Here’s a fun thing people don’t mention about running 26.2 miles: not only will you get rewarded with sore legs, blisters, and missing toenails, you’ll also experience the post-marathon blues.
Yes, pals. After a marathon you’re likely to feel more than a little down. You’ll experience depressive symptoms like lethargy and a lack of purpose and wanting to sleep all the time.
Fun, huh? People don’t mention that when they talk about how life-changing running a marathon is, do they?
Don’t let that put you off if you’re really keen on running a long, long way, though. The post-marathon blues do pass, and they are manageable.
Post-marathon blues happen for two reasons; psychological and physiological.
‘If you spend weeks and months training for a goal building up to the climax of the marathon, then once it is over there is a bit of a let down,’ Dr Cosmo Hallstrom tells Metro.co.uk.
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‘Suddenly no need to get up and run. No obvious goal. Time on your hands. Loss of purpose. Loss of focus. Post climactic depression.’
Basically, you’ve spent a significant portion of time looking towards something (even if you were dreading it) and focusing your life around it. Your marathon dictated your choices, it gave you motivation, and it shaped what you did every day.
Once the marathon’s over, that sense of purpose gets snatched away. Suddenly you can feel a bit aimless, which can lead to a low mood that hangs around and makes you question what the point is in getting out of bed.
There’s also the fact that you’ve achieved this big, impressive thing – and the high of that accomplishment might die down quicker than you expected, or not feel as great as you imagined.
‘For most of us, a marathon is a big event, perhaps the major goal of our year,’ explains clinical sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson.
‘We’ve thought a lot about it, put in a lot of time, had a lot of hopes and fears about how it might go.
‘Then, after the event, we have a period of review, where we evaluate how it went and how satisfied we feel. If we conclude that it didn’t go that well, then there is a greater chance that we’ll feel a bit despondent and have some regrets.
‘Then, once the dust has settled, we can feel that there is a bit of a void – wondering what we will do next, what event or goal we’ll pick. There will be less reason to get out there and run, to have a training plan or timetable to follow, to eat well, to drink a bit less.
‘All of this presents psychological challenge and the risk that we can feel a bit flat emotionally, or feel down.’
Then there’s the physical side of things.
For one thing, you’re physically exhausted. That’s bound to make you feel a bit rubbish – especially when you’re hobbling around on sore legs and struggling to find any shoes that don’t rub against your blisters.
‘Your body has spent a lot of energy and taken quite a battering over the 26 miles of a marathon,’ says Victor. ‘You feel knackered and spent.’
You also experience the equivalent of an endorphin comedown, as that runner’s high falls away to leave you feeling like you have a deficit.
But keeping your exercise levels up to chase that high might not work.
‘Training hard leads to a build up of endorphins which give you a bit of a runner’s high.’ notes Dr Hallstrom. ‘Your body and brain adapt to this raised level of endorphins through the process of tolerance. You need to produce more endorphins to get the same effect.
‘When you suddenly stop training, you get a sudden withdrawal from the higher levels of endorphins.
‘Even if you go back to your normal levels, they are now not sufficient as your receptors have downregulated.’
Great. So what can we do about all this gloom?
Don’t rush into a new challenge to try to hop back on that high, as tempting as it may be. You need time to wind down and recover from what you’ve put your body and mind through.
Try to schedule your days so they’re packed with things that make you feel good – whether that’s meals out, spending time with friends, a nice bath – so you don’t have hours of free time to spend lounging in bed drowning in negative thoughts.
The good news is that unlike clinical depression, the post-marathon blues will pass within a week or so.
If you already have a mental health issue such as depression, don’t panic: there’s no evidence that running a marathon with make it worse. In fact, it could help.
‘We need to remember that running, and other forms of exercise, has been shown to be really good for our mental health and psychological wellbeing,’ says Victor. ‘So we shouldn’t lose sight of these benefits that the person is likely to have experienced in the training for and completing a marathon.
‘When depressed, the experience of doing something good for yourself, of taking control, of managing yourself better by following a training programme, perhaps eating better, of running with others, of being in the outdoors when your outlook is negative and defeatist can be really good and can counter much of what keeps the depressed state stuck.’
So, let’s recap.
Running a marathon can be a wonderful thing. Yes, it’s hard physically and mentally, and the training takes up quite a bit of time, but overcoming such a challenge gives you a massive sense of achievement.
You might feel down afterwards, but that’s entirely normal. Just treat yourself kindly, and give yourself some time to recover – not just in terms of your body, but your mind, too.
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