On the Suckiness of Post-Marathon Slumps Even When You Expect Them

My most recent good running day … 3 months ago.

While many of the other women who competed along side me last February at the Olympic Marathon Trials raced their first big races after L.A. this weekend, I did not. In fact, I don’t think I could race right now if someone paid me.

After every marathon, whether race day goes well or poorly, I end up in a slump. I excitedly stuff my face with every baked creation imaginable and that’s fun … for like a week. Then I start to feel like a waste of space. I feel so much more accomplished, centered, and fulfilled when I’m running.

I know that I need that time to recharge both physically and mentally, so I take it. I treat myself to indulgences I don’t get mid-season, like staying up late, sleeping in, and eating multiple doughnuts in one sitting. I am good at reminding myself this rest is just part of the racing cycle and post-race blues are totally normal.

While I anticipated my post-Trials emotional drop off a cliff with it being the most exciting race ever and all, but maybe because it didn’t hit me right away or maybe because it was immediately followed by the most depressing off-season, but I’m struggling in the slump swamp way more than I expected to. 

I braced myself for a post-Trials slump. I suspected the blues would hit me harder after the Trials than after previous races. Not because the race went poorly, because I enjoyed the hell out of a non-PR for the first time ever, but because it was such an epic life moment and now it’s over. And because the race was in February, the spring season was kind of a bust; I was taking my post-marathon break while my teammates were peaking. I told myself I’d come back in time for summer 5Ks, but that meant I’d be staring at a longer race-less abyss than usual.

But oddly the post-marathon slump didn’t hit me right away. I made it through the first few weeks with both hands in the cookie jar and both eyes on 2020. Mouth full of junk food, I would declare to anyone that listened that I was taking a nice long break and that was totally cool with me.

Tea's First Law of Motion:  A Tea in motion will stay in motion. A tea not in motion will bake cookies.
Tea’s First Law of Motion: A Tea in motion will stay in motion. A tea not in motion will bake cookies.

Instead of the drop off the mountain-top I expected, it was more like a slow roll down the side. I kept eating crap, staying up late, skipping runs for no good reason, and beginning to feel like 2020 is one hell of a long way away. And suddenly I was stuck at the bottom of the abyss with no way out. Would I ever be able to get back into the shape I was in back in February? It seemed more unlikely with every day of laziness, but I just couldn’t get myself to get back to it. While many of the other Trials competitors were gearing up for the next big races, I was making my couch dent more permanent.

I’d get back to training briefly, but then hit a minor snag like a cold that took forever to kick or a crazy couple of weeks of work. The weird thing about this slump, is that while I expected it, mentally prepared for it, braced myself against it, it has ended up being the most persistent one I’ve ever experienced. But I think I know the major issue. I seem to have forgotten the kind of runner I am; I should know better by now.

I am most motivated to train when I have a marathon on the horizon, yet I’ve expected myself to dive back into training with no goal marathon. I’ve often said that the only thing that motivates me is a marathon. That’s what got me back into running in 2005 and, oh hey, eleven years and a serious running obsession later, it’s still 100% true. I have no marathon in sight. My plan has been that after some summer 5Ks, I’m going to focus on half marathons and ten milers in the fall. I know working on speed is a good strategy for the long term, blah blah blah. It doesn’t get me going. Also, I hate 5Ks. I know this, but thought I’d conquer it somehow. Instead, I’m struggling, completely unmotivated without 26.2.

I know I’m a morning runner, yet I’ve expected myself to be motivated to get in the miles later in the day. I’m coaching Girls On The Run twice a week and I do my own runs after our afternoon sessions. At first I figured it’d be nice to keep up the same routine the rest of the week: start work earlier and run later in the day. It doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’m a morning runner; I don’t do it otherwise, something inevitably comes up. I know this about myself, but I chose to ignore it and ended up with a lot of skipped runs.

I’ve expected to love running even while coming back from a long off-season. Running sucks when I’m out-of-shape! Like Oregano, non-running friends ask me all the time how I can stand running when it’s so terrible. I try to tell them it gets better, that you have to push past those first few weeks of agony, that it takes time but it’s worth it. They don’t believe me. Instead they think I’m so running obsessed that every day is sunshine and rainbows and zero suckiness. But it’s not. Post-layoff, I’m in their sneakers; it feels like running will never be as fast or as effortless again and my motivation takes another pounding. But as I say, repeatedly and desperately to those unconvinced non-runners, It gets better. Right? Why have I forgotten this too?

This slump has taken longer to get out of than all the others. So my prediction was right, the post-Trials free-fall slow unraveling was a doozy. But despite anticipating that, I didn’t set myself up to overcome it very well—I lined up races that don’t motivate me, picked times of the day I’m least likely to go, and forgot that the first weeks back will always be a (temporary) struggle. If you’re looking for a lesson, there are the tips I should have given myself.

I’m trying to fix those mistakes. I’ve run more this week than any other since the Trials, and I’m trying not to beat myself up that the motivation isn’t there just yet. (Don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners.)

But still, I worry I’ve dug myself too big a hole. Summer is around the corner; I’ve got to find a way to claw out.

Have you ever experienced a slump that was worse than you expected it to be? How did you get out of it?

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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  1. Hang in there Tea, you’ll get your motivation back eventually. Maybe if you need a marathon to motivate you, put one on your calendar….even if it’s a year away? And think of all your summer 5Ks/fall 10 milers as training for that eventual marathon?

    1. Thanks, Parsley! Yea, that’s how I’m trying to think about it: it’s all training for the marathon one way or another 🙂

  2. I’ve been in a bigger slump than normal, but I think I kind of never got out of my taper slump. I can imagine a huge race like the trials would be a big let down. The best thing I find is to pick a race and start a new plan!

  3. Train for a half! You get your distance in, but not as much wear and tear on your body. I totally understand this slump. I had a bad stress fracture in October and have had a tough time really jumping into training despite being cleared. I need a race to motivate me and currently I don’t have one.

    1. Maybe it just takes a while after you get out of the rhythm (post-break or post-injury). But I guess I should be telling you to train for a race too 😉 Good luck with coming back, but don’t force it! (See Poppy’s comment below, so true!)

  4. You’ll come around. I’ve always thought that if you’re in a slump and not motivated to train/train hard, then it’s not worth forcing it. You’ll end up hating running, or at least enjoying it less, if you make yourself start pushing things before you are ready to (physically, mentally, emotionally). I’m sure it may seem like you are far removed from where you were in February, but once you are ready to attack things again, it will come back quickly. That’s been my experience anyway. Sometimes you just gotta ride out the slump until you are ready to go again. And I’m with you on 5ks. Yuck. But a necessary evil.

    1. So true! It’s definitely important not to force it, so I’m trying to take my time and let the motivation come! Thanks, Poppy!

  5. This is me exactly right now! I also ran at the trials, but unfortunately didn’t finish, but still am in my biggest slump ever as well. So you are not alone! Good luck with finding the motivation soon, and trying to enjoy the down time we probably need. We’ll get back into race shape eventually 🙂

  6. oy. same deal here. sick for boston & ran terribly after training for a PR, got sick again after recovering from running sick…blergh! it’s very hard to tell which way is up. flailing around looking for road races isn’t digging me out, either… ah well, so it goes–thankfully the life cycle of training keeps spinning & nudging you along to the next phase, even when you think you’re stuck.

    1. Yea and sometimes your body is giving you important signals to take a break. Like Poppy said above, don’t force it especially if you’ve been sick! Take the time you need and the motivation will come back when your body is ready.