I’m a CrossFit athlete. Currently ranked the 520th fittest woman in the United States (out of nearly 150,000), I’m a competitive CrossFit athlete. Despite being a decorated athlete, though, at the consummation of every competitive season or off-season throwdown, I’m plagued by a sheath of sadness. Even after winning gold (gold!), I find myself burdened by the blues for the whole week following.
Turns out, post-competition woes are not specific to me or to the sport of CrossFit. Runners often use the terms “post-race depression” and “post-marathon blues” to name the rush of melancholy that often follows a major race.
To better understand this common phenomenon (and hopefully save myself some sadness), I took to the experts to learn more about the post-competition blues, why they happen, and how we can comfort our hardworking hearts in the days and weeks following our latest efforts.
Good news: This specific type of the sads is far from inevitable! Read on to better understand what causes the post-competition blues and learn how to effectively prevent and manage these unfavorable feelings.
The Post-Competition Blues vs. Clinical Depression
The “post-competition blues” (or “post-marathon blues” or “post-race depression”) is a term for the emotional come-down that can occur after an athletic event or achievement. These blues are marked by feelings of disappointment, depletion, irritation, fatigue, and generalized angst, according to psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy. “Post-competition blues can also lead to crying spells, feelings of overwhelm, changes in appetite, lack of enjoying activities you’d typically enjoy, and changes in sleep,” she says.
As it goes, the post-competition blues can cause symptoms similar to those associated with clinical depression. However, the two are not the same. The post-competition blues have an identifiable trigger, last just a few weeks, and can usually be surmounted with the help of time, a new physical goal, and perspective. Clinical depression, however, lasts longer than a few weeks and often requires medical and/or professional intervention.
Exactly Why You Might Experience the Post-Competition Blues
Whether your physical feat takes place on the road or in a gym, Glashow says high-stakes physical competitions flood the body with a cocktail of feel-good chemicals and hormones, such as oxytocin, adrenaline, and endorphins. Immediately following the event, this cocktail can lead to you feeling something akin to a runner’s high. In the hours and days following the great race, however, these feel-good chemicals lower to their normal levels, taking the euphoric sensation they created with them, she explains.
Adrenaline, for example, is known to induce feelings of excitement, alertness, and invincibility, explains Glashow. So, “when your hormones shift out of that high-adrenaline state, it’s common to be left feeling rather low,” she says.
Completing a comp or finishing a race also disrupts your former routine. “Typically, people train for months or even years for a big race or competition,” says Glashow. During that training period, many people modulate their food intake, social life, sleep schedule, and more to support their training regimen. When the event is over, individuals lose the purpose that informs many of their other day-to-day decisions, she says. The result? A feeling of directionlessness that can exacerbate loneliness, fatigue, and angst.
How To Beat The Post-Competition Blues
Set yourself up for mental and emotional stability with these six expert tips on navigating the post-competition blues.
1. Figure Out Your WHY
Beating the post-competition blues can (and should) start even before you sign up for your athletic endeavors, according to dietitian and strength coach Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., COO of ARENA Innovation Corp and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. Mainly, by identifying why you’re signing up in the first place!
In a world where social media rules all, you want to make sure you’re doing the race or competition for more than just the post-event Instagram post. “Are you getting internal validation from doing the event, or just external validation?” Matheny asks. “Are you trying to prove something to yourself, or are you trying to prove something to other people?” The answers to these questions will help you unpack if you actually want to do a race or competition, as well as if your impetus is a healthy one.
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Whether your why ends up being to lose weight, to prove to yourself that you can go the distance, or to give your exercise regimen structure, Matheny says that figuring it out—and keeping it top of mind—will keep you steady throughout training and even beyond the main event.
2. Keep a Training Log
If you experienced a crippling bout of post-competition blues last season and want to avoid it in the forthcoming season, keep a detailed training log, replete with notes about your sessions, how you felt doing them, and what you’re proud of, suggests Matheny. This kind of detailed journaling helps you to appreciate every small win you achieve leading up to the big day. “It allows you to focus on the micro parts of the journey, as opposed to just the macro part of the journey,” he says. Emphasizing all of these little victories can help take some of the pressure off of the main event—and makes it easier to reflect on the hard work you put in after it’s over.
At my coach’s urging, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing one or two sentences about my training session each day. I can tell you firsthand, it works! Immediately following a recent first-place competition finish, I decided to flip through the pages to read about all the mini-successes I’d had before that main enchilada. Each entry reminded me that I love the grind of training as much as I love going out on the competition stage, which eased some of the sadness I often feel after a comp.
3. Lean On Your Support System
Even after our last competition season came to a close, my CrossFit team didn’t stop hearing from me. On the contrary, my name started popping up on their phones more than ever before. Likewise, our team group-chat pinged with an insistence it hadn’t during the season. Simply, we weren’t shy about asking for reassurance and support in the absence of competitions, and Glashow says you shouldn’t be either.
Did you have a running buddy during marathon prep? Did your partner or a family member always make a point to ask about your training? Call on them. Training partners will help reassure you about just how normal your post-event blues are, Glashow says. Chances are, they’re feeling them, too! Meanwhile, your loved ones can remind you that you are more than just a runner (or CrossFit athlete, triathlete, etc.), as well as keep the celebration of your specific accomplishment going.
4. Put Something Else On The Calendar
At the end of a big race or competition, many athletes are left wondering what’s next. Glashow recommends answering that question by putting another athletic pursuit on the calendar. Better yet, preemptively get your next event on the calendar before an upcoming big day. This can keep you from feeling directionless or stuck after that first milestone accomplishment.
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Keep in mind the next event doesn’t have to be the same type of competition or race as the one you just completed—nor does it need to be a longer, harder variation. If you just ran a half marathon, for example, your next race doesn’t have to be a marathon or another half marathon with a more aggressive time goal. You might, instead, sign up for a Turkey Trot 5k with your family or a solo timed one-mile trial. You could also sign up for something totally different like an obstacle course race, triathlon, or CrossFit comp.
Just don’t rob yourself of the necessary recovery time, says Matheny. “Between events, your body needs adequate time to heal from the physical and mental strain,” he says. Failure to recover properly before diving back into training or competing puts you at risk for overtraining syndrome, athletic burnout, and even injury.
5. Find Joy In Other Physical Activities
“For some people, part of the rush of completing a race or competition comes from the physical challenge,” says Matheny. But a sense of physical challenge doesn’t have to be reserved for big game days. “There are many types of exercise that could bring a similar sensation of joy and challenge,” he suggests. So, after your next big event, commit to mixing up your movement routine.
A triathlete, for example, could feel mentally and physically challenged by a yoga class, while a marathoner might enjoy the challenge of logging laps in a pool. Personally, I found myself drawn to indoor bouldering, in which the wall allowed me to test my upper-body pulling strength in a totally new way. No doubt, the challenge of clambering up a 10-foot wall is different from the challenge of doing burpees faster than my competition, but it’s equal parts challenging and rewarding in its own right.
6. Work With A Mental Health Professional
If you’re really struggling after a big athletic moment, know that there are experts who specialize in helping athletes move through these periods of grief and the identity crises that sometimes follow. That’s why Glashow recommends working with a mental health professional who specializes in working with athletes. The right counselor will help you re-frame what you’re feeling, come up with a game plan to move through the lull, and get to the other side, she says. “They’ll also be able to help you identify if your post-competition blues have triggered a clinical depression episode,” says Glashow. Yes, that can really happen, which is why taking the post-comp blues seriously is just as admirable as crossing that finish line in the first place.