Not sure what to do when the runner’s high is over? We chatted with Dr. Justin Ross to get medical insights on how to cope with the end of competition season.
AFTERSHOKZ: How would you describe a “runner’s high” from a psychological perspective?
ROSS: We know physiologically there are a number of things that happen when experiencing a runner’s high that are likely contributable to endorphins and endocannabinoids. Psychologically, explaining a runner’s high is a bit more difficult. It seems the times we do experience a runner’s high have some combination or overlap with a sense of connection, the ability to let go, and/or flow state.
- Connection: Exercise in any form, and running in particular, provides us an amazing opportunity to connect to ourselves and also to our environment. For many, the daily run is the lone opportunity to focus solely on oneself, giving us a chance to truly engage in self-care. For many, it’s also an opportunity to be immersed in nature which adds to a deeper sense of connection to the world around us.
- Letting Go: Exercise is one of, if not the primary, time where we can completely let go of the demands of our daily responsibilities. We can drop our stresses, anxieties, sadnesses and focus solely on putting one foot in front of the other. There is profound power in putting down the day’s worries and allowing yourself to move. Exercise also provides us a physical cadence to rest our focus and attention, helping us become more mindful, which brings us to the opportunity for flow state.
- Flow State: Being fully immersed in a task is at the heart of flow state. We don’t have flow state opportunities when looking at a computer screen all day. Movement gives us the direct chance of being fully present in a singular activity of concentration.
AS: Can you explain why it might be difficult for athletes to cope mentally after a big race finish or achieving a long-term goal?
DR: Psychologically there are quite a few variables at play in both the pursuit and the aftermath of chasing down big race goals. The beauty of running (and endurance goals more broadly spoken) is that the very connection to something so personally meaningful provides a mighty anchor and consistent structure to our daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms as amateur athletes. The daily requirement needed for fulfilling long-term goals in and of itself becomes its own daily ritual, filled with many smaller rites of passage. Crossing the finish line of an important event then captures the very essence of all of those successes and helps cement the notion of the commitment being worthwhile.
But not too long after finishing a key event, we often find ourselves experiencing a sense of sadness. Loss is at the heart of human sadness. When we lose a family member or friend, we process that loss as grief. But we may struggle to make sense of how to process the "loss components" after completing a meaningful event such as running a marathon or knocking down a PR in an important race. We refer to this process as “disenfranchised grief”. Completing long-term, personal goals are a peak human experience, and they require months of dedication, commitment and sacrifice.
While we may often complain about the rigours of training in the midst of a training cycle, it's the process of alignment between daily behaviours to longer term goals that make training for and completing big goals such a special endeavour. Once the euphoria of hitting the finish line dissipates, we are left to confront the loss of both the regular rhythm of training along with the connection to long term, meaningful goals. The psychological power of that process cannot be underscored. What's more, the impact is often not well understood by those not regularly lacing up running shoes (which can reinforce a sense of alienation or isolation and compound disenfranchised grief).
Further, when we have a key event on the calendar we are “future oriented” in a positive way. Future orientation is a key factor in human well-being - we need things, events, travel, opportunities to challenge ourselves on our future horizon. It’s a necessary ingredient for mental health. Once our main event is completed we are often left looking ahead without that same level of future orientation. We’re sort of sandwiched between looking back with a sense of gratitude for what we’ve just completed, yet confronted with a present state sense of loss or aimlessness, while also looking forward without a specific direction or goal. Collectively, this takes a toll on our psyche.
AS: What are some ways athletes can cope with these mental transitions from highs to lows?
DR: A few things I would recommend: Start by recognizing any difficulty in the post-race experience as being deeply human (for the reasons just mentioned above). You have to give yourself permission to feel all the feels, that the race is over, and that you are in a transition period before your next event.
Second, be cautious about how quickly you jump into either signing up for another race or getting back into training. I know it's uncomfortable, but part of the healing process is allowing yourself to work with those feelings of sadness, emptiness or feeling directionless without a training plan or specific event goal. Too often we fall into the trap of registering for another race immediately, just to have something on the calendar or rushing back into training too soon to alleviate the feelings of discomfort we may be experiencing. This just becomes a hopscotch move over processing what you just accomplished.
Embracing the transition period is vital. Reflect on your season and what you learned about yourself through the process of training. Take some time to consider your important next goals. What do you want to go after and why is that important to you now? Finally, give yourself permission to engage in some of the activities, hobbies, (or, ahem, relationships) that may have been slightly neglected during the course of your training.
Did you like Dr. Ross’ advice on how to handle life after a competition or during the off-season? Check out What to Do When The Runner’s High is Over: Part 1 next!