‘Flattening the curve’ has been of national interest this year.
Peaks and troughs is one way to describe the emotional rollercoaster that we never volunteered to board. This emotional cycle is perfectly natural, and we can’t have one without the other. But just because these emotional shifts are expected doesn’t make them easy to deal with. This year has created so much uncertainty and extra space that many of us have felt these low ebbs more intensely than usual.
Runners in particular will be familiar with another phenomenon: the dreaded ‘post-marathon blues’. It’s been especially rife in a year where records and fastest known times were knocked out every week like new bus timetables, including my own (unsuccessful) record attempt on the National Three Peaks Run.
But non-athletes are equally susceptible. We’ve all had plans shelved and things we were looking forward to suddenly tossed like a stone into the distance, without much sympathy.
Imagine being focused on something for weeks, months, or even years. Investing so much of your time, energy, money, possibly even blood, to realise this objective. Of course, all these things are replaceable – except time. Perhaps wasting time is the biggest sacrifice in a world where our time is so limited and non-guaranteed.
You hit the peak. You finish the race, break the personal best, or even fly off on your dream holiday. The elation, if not quite how you visualised, is hard to beat. You’re on cloud nine. Sometimes this buzz lasts for weeks, perhaps combined with the instant relief that you can enjoy taking it easy for a while, with no more obligation to run for hours in the rain.
Usually the higher you go, the harder you fall. Then you have the trough. A void. An emptiness. Life feels abruptly purposeless. Low mood and low motivation can fill the gap instead, with nothing else immediately to look forward to on the horizon. What’s the point?
Perhaps the only useful thing (or only thing) I remembered from Physics at school is what goes up must come down again. So I wanted to share a few things I’ve learnt about flattening the curve of these peaks and troughs over the years.
1) Let yourself grieve
It may sound ridiculous, but these losses are similar to grief. It’s very normal to feel down. Keeping perspective is important – you’ve probably been here before, so you can get through it again, even if you feel otherwise. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or feel guilty about the things that you should be doing. Learn to be comfortable sitting in this quiet time. We need it to recover our energy for the next peak. Troughs don’t last forever, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can move upwards.
2) Time to reflect
We hurriedly revert to filling this gap with something else, rather than confront the uncomfortable space. But sometimes the knee-jerk reaction to enter another race or set another challenge can stop us enjoying the journey and in this endless pursuit of more we can forget why we wanted it in the first place. Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to take the time to reflect on what you’ve learnt. After the 3 Peaks I was dragged straight into work and other commitments without any time to enjoy my achievement or the well-earned rest, that appeared as a dreamy vision when cursing the rain at 40 miles in.
3) Talk to others
As with every challenge in life, we need other people around us to share our feelings, offer reassurance, and know we’re not alone. Ideally, we have people who understand or can relate to our situation (runners love to talk about running – others not so much). It helps to vent frustrations and get some new perspectives rather than internalising them, and reliving the experience keeps it alive in our minds.
4) Plan for the trough
This might be harder if something is suddenly cancelled without much notice, but if you can see the trough coming, then we can prepare for the crash. With the 3 Peaks Run, the high never really came. I had doubted my success so much that I didn’t even visualise it, maybe to protect myself from the disappointment. In the same way that I had scheduled training sessions, I should have scheduled some down time, be that walks with family, relaxation, or even a meal to celebrate after finishing the run. When injured or not racing I have often volunteered at my local Parkrun – helping others always makes you feel good. Fill your diary with something meaningful that you’ve wanted to do, or the things you sacrificed to achieve your objective. The options may be limited at the moment, but even the simple pleasures can go a long way. Spending time in nature is always a good place to start.
5) Capture the experience
Writing things down, taking voice diaries or even videos, might be the last thing you want to do after the high. But the minute details and memories quickly fade away without some record. Reliving the event allows us to process it whilst fresh in the mind, reflect on the things we learnt, verbalise any doubts, and help it to ‘sink in’. This debrief is a key part of the recovery process. I came away from the 3 Peaks with numerous frustrations and mistakes, so writing a list for next time helped put those to bed – being proactive rather than pointlessly giving myself a hard time.
6) Maintain the routine
Admittedly, after my 3 Peaks Run I slacked off the routines and maintenance habits that had got me to the finish – icing my swollen feet, elevating my legs, eating a huge calorie intake with sufficient protein and quality nutrition, and stretching off. It didn’t seem to matter once I’d achieved the goal. But this routine was equally if not more important in the post-challenge period. Had I been more proactive I would have recovered much quicker, too.
Maintaining some routine will ease the transition rather than a hard stop. For the first few weeks I enjoyed the lack of pressure to run, whilst hill-walking and cycling (with numerous cake stops) allowed me to enjoy the outdoors and stay active without putting too much stress on my body.
7) Fill the calendar
Many marathon runners vow ‘never again’ but the bug is notoriously deceptive. The pain or the disappointment are quickly eclipsed by the thrill. When the time is right, you’ll probably be thinking of another race, adventure or holiday. Maybe you already have something lined up. Even if it’s far away or feels out of reach (especially right now) then focus on the short-term milestones to keep making progress. Everest has 4 camps below the summit. Keep focused and it’ll be here before you know it.
For me, it’s these challenges that make life truly worthwhile. By being proactive and self-aware, we can flatten the curve when we reach those inevitable dips of life. There’s always another peak. If this trough is more severe or lasting longer than usual, never be afraid of asking for some help to take the next steps – speaking to your GP, a close friend or a helpline is a good place to start.
I’d much rather live my life on these peaks and troughs than stay at base camp – wouldn’t you?