In 2006, Jonathan Basham set the speed record for completing the 500-mile Colorado Trail. The monumental endurance accomplishment should have only been reason to celebrate. Basham had just run across the rugged Rockies at an average elevation of 10,000 feet for eight and a half straight days faster than anyone before him. But when he returned home to Virginia for another semester at Lynchburg College, he was suddenly blindsided by feelings of depression. Basham knew he had to spend weeks physically recovering, but he didn’t anticipate the endeavor would come with mental rehabilitation.
“When I got home, nothing seemed to matter as much as what I did on the trail,” says Basham. “I had a goal out there every day. I knew I had to go 40 or 50 miles, and it took everything I had to make it. That’s what I was living for. It was so climactic that everything else after it seemed less meaningful.”
Feeling depressed while coming down from an athletic pursuit is actually quite common, and unexplained sad feelings don’t just come with extreme endurance. Many runners experience what’s known as the post-race blues after marathons or even half-marathons. The hardest thing about finishing a major race can be figuring out what to do when you’re done. After the extensive investment of training and mental preparation, finally crossing the finish line can leave many athletes with a huge void in their lives. The elation of endorphin highs can quickly turn into emotional lows.
“Any time you set a goal and work hard to reach it, you have the potential to experience the ‘what now’ feeling when it’s over,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, a professor and sports counselor who works with elite athletes in West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. “The effect can be compounded at elite levels of sport, because you have the multiple layers of the emotional investment and extreme physical fatigue.”
Feeling down after a race can also be enhanced by nutrient depletion, specifically choline, which is a neurotransmitter that can be boosted with a B-complex vitamin. Fortunately, the post-race blues doesn’t usually last more than a week, and it’s managed best by being prepared.
“The process of running a race needs to include more than the training,” says Dieffenbach, who is also a professional adventure racer. “You have to consider what comes next.”
Look Ahead – Go into a race with an idea of when you’ll run the next one. Don’t fully invest yourself in too many things at once, but having other goals can also be helpful if your current race is unsuccessful.
Embrace the Blues – Take a few days to mourn your loss—think about the big event with a date set to move on. Dieffenbach gives her cyclists 24 hours to wallow in a race, and then encourages them to look ahead to the next one.
Warn Family and Friends – Most people won’t understand the emotional implications of finishing a big race and will be surprised by the depression.
Document the Experience – Recount your race or expedition in a journal or blog, or put together a scrapbook of photos. It may sound like a hokey solution, but it’s a proven way to gain closure.