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The runner’s low

The emotional crash that can happen after a goal race – and what to do about it.

Emily Halnon

October 17th, 2022

10 min read

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Whenever anyone would ask when I was planning to leave Silverton after Hardrock, I would say, “I have no plans to leave the San Juans.”

I was in no rush to leave my mountain running life in Colorado. I’d quit my full-time job, bought a used minivan, and moved to the San Juan Mountains for the last six weeks of training before my first Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run – a race it took me seven years to get into.

I always said that when I finally got into the race, I wanted to do it justice and spend at least a month training on the course, acclimating to the high altitude, and deepening my connection to the mountains and the Hardrock community.

Which is exactly what I did – and it was a dream. I woke up surrounded by mountains and baby moose wandering through my campsite. I ran on jaw-dropping alpine trails every day – usually without a commute. I met new friends all over town and on the trails. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into the coffee shop looking for your morning brew and come out with new running plans for the day. I witnessed the dawning of summer in the mountains, from snow-smothered summits to wildflower explosions. I felt like gratitude might actually be spilling out of my body as I trained on the course day-after-day.

I didn’t want any of it to end.

But on the day after Hardrock, I couldn’t get out of Silverton fast enough.

After Golden Hour and the finisher’s breakfast, it was a stream of rapid-fire goodbyes in the streets of Silverton. Warm hugs and promises to reunite in the San Juans. Each embrace was an ending I wasn’t ready for. The infamous rock sat in the street, ready to go into a kiss hibernation for the next 12-months.

By the time I got back to our campsite at the base of Kendall Mountain, my insides were already a mess. I looked up at the mountains that had given me so much joy all summer, and I just felt sad and grey. It didn’t matter how much I avoided talking about it all summer – Hardrock was over.

This years-long dream had come to a swift end, and now it felt like someone had dropped an axe into all of the joy I’d found through the race.

“Let’s start driving,” I said to my partner Ian.

We drove back to Eugene, Oregon over two long days on hot highways. The landscape faded from towering mountains and verdant river valleys to flat, grey asphalt. And with it, I felt myself fade to a flat, grey place.

It was a rough transition back to life in Eugene. There was a new hollowness to my days. This thing that gave me so much purpose, direction, and joy for months had been ripped from the calendar. I didn’t feel relief to finally sleep in a real bed or have 24/7 access to hot water and plumbing, I missed waking up next to the river and running up Grant Swamp Pass before lunch.

I’d felt a version of this before – the post-race comedown. I remember slipping into a period of depression after my first 100-miler. At first, I was confused. How could I feel so crummy after such an incredible experience? But then I talked to a friend, who was also an Olympian and elite running coach, and he reassured me that the post-race blues are a thing that many runners go through. It wasn’t just me.

The Post-Race Comedown is Real

The post-race comedown is absolutely a thing that runners go through, confirms Danielle Snyder, a mindset coach and long-distance trail runner, who works with athletes on their mental approach to training and competing.

It’s an understudied phenomenon and its causes are not fully understood. But it makes a lot of sense that we often feel bummed when our big goals are over, says Snyder.

And it’s not just runners. There are reports of athletes experiencing post-competition blues across many different sports – from the recreational to professional level. Olympian Michael Phelps shared that he experienced severe depression after both the 2004 and 2008 games and a study from 2021 found that 24 percent of Olympic and Paralympic athletes felt psychological distress after the games were over.

“These races take up so much of our time, energy, and emotions,” says Snyder, “and when it’s over, we feel a sense of grief for that loss.”

I certainly felt that when I came back from Hardrock. I went from full throttle eating, sleeping, breathing, and training in the San Juans to nothing. That void left me feeling like something big was missing from my day-to-day life.   

It’s not just competitive sports that can cause this emotional distress. It can happen after other big life or professional events like publishing a book or getting married. One study reported that nearly half of the brides surveyed felt sad, letdown, or depressed immediately after their weddings, no matter how joyous of a day it might have been.

“The longer I’m planning for something, the more I feel a sense of loss after, even if it goes really well,” said Snyder, who says she almost always experiences an emotional drop after her longest races.

It’s also possible that our body’s chemistry sets us up for an emotional crash. Ultra-distance runs can release high amounts of the stress hormone cortisol – as well as wreak havoc on other important biomarkers, which could contribute to our emotional state in the days and weeks following a big race. Runners also quickly go from an endorphin overload during a race to an endorphin depletion when it’s over, which could also influence our mood during recovery.

How to Handle the Post-Race Lows

Regardless of why it happens, the post-race letdown is real. Though it may not be possible to completely stave it off after a race, there are a few things you can do to prepare for it or lessen its impact on your mood.

Be aware that your mood may dip after a big event, says Snyder. And be compassionate with yourself when it happens. You don’t need to feel shame about feeling sad after a race. Talk to close friends and family and let them know what’s going on. You’re not alone in this experience and it’s okay to feel down after you finish a big goal, she says.

“You may feel similar symptoms to depression, including fatigue, sadness, a loss of motivation or direction, and all of that is very normal,” says Snyder.

It can be isolating to experience these feelings but normalizing it and talking about it can be comforting when you’re in the thick of it.

Be Mindful of What You’re Looking for from a Race

It’s not unusual for runners to look to big goals or specific results to offer things like external validation, purpose, a greater sense of identity, or self-love. But it can be a pursuit that doesn’t lead to a lasting happy ending, says Snyder.

“One of the problems with these adventures, is that we often seek out answers, direction, or purpose that a finish line is not going to be able to give us,” she says. “And then we have to go back and return to our normal lives even though nothing is that different.”

“Even Olympic athletes that I work with who have won a medal, often find that the end result was not as fulfilling as they thought it might be,” she says.

Be mindful of what your motivation is going into a race – and be realistic about whether a race can actually deliver. Instead of linking all of your happiness to a specific achievement, think about what else you want to get out of your long-term relationship with training and racing – and then focus on that.

Take Care of Yourself and Remember that You Will Feel Better

It’s not easy to handle an emotional low when we’re also feeling physically pummeled from a race. Snyder recommends getting good sleep and finding ways to recharge so you’re better equipped to manage your mental low.

She also recommends putting other things on your calendar after a race, so you have something to look forward to when it’s over.

“It won’t fill the void or erase your sadness, but it can help you move forward,” she says.

And remember that the post-race comedown does fade away. Snyder says she’ll often journal after a race so she can go back and remind herself that she usually feels better in a few days or weeks.

“Your low won’t last forever,” she said.

If the Low Persists, Ask for Help

If you’re still feeling low for weeks and weeks after a race, it may be time to ask for help, says Snyder, especially if you’re someone who’s prone to depression or other mental health conditions. The post-race letdown isn’t a defined medical condition, but it is something that can lead to clinical depression, so don’t be afraid to seek help if you continue to feel down.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK)

4 responses to “The runner’s low”

  1. […] to go from feeling as fit and capable as ever to sad and feeble in such a short period of time? This week, writer Emily Halnon takes a look at the “runner’s low.” And in the DFL we look at poles with iRunFar and the validity of core training with a […]

  2. Matt K says:

    So, so true. Just finished No Business 100 this past weekend with my best performance. And within 24 hours post race I had this huge weighted feeling. I knew what it was. The post race letdown. Sadly many runners (especially first time ultra runners) don’t know how to process this. You’re body is so focused on the goal that it cannot balance the chemicals and your brain is flooded with an overload. This is similar to chemical addiction, it just comes from within rather than an external source. AkA adrenaline junkie, etc. Great article. I’m going to share.

  3. Gaofeng Zhu says:

    The biological reason of “The runner’s low” is the dopamine crash, it is real chemical change in our body after a big goal is accomplished. Check out @Andrew Huberman and @Jordan B Peterson. Good luck!

  4. J says:

    I started running at 34 (now 60) and am SO glad you addressed this, because after my first marathon (1999), I couldn’t understand why I felt “blue” – “in the dark”. I realized on my own that I was on such a steady high, my body and mind felt like they were crashing. Worse, after my first Ultra, so I made sure the next day I went walking and to the movies. It is important to allow yourself those emotions and I found surrounding myself with good friends/family a day or two later helped. Thanks for that!!

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