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The Post-Marathon Blues

By Stephanie Roth Goldberg LCSW-R, HHC

Post-Marathon Depression is real, in more ways than one.

People often express feeling depressed after running a marathon. I have been asked several times, “Is this real depression?” The answer is yes — but also no.

I prefer to call this state the “post-marathon blues.” The feelings don’t last long enough to meet criteria for depression in the clinical sense—that’s the good news. The bad news is that you can feel emotions that are very similar to a depressive episode.

Some of these that marathon runners experience are:

  • Depressed mood most of the day. For marathon runners, this is temporary and usually diminishes shortly after race week. Many runners express feeling sad, hungry or have a loss of appetite after running the race. Some of this is due to the physical output of the race, and some is due to completing the big goal you’ve been thinking about most of the year. A large part of these feelings can be caused by the necessary decrease activity after race day.
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in activities. Many marathon runners find it difficult to think about anything other than running, their race, their race goals, next year’s race goals, etc. What will you post about on social media?!
  • Fatigue or loss of energy. You are tired, and rightfully so. You just ran a really hard 26.2 miles, and everything hurts! Not to mention those subway stairs you have to walk up and [even more painfully] down during your Monday commute. This is temporary as well and can be caused by dehydration. Nutrition is an important part of race recovery. After your celebratory beers, think about rehydrating for a few days.
  • Sense of worthlessness or guilt. This typically stems from a need to fill the time previously occupied by your training. People often express guilt because they are used to training several hours a week and now have gone back to a normal, balanced exercise routine. The feelings of worthlessness are hopefully less exaggerated and can be attributed to having spent so much time prioritizing running that your other activities fell to the wayside. With the race complete, you should now have time to return to those.
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness. This often also comes from being tired and dehydrated. Get a lot of rest and think about eating whole foods and drinking a ton of water.

**This is a condensed list of the criteria used to diagnose clinical depression, taken in short form, from the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

In addition to the items above, your brain may believe you’re depressed. When training at long distances, your brain is used to getting a consistent flow of increased endorphins. While not necessarily a “runners high”—although endorphins contribute to that—this healthy dose of regularly released endorphins, dopamine and serotonin have been proven to increase mood and energy.

After a long event your brain and body need additional mental energy, and time, to recalibrate to their normal states. In the weeks following a marathon, most runners are taking it easy and therefore aren’t getting the same amount of “happy” brain chemicals they’ve been accustomed to the last few months. Though there are only a few studies on this, with more and more being done, results show while you may feel a little less energized and happy for a few days, this is only temporary.

All of this mental and physical rest and recuperating leaves you with a lot of time on your hands.

My suggestions to get over the “post marathon blues” are simple:

  • Catch up with friends you haven’t seen because you were too busy running.
  • Do things that feel nourishing to your body: massage, pedicures, salt baths.
  • Read a book or watch a movie.
  • Eat whole foods. Nutrition is another aide to speed up recovery to your muscles and your brain.
  • Stay connected with your training partners. Building strong social connections is just one of the many benefits of training with a group.
  • Discover, or rediscover, other ways to move your body that you enjoy, but are less stressful (yoga, Pilates, dance, etc.).
  • Pick a new goal, another marathon, a new job or promotion, a creative project, something to focus on and reach for. Let’s face it, marathon runners are goal makers and accomplishing any goal feels good.

You spent a long time working to cross that finish line. Mental recovery will benefit you just as much as physical recovery. Have fun doing things other than running for a little bit, and you’ll be back to yourself in no time.

Stephanie Roth Goldberg LCSW-R, HHC is an Adult and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Eating Disorder Specialist and Endurance Athlete. She has completed one marathon, multiple half marathons, three 70.3 triathlons and will compete at Ironman Cozumel in November. Read more about Stephanie at rothcounseling.com.

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