In 2015, I ran my first ultramarathon and it was undoubtedly the most incredible thing I’d ever achieved. But what came after almost ended my relationship with the sport. For months after the event, I fell into severe post-race depression. I’m not just talking about struggling with returning to exercise; I felt generally lifeless and miserable, like the effort had been so intense and the high so overwhelming that I could no longer stand the mundanity of everyday life.
For most of us who participate in endurance sports, setting long term goals plays a big role in fuelling our passion. It provides us with cyclical structure, gives us a strong sense of purpose and allows us to quantify our progress. And this isn’t exclusively reserved for those who choose to compete; any goal that requires structured preparation shapes our everyday lives, tailoring our lifestyle to accommodate our training.
The issue that many athletes face is the comedown from accomplishing said goals. Our passion is, for the most part, emotionally driven and we thrive on the challenge. We seek to push our minds and bodies to their limits and reap the benefits of our efforts. Endurance sports demand that we delve deep into our physical and mental reserves, exceeding the threshold of what we thought ourselves capable of. We often accept discomfort as symptomatic of tough training, taking it in our stride, but our drive and engagement can also prevent us from acknowledging that these things aren’t sustainable in the long term.
The same can be experienced after big adventures, long hikes, biking packing trips and the like.
We experience these highs, our emotions heightened by adrenaline, and are often left feeling unsettled and dejected when they come to an end. “When you’re training for an event, you wake up every day and have something to shoot for, and you’re going to have positive feelings and energy that go along with that,” explains sports performance coach Ben Oliva “So the difference between normal sadness and that feeling athletes experience right after a big effort is really a loss of energy and motivation.” It is completely normal to experience erratic moods following a big effort, and it is primordial to acknowledge these effects as a consequence without feeding into them.
The good news is that these feelings are temporary. As tough as it may feel in the moment, your mind will eventually readjust to daily life, hormonal imbalances will settle down and you will refamiliarise yourself with your routine. When training for these big goals in our lives, we tend to obsess about the preparation and the goal themselves, without considering that the effects of long term strenuous training don’t stop with the event itself. Taking a pro-active approach to recovery, physical as well as mental, will help your to regain a semblance of structure. Recovery is, after all, just as much part of your effort as your training.
As tempting as it is to dive back into structured training with a new goal, it is necessary to take a step back from making emotionally driven decisions in the short term in order to process your experience with a little hindsight. Taking time to reconnect with other areas of life is the best way to offset the negative feelings linked to your sport, and remind yourself that there are many other pleasures in life outside of training. In order to set new goals, and discover new limits for ourselves demands that we respect and appreciate our selves and bodies if we wish to pursue our lofty endeavours in the long term.