How we work with our athletes to get through the emotional aftermath of major endurance events.
By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach
With Ironman Kona behind us and Ironman Florida not too far in front of us, the topic of Ironman Blues is coming up a lot. What are the Ironman Blues? They’re what some triathletes experience in the weeks following an Ironman competition, whether your Ironman experience was positive or negative. In many ways, the Ironman Blues are natural and inevitable; you just spent many months focused intently on a major endurance goal and now that event is done and gone. How do you move forward as a productive athlete?
Athetes respond to this period differently. For almost every athlete, there’s an emotional let-down following a major endurance event. When the event was tremendously successful, it’s sometimes difficult to come down from that high and return to the seemingly mundane tasks of everyday life. And when the experience was not successful, there’s often a profound sense of disappointment that gets worse over a period of days following the race. The initial transition from being a pre-competition athlete to a post-competition athlete then progresses into a period of aimlessness, even lethargy. For athletes unprepared for Ironman’s emotional aftermath, it can be a disturbing experience. Here are some ways we work with our athletes to help them through it:
After the Greatest Day of Your Life
Maybe it was your first Ironman, maybe it was your 14th. Maybe you were racing for a cause you believed in or had that magical day when great preparation, perfect conditions, and impeccable luck all combined for super race day! But now it’s over, you’ve celebrated with friends and family, written your blog post and maybe gotten your tattoo. Now what?
- Give yourself time to bask in the accomplishment. Our short attention-span world, hyperactive careers, and micro-managed schedules drive some people to dismiss an accomplishment seconds after reaching the finish line. Avoid that urge; it’s not overindulgent to really let your achievement sink in for a while. You did the work, you deserve to feel great about it!
- Use your race fitness for adventures. Following major competitions, one of an athlete’s greatest desires is to get away from structured training. It’s not that you don’t want to be active; you just don’t really want to hear the word “interval” for a while. After taking about two weeks to catch up on sleep and replenish yourself mentally and physically, I look at this time as a huge reward for an athlete; you have tremendous fitness, perhaps the best fitness of your entire life. Go out and enjoy it! Plan some great back-country trail runs, some epic weekend bike trips, take an extended backpacking trip with your significant other, etc. This is the time when you have all the fitness and none of the pressure!
- Set a date. For athletes coming off a great race, you often have to set a date so you don’t return to full-intensity training too soon! Athletes who are successful often want to get right back to work, and that’s great, but you need to give yourself time to recuperate. For most athletes, I think this date should be 4-6 weeks after your last major Ironman or last major endurance event for the season.
After a Race You’d Rather Forget
Everyone has races that go way off the rails. You got too amped up beforehand, went charging into the water and didn’t have anything left by the time you got the run. Maybe you messed up the nutrition on the way out Hawi, or thought you’d be able to get more fluids down during the run. Maybe you just had a bad day, or perhaps there was a problem with your training or taper going into the race. Bad races help us appreciate and value great races even more; they are a necessary component of being a complete endurance athlete. But silver lining or not, they still leave you feeling frustrated, sad, demoralized, physically sore, and mentally exhausted. And it can take several days for these emotions to reach their full intensity. Initially you may rationalize your performance (“It was great to just finish”) or deflect your own feelings because everyone around you is so proud and happy for you. But two days or a week later, it’s not uncommon for those frustrations to come rushing to the forefront. Here’s how we help athletes work through these times:
- Come to terms with your performance: Get angry, cry, vent your frustrations, complain to your coach or your friends or your spouse. The biggest mistake you can make is to deny the fact you’re disappointed with your performance, dismiss it as something that doesn’t affect you, etc. Athletes try to shrug it off, thinking that the disappointment will fade faster if they just ignore it. Many times, the opposite is true: the more you try to avoid it, the longer that disappointment lingers. You have a right to be upset when something you worked so hard for didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, but you also need to embrace the disappointment and put it behind you.
- Examine your performance: After venting your frustration and getting the tears out of the way, try to examine your race with as objective and critical an eye as you can. Resist the urge to throw out everything you’ve done up until now because you had a bad race. Ninety-five percent of what you did could have been perfect, so don’t go making massive changes to your approach to triathlon training, nutrition, equipment choices, hydration, etc. without first figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
- Get to work on technique: Across the board, a return to the fundamentals with a focus on technique is a positive, productive, and confidence-building way to get back into training. Work on swim stroke, pedaling technique and cycling position, and running mechanics. These are things you can perfect at relatively light intensities, but also things that require a lot of attention and focus. As a result, they help athletes redirect their energies into what they can do right and well instead of dwelling on what went wrong during the last race.
After great and not-so-great race experiences, athletes experience an emotional void. So much energy and focus went into preparing for your race. Your family was involved, your friends were cheering you on, and you may have felt like the center of attention. Once the event is over there’s relief because the pressures of training and expectations are off. But the spotlight moves on as well, and that can sometimes be the hardest thing for an athlete to recognize and deal with. You probably didn’t ask for all the attention, but your efforts inspired and intrigued the people around you. Now they’ve moved on to the next thing or person that catches their attention. That’s perfectly natural, and now it’s your turn to be supportive and engaged in the activities and accomplishments of your family and friends. Take this opportunity to repay some of their support, not out of a sense of obligation, but rather out of a sense of gratitude and respect… and because you just signed up for another Ironman and you’re going to need their support again real soon.
Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems and co-author of seven books with Chris Carmichael, including “The Time-Crunched Triathlete”, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right”. For information on CTS Coaching and Official Ironman Coaching and Camp Packages, visit www.trainright.com/ironman.