Four Tips to Beat the Post-Race Blues
Rest, recalibrate, reflect
How to Beat the Post-Race Blues
By Mara Abbott – Olympian
When we cross a finish line or see a project to completion, our first reaction is generally to the outcome or the process. We might feel, joy, sadness, anger, or satisfaction initially – but as time goes on, what remains is often emptiness. After devoting yourself to a goal, completion can be another word for loss.
We are trained, both within the athletic community and society at large, to regard focus, perseverance, and dedication as assets. That’s why it’s sometimes so confusing to enter a rest period when we can’t really use those tools we are have so proudly honed. However, every worthy project contains a beginning, middle, and an end. In order to fully benefit from our efforts, we need to take time to pause and evaluate where we have been, and where we want to go next.
This isn’t actually a sport-specific concept. A 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review detailed how difficult it is to rebound from a focused or defining goal – for everyone from Michael Jordan to Jon Stewart.
“For one thing, it’s because of the emotional letdown of going from an exciting, challenging, or pressure-filled situation to one that’s considerably less demanding,” wrote Ron Friedman for the HBR. “High-stress situations and the adrenaline rush they produce can be addictive. When the constant sense of urgency we’ve adapted to comes to an abrupt halt, we experience withdrawal.”
What happens when that thing we have practiced and devoted ourselves to for weeks, months, or years is over? There is no single prescription for all athletes or all situations, but rest, recalibration, and honest reflection will all help you make the most of a necessary pause.
It’s easy to feel addicted to the positive personal feedback we feel after a workout well done, or from the surge of endorphins following tough physical exertion. Whether you observe pros or your training partners, you might notice some athletes who seem to string one competition season to another, hit tough races back-to-back, or never take a rest day in a training cycle. I promise you, that’s temporary. It can work for a while, but it will catch up with anyone.
It’s so hard to let go of a routine that gives your day purpose, or what feels like value. Learn to make peace with it. A few weeks of allowing yourself to soften – both physically and mentally – can pay big dividend in terms of mental strength, training response, and injury prevention.
If we don’t pause every so often to reflect on where we are and where we want to go, we run the risk of pushing very hard for a goal that might not be ours anymore. Sometimes, we grow accustomed to working so hard for so long that we forget what it actually feels like to take a breath.
When you pause and force a change in your daily mental and physical routines, you give yourself the important opportunity to experience something different. It might feel amazing to rest, in which case you should truly enjoy the opportunity to indulge. It might feel uncomfortable or make you anxious (often my experience!), which may mean you need to practice resting even a bit more.
As you begin to start up again toward your next way-point or your next goal, notice your emotions. Are you more motivated than ever? Great! That means that it worked. Are you feeling reluctant and uninspired? Great! That’s an important insight as well. You might need to re-evaluate your goals and see if they still ring true for you.
Allow yourself to keep expanding, learning, and trying new things. “If you’re aiming to perform at your best, you need something new to be excited about,” the Harvard Business Review recommended. “Building time into your routine to explore new ideas… helps foster a sense of growth even when the tasks you’re working on are predictable.”
Take time at the end of each training phase to look at what worked and what didn’t. It can be tough to look at ourselves honestly, whether the hard feedback comes internally or from a coach. Let yourself be receptive to constructive criticism, because when it comes from a trusted and knowledgeable source, it gives you an actionable path to improvement.
Olympic medalist Mari Holden now directs the Twenty20 professional women’s racing team. “I always like to tell the girls, ‘When you don’t achieve your goal, can you look back and say [you] did everything right?’” Holden told me. “[Things are] going to go wrong all of the time, but you’ve gotta control what you can control, and what you can control are those little things every day. During that time [between events] you’re analyzing, not coming up with excuses. It’s done. Now you gotta move forward.”
Get ready for what comes next
It seems unfair that feeling emotional discomfort and emptiness after a big event occurs at the same time we need to take a break from physical activity. For many athletes, physical activity is a major coping mechanism or measure of value. That’s just the way it works, however. Goals are a way-point, not an endpoint.
Consider this: Wherever you may be headed, if you are going to devote your time and effort to it, if you are going to sacrifice for it, then it should be something that truly matters to you. It should matter to the You that exists today, not the You that existed a year, or even a month ago. The pause can be uncomfortable, but the clarity and strength you gain will be worth it.