First off, I’d like to congratulate all of you who ran the TCS New York City Marathon, or any fall goal race. The path through the Five Boroughs presents a unique challenge in marathoning; there’s a reason it’s one of the most challenging races in the World Marathon Majors. Likewise, there are plenty of other courses that are just as challenging, and without the endless energy of NYC spectators.
If you’ve ever run 26.2, you know full well that the event is not just physically, but mentally demanding. It takes guts to get out of your comfort zone for an extended period of time. Not just physical, but mental guts (yes, that’s a thing). Because of that, I’m often approached about “mental recovery” after taking on a big-ass race such as a marathon or ultra.
During grueling distances, we may not realize that our minds are constantly wandering, making adjustments, judging, trying to entertain ourselves, and later coping with the last stretch. These issues aren’t just relegated to us mortals, but are challenges that even the Mary Keitany’s of the world must take on.
When we race a marathon properly, at some point our legs become depleted of glycogen. Around the same time, our minds are pretty tapped out too. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve been known to lose and forget things during and after long races. Anyone who’s tried to mentally calculate splits in the later miles of a race knows what I’m talking about. Or who’s tried to remember where they parked the car. These are all signs of mental fatigue from a hard race, or even a hard season.
Like you, I’ve also been an emotional mess at the finish line. Of course, a lot of this comes from the sense of accomplishment, but it’s also that I’m just too tired to regulate my emotions.
Because the mental and physical parts of racing are equally important, I work hard with my athletes during their training to make sure they’re focused, composed, and ready when things cease to be fun. This demands a lot of energy, both cognitive and emotional.
Hopefully racing doesn’t make you feel as if your IQ has dropped a few points along with an acute fear of stairs. But if this is the case, or even if you just capped an awesome, long season and race, here are some key tips on how to recover mentally and come back even stronger.
» Take Time to Reflect
Take a good 24-48 hours to really decide what you loved or didn’t love about the event. What went right? Take notes on the strengths you displayed because this is good info for later. What is one area where you feel you need the most improvement?
For example, did you nail your nutrition and negative split, but found yourself stressing about the clock? Did you push too hard in the first half? I’ve said this before, but racing is like an ongoing science initiative: we’re extracting data to get better all the time.
» Take Time Off
For all the love, take some time off! I know, I know, you already want more. You crushed your race and want to roll that high into the next training cycle. We all do, but more is not always more.
This can look different depending on the athlete, coach, and situation. It can range from going Kenyan-style (taking 14-30 or more days off at a time with no exercise), or it may mean ditching the GPS and taking it easy, learning how to reconnect and read your body while it recovers.
Personally, I like a good 5-7 day total layoff, and then run whenever I want, with no set time, and usually something very different, like trails. Obviously, low effort.
While this is a physical break, it also allows you to mentally relax—no need to worry about paces, heart rates, or weekly mileage goals.
» Take Time for Other Things in Life
“I’m sorry, I have a long run in the morning”— this is not a thing that should be said after a marathon. Replace this with something or someone you feel have put on the back burner. Go out, sleep in, or read a book. Catch up on a work project or try woodworking (not sure about that one, but whatever).
For a lot of us, our stress relief that is running can sneakily become our stressor. Allow yourself to create some more space by mentally focusing on things other than running.
»Take Time to Chill the F*** Out
Non-Type A runners may skip this one: give yourself permission to chill, with or without Netflix. You worked hard. You earned it. We don’t have to be in training mode all the time, regardless of what Instagram says.
Mind Over Matter, Y’all
When the time comes to plan your next race or adventure, the idea is to not just come back physically rejuvenated, but more hungry and motivated mentally than before. Enjoy your success, enjoy the process of getting better, and set some big goals.
Rest and repeat.
Until next time, believe in your run.
Adrienne has been a runner since the age of 12 and a sport psychology consultant for the past 10+ years. As a writer, she was a key contributor to Kara Goucher’s book “Strong”. She lives in Texas where she loves to run cross country when she gets the chance.