanting To Rest After A Good Race
On the opposite end of the post-marathon blues spectrum, many runners confront the more veiled issue of wanting to parlay the rush and excitement of a new personal best into even faster personal bests. Worrying about what to do after a great race might seem like a trivial matter, but that’s exactly why it often causes the most grief for most marathoners.
Unfortunately, not resting enough after a big race or a long training segment is the mistake that ultimately leads to plateaus in training and stagnant race results. Not only does resting for 7-10 days have little negative impact on your current fitness, the long-term gains you will be able to make enable you to continue to make consistent progress, year after year, without overtraining.
What you can do after a good race:
1. Rest. You need it.
The body undergoes a tremendous amount of physical stress during a marathon. Skeletal muscle, muscle cells, and the immune system are all severely compromised. Your body needs an extended period of rest to fully recover from and absorb the months of training you’ve put in, as well as the race itself. Failing to take the necessary down time to fully recover from a marathon training cycle will almost always ensure you hit a plateau in your training.
2. Remember, 7-10 rest days won’t affect your fitness.
Recent studies show that there is little reduction in maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2max (1-3%), in the first 6-7 days following inactivity in well-trained runners. Furthermore, even after two weeks of not running, studies show that VO2 max decreases by only 6%. Your takeaway: a little rest now will not ruin your fitness, but it will enable you to train consistently.
3. Walk away when you’re ahead.
Finally, listen to your friends at Gamblers Anonymous and walk away when you’re ahead. Trying to prolong a productive training segment or a good string of races will almost always end badly, just like it does for gamblers who stay at the table too long after winning big. It’s not easy to walk away when you’re ahead, but it always pays off in the long run.
Dwelling On A Mediocre Race
Oftentimes, the most difficult type of marathon race to bounce back from are the unremarkable or mediocre finishes. You can’t be too upset because you didn’t run that bad, but you also didn’t run as well as you expected to, so you can’t be happy either. The perplexity is only made worse if the reason for the average race wasn’t within your control — bathroom break, bad weather, crowds or blisters.
Dwelling on a mediocre race is not only frustrating, it can be counter-productive and distracting. Like the urgent feelings one might feel after a bad race, you want to hit the roads again as soon as possible to enact revenge and prove your fitness. Plus, you’re aware that you’re in good shape, so you’re tempted to return to hard training even faster. However, just like after a good race, you still need to take the time to recover if you want to make continued gains year after year.
What you can do after a mediocre race:
The most important thing you can do after a frustrating race is conduct a postmortem. Start by making a list of all the possible factors that might have contributed to your disappointing race. For the time being, it doesn’t matter if these factors were within your control or not–if you think something may have affected your performance, write it down.
Next, write as many possible solutions or tactics you can implement in your training to prevent these possible occurrences from happening again. For example, if it was hot on race day, you can try training with more layers. If you had gastrointestinal problems you might want to experiment with a different nutrition strategy.
When you’re finished, you’ll have an extensive list of training tips you can implement in training and racing. You may notice that there are only a few factors you couldn’t find a way to improve. These are the factors you can’t control (rolled an ankle, or got stuck behind a large crowd) and are often just a case of bad luck.
The important thing is to turn your focus toward actionable adjustments you can make for next time. Keep this list with you and make sure you look it over before starting your next training cycle. You’ll eliminate the same mistakes and increase your chances of having a great race.