After Adam Campbell, 32, ran his first 50-mile (80.5-kilometre) Canadian national championship race this past May in Victoria – and won – he felt a strange letdown. Six people he knew cheered him across the finish line; someone handed him a cookie. And that was that. His legs were sore for a week.
"I thought it was going to be a lot more monumental," the Vancouver articling student says. "I expected to feel more like Superman."
So he turned to his friends, family and running community for support, shared stories about the experience and focused on his next goal. He pulled out of his slump and even ran a 100-kilometre race in France at the end of August.
The postrace experience – whether it's a five-kilometre run or a marathon – can hit runners in different ways. If you participated in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday, you're probably still in the honeymoon phase of accomplishment, riding the wave of an endorphin high. But if, as the week progresses, you suddenly start feeling a bit lost or bummed out, don't be alarmed. Chances are you are having a postrace mental slump.
Japanese novelist and ultramarathoner Haruki Murakami wrote about it eloquently in his non-fiction book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "What I ended up with was a sense of lethargy, and before I knew it, I felt covered by a thin film, something I've since dubbed runner's blues."
While runner's blues is common, the meaning of running, its importance and its connection to identity varies from person to person, says Billy Strean, a professor in the faculty of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta. "People have all different fitness levels, aspirations, running backgrounds … for some, a race is a monumental life mark."
But, he points out, "any time you have a significant achievement or something where there's been a lot of buildup, you can experience a letdown."
The postrace blues is a lot more common in recreational marathoners, particularly following their first big race, according to Jack Taunton, professor in the division of sports medicine at the University of British Columbia. "You put all your effort into training, watching your diet, running with a group, everything is focused on one event for months," Dr. Taunton says. "Then bang, the event is over.
Colleen Hillier, 42, started running this year. The teacher and mother of three joined a running club and trained for five months for her first half-marathon, Nova Scotia's Valley Harvest Marathon, which she ran Oct. 9.
It wasn't the greatest experience. Going into it she had a cold, low iron, sore knees and a bad case of self-doubt; she anticipated not finishing. During the race she "hit a wall," but crossed the finish line with chills.
"When I left the race, I thought: I will never do this again." Still, she was proud. "I must have said to my husband 100 times that day, 'I did it! I made it!' "
A few days later, her muscles still sore, and not yet ready to consider running another race, she was plagued by a sense of "Where do I go now?"
"People have difficulty coping with the emotions after a race … and wonder what to do with all those hours in the day," Dr. Taunton says.
But Ms. Hillier has recovered. Now, she says, she plans do another half-marathon next spring. "But I'll be looking for a flat course next time," she says, laughing.
How to cope with the runner's blues
If you find yourself suffering from postrace blues in the next few days, here are expert tips to coach you through it.
Take time to acknowledge yourself and enjoy your achievement. "We're weak on that," says Billy Strean, a University of Alberta professor. "Congratulate yourself on staying with it, and pat yourself on the back, even if you didn't hit your time goal." University of British Columbia professor Jack Taunton agrees: "Celebrate what you did before you plan your next activity."
Rest and recover
A day after the race, you're still physically and emotionally exhausted, and your legs feel like lead pipes. Dr. Strean suggests easing back into exercise. "Listen to body signals. Err on the side of too little activity." And the positive lifestyle habits you picked up shouldn't end with the race. "Make sure you continue to get proper sleep, nutrition and hydration," he says. "And if you're planning to go back to an unhealthy lifestyle, at least do it slowly."
Back to balance
You spent at least a few months training and sacrificing. Now you can give attention back to the things you ignored. Kim Dawson, a professor of sport and exercise psychology sat Wilfrid Laurier University, says: "Engulf the opportunity to not spend all your time running. Enjoy staying up late, sleeping in, spending time with friends and family." Dr. Taunton adds that this is a great time to plan a holiday, especially one that involves a lot of walking.
Many runners train with a club or a group, and once the race ends, so do the run meets. But that doesn't mean you have to give up the friendships formed or the routine. "If you were used to the big Sunday runs, maybe the week after the race get together with your training partners for coffee. Enforce those social connections," Dr. Strean says. And you can always sign up for another running group.
On to the next one
After the race you may feel a range of emotions including happiness, pride, relief, even a sense of mourning, Dr. Dawson says. "Use that to motivate you to go on to the next thing instead of wallowing in it."
But that next thing doesn't have to be running. "Assess what other goals you might have," Dr. Strean says. "What else provides meaning and purpose? Do other activities like cross-training or swimming."
But if you do sign up for another race, you'll have this experience to draw from and be better prepared to deal with unexpected emotions once the event is over.
Special to The Globe and Mail