Trying to Outride or Outrun Post-Event Blues
Training with Kierstin Kloeckner
You’ve spent months, maybe years, training for a specific event. Every fiber of your body and mind has focused on one thing – crossing the finish line. Maybe you’re an amateur, maybe you’re a pro, maybe you signed up for something just to challenge yourself. You’ve given up “down time,” you’ve had to schedule almost every minute of your day, you’ve sacrificed sleep, time with family and friends, and the pure pleasure of consuming an excess of junk food and beer. Essentially, you’ve become “machine-like.” Adrenaline pumps through your body when you ride or step up to the line. You are here to prove something to yourself. Prove you have the mental and physical strength to push and go beyond the limits you though you had. The thing is, the battle doesn’t always end at the finish line. Often the biggest hurdle comes in the following days and weeks.
Post-event depression is nothing new and it’s very real. Just like postpartum depression, there is a mental change and biochemical change which occurs in many athletes after a big challenge. Being a coach and a former racer, I am very sensitive to this issue. I am always checking my clients post event and now know to take important preventive measures to lighten the affects for myself after I train for something big.
I first felt the slam of post-event depression surprisingly not after a racing as a junior, but back in 2003 when I completed not only my first half-marathon but also my first bike tour (which I did solo). I was completely okay post half-marathon since I was completely focused on prepping for my first tour from Madison to Minneapolis only one month later. It was after the tour I completely shut down. I no longer had anything in my horizon, nothing to “train” for, and I felt 100% completely lost. I found it difficult to go out for even short runs or rides. My body had the strength, but my mind had shut down to the point of telling my body it was difficult to just get through the work day. I was irritable, lost all creativity, couldn’t focus and was essentially a pain in the butt to be around. I got over it by my ex-husband and I having an upcoming trip to France. If we didn’t have that planned a few months out, I’m not sure what I would have done.
The author hydrates at Almanzo 2014. “For me, the last gravel event of the spring is always my saddest time. It forces me to shift gears and plan for tours and road rides to make sure depression doesn’t sink in.”
I often think about my experience after such small events and wonder how folks like Ironman triathletes or bike racers in stage races do. Sadly, this post-event depression is something kept under wraps since people think it’s a sign of weakness. Athletes suffer alone, not knowing often what is wrong with them and also not wanting to share it with others out of fear of being judged. In my view, this needs to be talked about so much more. It needs to be discussed in a kind, understanding way. It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about and there are ways to help prevent and treat it. Since I experienced it over a decade ago, I have made a point to research exactly what the heck is going on in both brain and body and what we can all do when it happens. Here’s my spiel.
What’s going on?
Why is my well-trained body and mind working against me?
First, your body and mind are telling you to take a break. Both are exhausted whether you think they are or not. Often, athletes don’t realize how much focus they’ve been putting into that one day/moment. Fight or flight hormones called adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine have flooded your body before and during the event, as well as (most likely) several times during intense training sessions. The body is not meant to keep these hormones flowing. We would end up becoming quite sick if it did.
Second, many athletes spend hours upon hours planning for the “big day,” and not just through training. It’s well known that visualization is a positive training tool, so many athletes run the event itself through their head far before the actual day. They also spend copious amounts of time making sure their all their gear is ready (bike, nutrition, sunblock, clothes … you get the picture). One needs to be somewhat obsessive so simple things like bike shoes aren’t forgotten at 5 a.m. This constant mental list is quite draining on the body as well as the mind.
Comparisons could be made to herding dogs. It’s not always just the movement that fatigues us!
Finally, our bodies were not meant to be in “prime” condition all the time. We need to go though cycles to stay injury- and illness-free. Often close to an event, we are leaner than normal and may be battling overuse injuries. Depression can be easily spurred by both. A calorie or nutrient deficiency is often the cause for mild depression, and if you’ve been fighting pain through overtraining or just training hard, the body and mind smartly apply the brakes.
Avoiding the blues
So how do we help prevent this depression from hitting us and if it does, how can we manage it?
I tend to focus more on prevention so that even if the symptoms hit, they may not hit as strong. I tell my clients they may very well experience the post-event blues and to be ready for it. Even if they haven’t felt it before, you never know when it will rear its ugly head. I ask my clients to do several simple steps a month or so prior to their event.
•Keep a training journal which also tracks mood and injuries. This may show some patterns or warning signs long before the storm hits.
•Plan on taking two weeks off with active recovery post event. No, you shouldn’t just sit on a couch with bags of chips and pints of ice cream watching old reruns. Set very simple goals such as going for 30-minute strolls in new neighborhoods, catching up with friends with mellow walks or bike rides, going to restorative yoga classes, or choosing to “play” versus train (think Frisbee, putt putt golf, bowling, etc.). Set some of these things up before the event day even comes around.
•Stock your house with healthy food that is a bit richer than you may normally eat. You’ll most likely crave junk food post event but by overindulging in junk, you’ll be riding an even bigger emotional roller coaster ride. Have things like nuts, avocados and cheese on hand. Pair them with fruit for snacks throughout the day. Sure, allow yourself a couple pig-out days, but keep it at that.
•Plan your next adventure. Have something in the wings even if it isn’t big. As I stated before, having an upcoming trip to France several months out helped me immensely — even if it wasn’t a physical event.
Okay, so you’ve done all of the above and you are still hit like a brick. What to do?
•Talk to other athletes. I know there’s a stigma around this, but so many people experience it and we shouldn’t feel like we have to go through it alone.
•Do something completely different. For me, when I’m burnt out on cycling, I often pick up my running shoes. It allows me to not only move in a different way, but also think differently. Movement becomes “play” again and it will often give me a spark.
•If you have another event planned in your discipline, and it feels like pulling teeth to train, ask yourself if you’ve taken enough time off. A couple weeks off will not harm you at all. My training rule of thumb is 0-2 weeks out – only recovery, no training; 3-4 weeks out – focus on keeping your workload at 60% and no more; 4-6 weeks out – get back into intervals or longer duration.
•Finally, mix up the type of event you do in your discipline. For me, I go back and forth between long road rides, gravel events, bike tours and short punchy group rides. This allows the simple act of riding a bike to feel new in both mind and body. I also don’t hold strictly to a set training schedule anymore. If I feel like I’m getting the blues, I’ll allow myself a day off or a shift in my training schedule.
My hope is that these simple tips can help you prevent or treat what many of us go through. My final advice is to be kind to yourself after a big event. Congratulate yourself on your efforts and then move on. Unless you are a professional athlete, these events should not be the only things we live for. If they are, we are automatically setting ourselves up to fall hard when we cross the finish line.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s life is ridiculously short. Embrace the physical gift you have, but remember not to take yourself too seriously!