Post-Race Blues: The Neuroscience of Marathon Recovery

Post-marathon blues after running a big race, even successfully, can impact recovery. Dr. Beth McQuiston and Abbott runners discuss what happens in the brain.

You did it.

You prepared, trained long hours and pushed yourself.

You ran a marathon, something only 1% of people have accomplished. You crossed the finish line and …

Now what?

After focusing your lifestyle and concentration on a goal as momentous as finishing a marathon, it’s common to feel a flood of emotions and wonder what to do next. And while trainers, coaches and fellow marathon runners may have tips for taking care of your body after a race, mental recovery is often overlooked.

Post-race blues aren’t unlike the emotional slump people sometimes feel following a vacation, birthday or holiday. But when it comes to running marathons, your body can become accustomed to – and maybe even reliant on – training frequently as it adapts to the pattern of exercise and recovery. As race day comes and goes, your body and brain will need to adapt to a new pattern of focus, sleep, activity and rest.

As Dr. Beth McQuiston, neurologist and medical director of Diagnostics at Abbott, explained, post-marathon blues are very real and are rooted in the brain's chemistry. The dopamine (a “happy” chemical released in the brain) runners experience when crossing the finish line and the endorphins (another positive chemical signal) they’ve benefited from throughout the training process and race can plumet. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine are the brain’s chemical messengers that impact how we experience emotions. As McQuiston put it, finishing a race can feel like “pulling the plug on the neurotransmitter sink,” leaving runners feeling low after their body and brain are pulled out of the pattern they’ve adapted to.

So what can you do help your mental recovery after a race? We talked to experienced marathon runners and got their tips for combatting the post-race slump.

1.     Soak in the Win

Even if you’re not sure what to do next, remember that you ran a marathon. Taking in that win is critical.

As Abbott runner and 26-time marathon race finisher Pam Nisevich Bede put it, “There’s a sort of mental cliff you can fall off after a race. It’s common to experience post-marathon blues, but you have to learn to be patient with yourself and not get back out there too fast.”

Your body will thank you for taking time off too. Getting back out and running long distances right after a big race can make recovery more difficult.

“Your success isn’t gone,” McQuiston said. “Relish the win by looking back at photos, blogging about your experience and talking about it with friends.”

2.     Give Yourself Grace

What if your most recent race wasn’t, in your perspective, a success? Whether your goal time was out of reach or an injury cut your experience short, it may be more difficult to mentally recover from a race that didn’t go as you planned.

Olympic marathon runner Liz Yelling has been there. By the time that the 2008 Beijing Olympics rolled around, Yelling was four years into a perfectly planned training cycle. “I felt I had unlocked the training that worked for me,” Yelling said. “I had found my formula. I prepared, and I felt ready.”

“Then, I cracked a rib at mile 10,” she recalled. “I had nothing planned after that.” She felt that after years of training for this race, she had reached an anticlimax. “I had my tears, and I felt that disappointment,” Yelling said. “But I had to force myself to step back and put it in scale. It’s just running. There is so much more happening in the world.”

When training for, and in Yelling’s case, devoting your career to a specific goal – whether that be to simply cross the finish line or win a gold medal – it can be easy to have tunnel vision. Anything beyond that objective can fade into the background.

But you are more than your time, performance or place on the leaderboard.

Nisevich Bede has experienced similar trials. “I’ve had just as many trainwrecks as good race days,” she said. “But you have to give yourself grace. You will find another challenge, and you will succeed.”

3.     Explore Other Interests

Instead of jumping right back into training, which can negatively impact recovery, Nisevich Bede recommended runners challenge themselves in different ways.

“For me, it was arranging flowers. For others, it could be something with lower impact, like swimming,” Nisevich Bede said. “Find something to put on the calendar and look forward to it, or enjoy the extra time to be in the moment and enjoy your accomplishment, however your brain is wired.”

McQuiston concurred, saying that channeling your time and energy into other things such as hobbies, meditation or enjoying a favorite meal can increase dopamine and aid in mental recovery. Also, it’s a great time to reach out and reconnect with friends and family you may have had to sacrifice time with throughout training.

4.     Enjoy the Process of Setting Goals

The saying “It’s about the journey, not the destination” relates to running too. For some, it’s the process of training and planning that brings a sense of peace.

“There’s never really an endpoint with goal-setting,” Yelling said. “You may need a new process to focus on afterward.”

Whether that process is a DIY project, learning a new language or anything in between, sometimes we just need a new aspiration to feel like our best selves. If you’re focused on recovery after a marathon or taking a break from the sport, finding a new means of goal-setting outside of running can provide motivation.

So, now what? Anything you put your mind to.