Why You Might Be Feeling Bummed Instead of on Top of the World After Running a Marathon

A few weeks ago, I was flooded with endorphins and pride as I crossed the finish line at my first-ever marathon in Chicago. (That's me in the picture above, flinging my arms up in triumph.) That night, I even felt up to drinking wine and getting low on the dance floor, adrenaline still threading its way through my veins. The next morning, however, I landed in a much different place. I was in physical pain; my IT band and knee were killing me. I was irritable; I snapped at my boyfriend over where to eat brunch. I felt groggy and flat; emotionally, I was all over the place.

I could only compare the feeling to the sad, sinking sensation I had as a little kid the day after Christmas. After months of anticipation and buildup — cookie-decorating, caroling parties, "All I Want For Christmas" on the radio 24/7 — it was all just abruptly . . . over.

I'd spent four months devoting almost all of my free time to marathon training with a team of 40 other runners through the Nike Women Marathon Project. The morning after the race, with the roar of the crowds silenced, my body in revolt, and a previously packed training calendar suddenly vacant, I wondered: Now what?

That’s Why They Call It the Postmarathon Blues

That’s Why They Call It the Postmarathon Blues

Now what? It's a question that can be loaded with possibility, excitement, and hope . . . or sadness, anxiety, and existential dread. After reshaping our lives around meeting an epic goal, whether it's climbing a mountain, losing a significant amount of weight, or completing a marathon, many of us find ourselves at a loss.

"I thought my post-race emotions would be a glow of endorphins . . . and they were closer to a bad breakup."

While the postmarathon blues, also commonly referred to as post-race letdown, might not be a clinical diagnosis, it is a widely recognized phenomenon among athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists. The perceived crash is due to a combination of physiological factors and can take the form of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional symptoms. This kind of after-achievement struggle can be especially pronounced for professional athletes who shape their entire lives — and, often, their identity and self-worth — around succeeding in their sport. Michael Phelps and Lindsey Vonn are just two Olympians who are helping shatter the stigma around this experience, which is both taboo and common enough that it has its own moniker among athletes in the Games: "five-ring fever." Still, a similar sense of feeling unmoored, lost, physically depleted, and even depressed can be felt among us "regular" folks who chase big athletic dreams.

Take me, for example. From June to October of this year, I trained — hard — with my teammates. During the peak of our training schedule, I was spending up to 10 hours a week sweating it out. That's not counting all the related commuting, socializing, prep, and recovery time. (And the laundry. Oh, god, there was so much laundry.)

I was lucky to have world-class coaches and a built-in support system of fellow athletes who were experiencing the same triumphs and challenges as I was. We were a group of runners from all walks of life, from our early 20s to our late 30s. Most of us had never before run a marathon, though in addition to our world-class running coaches, Bec Wilcok and Blue Benadum, we had a group of five mentors who had.

In talking with my teammates post-race, I discovered that, no matter what our fitness levels, experiences, or lifestyles were like before we started training, most of us faced some difficulty in the wake of the marathon. Not only were we forced to take some time off of running (which is recommended even if you're not injured) and physically depleted, but emotionally, many of us were also conflicted. One of my teammates described feeling "underwhelmed" by the race itself after the immense buildup to the big day, while another said she felt abandoned and "alone" after saying goodbye to our team workout schedule.

"I thought my post-race emotions would be a glow of endorphins . . . and they were closer to a bad breakup," my teammate Maile Minardi, a 20-year-old student and marketing professional, quipped.

Our mentor Jenna Crawford (pictured above) is a 28-year-old marketing coordinator who has run 11 marathons. (And trust me: she's fast.) In Chicago, she beat her personal record by a full nine minutes but still found herself struggling emotionally despite her success.

"After the highs of celebrating my PR and smiling endlessly as friends, acquaintances, and strangers who sent their congratulations, I realized I felt very overwhelmed when I should have felt happy," Crawford told me a few weeks after the race. "I had reached one of my goals with this marathon PR, but I realized that I had literally invested my life into training, which came at the sacrifice [of] other roles I had in my life."

Another Nike Women Marathon Project runner, 21-year-old student Andrea Escobar, said she's experienced a similar crash after each of the two marathons she's run. "Coping with the aftermath of recovering and trying to relax after weeks of training has been extremely difficult. I tend to feel empty because I'm not training intensively."

Even the professional athlete in our midst could relate. Amberley Shaw, a 34-year-old professional boxer, said the abrupt ending to our long marathon journey hit her hard, "mostly because it was such a change to be a part of a team, and then all of a sudden, bang, we are done," she explained. "I felt alone — almost like it was just a dream that happened. I'm an extremely passionate person and do everything at 1,000 percent, so it's hard for me, emotionally, to deal with sudden change and endings."

How the Crash Can Take a Unique Toll on Women

How the Crash Can Take a Unique Toll on Women

The good news is these conflicting feelings — of pride and insecurity, happiness and listlessness — are normal.

Dr. Caroline Silby, a former competitive figure skater who served as the sports psychologist for the US Figure Skating Team at the Pyeongchang Olympics, knows this firsthand. "You can be so happy about your personal record and feel this sense of loss that now you don't have that experience to look forward to," she said. "But holding those two [feelings] at the same time feels weird."

I also wondered if this struggle might be felt more acutely for women in some ways. Personally, I faced a nagging sense that I was a fraud in my first workouts after the marathon. I was sure that I wasn't as fit or athletic as my strong marathon showing had "tricked" me into thinking I was. That self-defeating voice in my head said that it was a fluke; I got lucky. I had a good day. It couldn't possibly be that I'd worked hard, focused, and determined that positive result for myself. I felt like I had the athletic version of imposter syndrome – the phenomenon we most often hear about women struggling with in the workplace.

Dr. Silby didn't seem surprised to hear about my experience. She said that when athletes connect their training wins and effort with their positive outcomes, they have a better chance at weathering these postevent crashes: "When you start to fundamentally understand kind of how you're creating your own success, it is in the research that happiness levels go up."

Of course, Dr. Silby recognizes that they can be easier said than done — especially for female athletes. Notably, crowing about our achievements isn't exactly something girls are encouraged to do. "When you were a young girl, if you walked into a room of other girls and said, 'Wow. I ran so fast today. I kicked ass!' you would have no friends [laughter]," Silby said. "We don't tend to give voice to our own accomplishments . . . so that connection is often overlooked."

For many women, training for an event, focusing on transforming our health, or otherwise chasing a major fitness goal is one of the few times in our lives when we feel we have permission to be entirely self-focused.

Dr. Colleen Hacker, a sports psychologist who has served on the US Olympic coaching staff six times, agrees that living in a gendered society can make our experiences as women athletes unique. Namely, she says, women are rarely granted carte blanche to chase an individual goal at the expense of other gendered responsibilities like caretaking. For many women, training for an event, focusing on transforming our health, or otherwise chasing a major fitness goal is one of the few times in our lives when we feel we have permission to be entirely self-focused. And once we've met our goal, we're often expected to return to stereotypical, gendered roles we may no longer be willing to fulfill.

"It's both as freeing and illuminating as it is guilt-producing and awkward," Dr. Hacker explained. "Now, all of a sudden, you're supposed to go back to focusing on everyone else, and it's like, 'What about me?'"

I admit that another unexpected upside to my training was having the ability to use it as an excuse to get out of obligations or dodge requests. It's not news that many women struggle with saying no, but when I couldn't meet a colleague for dinner, spend my entire Saturday at a volunteer event, or go to a friend's late-night party, I felt somehow absolved by using the marathon as my reason. Once training ended, I found myself feeling, again, like I didn't have a real right to say no to things that I didn't have time — or, bluntly, didn't want — to do.

There are other factors at play, too. Studies, data, and lived experiences have shown that women's pain is often taken less seriously than men's, which can make dealing with real postachievement feelings of depression and physical challenges even more dispiriting and difficult. (There have been a number of harrowing pieces on the potentially catastrophic outcomes of this gender bias this year.) By being explicit and open about those emotional and physical feelings, we can help erase not just the cultural stigma but also own our personal experiences in a productive way.

How to Turn the Letdown Into a Revamp

How to Turn the Letdown Into a Revamp

While it's normal to feel like you're on a bit of an emotional roller coaster or moodier than usual after your moment of success, if your feelings of sadness become intense or persistent, seek professional help. Beyond that, though, simply talking out your feelings with another athlete or someone you love can be enormously rewarding. Dr. Silby says that too often we assume we're alone in our feelings, which is rarely true. She also suggests taking time to reflect on not just the achievement itself but also what you learned about yourself during the process as a whole and how it changed you for the better.

One thing I personally found helpful in the days after the marathon was turning my attention to all the things I now had more time to indulge in. I love cooking, but while I was training, I was usually too wiped out by Sunday afternoons to have any interest in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen. I missed my friends after ditching countless happy hours for cross-training sessions. I wanted to get back to the novel I was working on with fresh eyes.

Similarly, Minardi — my teammate who compared her marathon to a bad breakup — said one simple quote has helped keep her levelheaded. "One of the main lessons our coaches and other athletes stressed was that 'there is no finish line,'" she said. "Don't let achieving your dream end your story. Let it kick-start your journey. I'm ready for the next huge dream and the one after that and the 10 after those."

Dr. Hacker agrees that goal setting is an important part of warding off negative feelings and encourages putting a new plan in place before, or soon after, your major achievement. She suggests taking one of two approaches. You can set another new goal within the same "genre" of activity. So, if you just clocked your first marathon, sign up for a more challenging 26.2-mile course or start focusing on speed work to improve your race time. Alternatively, you can set your sights on a wildly different achievement, like following up a major weight-loss transformation by turning your focus to, say, learning how to play the guitar.

Dr. Hacker says that too often when we experience a postathletic achievement crash, we ask ourselves the wrong question. Instead of wondering, "Now what?" she says, try asking yourself, "What's next?"