Race day has come and gone, and the awesome feeling of accomplishment has ... gone with it. Instead of feeling proud and successful, you're left feeling depressed and lethargic. You're suffering from postrace letdown, a common malady among athletes after the culmination of months of work. PRLD effects can be both mental and physical, and the condition is now being addressed as part of any comprehensive training program.
Michelle Blaydon, a former pro triathlete and adventure racer who holds a Ph.D. in exercise psychology, is familiar with postrace letdown, both personally and professionally. "I experienced PRLD a couple of times. It was very apparent when I was training on my own, and as I got older -- when it felt harder to justify the training as my goals were not as big," said Blaydon, who believes from her experience that the letdown can be specific to where you are in your racing career and more acute in different kinds of sports.
"When I was on a national team training for a world championship or a World Cup race in triathlon, it wasn't an issue, as there was so much in place to support the process [of getting] back into training," she said. "It became more apparent during the adventure racing part of my career, and when I began racing for myself."
According to Dr. Doug Jowdy, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and former sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee and team psychologist for U.S. Speed Skating (who has worked with the likes of Apolo Anton Ohno), the main psychological symptoms you can expect to feel after finishing a big sports event or race season are confusion, apathy, mild depression, emptiness, loneliness and a general sense of loss. Physically, athletes can feel tired due to extreme glycogen depletion, as the body is in a state of breakdown due to a variety of stressors during a competitive period. The psychological and physiological high experienced after successfully completing a goal can leave you wanting to achieve more, but the body is done. And needs rest.
Jowdy explains this as a meeting of the mind and body -- the mind has always been the master but now the body simply can't perform. Not a "one size fits all" scenario, the postrace letdown period is contingent on how strongly a person identifies with being an athlete, the meaning sport has in their life and what participation means to them personally.
Blaydon can identify. Recalling one experience after a multiday adventure race in China (and a top-five finish), Blaydon said, "I enjoyed two weeks off, as I had set my mind to this, but after the two weeks' recovery I couldn't get back to regular training. I couldn't run, as my knees hurt from dehydrated ligaments and I had fallen out of love with my bike. I knew I had to start training soon but felt almost depressed or lacked a level of energy. My diet also suffered, spiraling into a constant feeling of being too tired to train."
"I felt confused," Blaydon said of her experience. "Going from a person who jumps out of bed to train to a person who would just roll over and turn the alarm off felt strange. I started to get really angry and frustrated with myself. While I thought I would celebrate the success of this race, I actually didn't, as I didn't know how to let go enough to enjoy that celebration. I suddenly felt really lost."
The body can be hormonally and metabolically altered during after a race, leading to decreased performance, which causes further frustration. For those who experience a strong physical expenditure as well as increased psychological symptoms, PRLD can be very serious. Elite athletes tend to be overtrained and consider "rest" to be a dirty word. These highly compulsive athletes can be addicted to their sport and run the risk of injury if they don't heed the body's call and follow the three R's: rest, recovery and regeneration.
But there is hope for athletes who struggle with PRLD. Jowdy proposes a training program that would allow the body to rest in all possible ways. "I encourage athletes to think of this as another phase of the training/racing process," he said.
First, athletes should celebrate their achievement and revel in the ability to compete and perform. After that, rest. Allow the body to regenerate, focusing on proper nutrition to expedite recovery. Then comes reflection. The previous season or event can be viewed as a huge experiment, and it is crucial to reflect on what went well, what didn't and what you can change for the next time.
Catching up on other aspects of life is the next step in Jowdy's plan. "Reconnect with friends, family and work issues," Jowdy advises, but he stresses only self-reflection. Focusing on what other athletes did, didn't do or are still doing can be detrimental. Instead, consider how you can be self-focused and strong in your own competitive zone while setting new goals.
Blaydon found that relaxing and letting go helped her to recognize what she was going through. She realized she needed two to four weeks of non-specific activity postrace, which included doing whatever she liked rather than a set schedule of workouts. She also took time to reflect and focus on her diet and future goals. Rest -- and the right perspective -- work wonders for those suffering from PRLD. Blaydon continues to compete, once again finding pleasure in sports. "Eventually, I just thought about what I wanted to do next," she said, "and how I wanted to go about achieving it."