Runner's... low?
May 22, 2011 6:48 PM   Subscribe

Why does exercising make me sad?

I know about runner's high, and about feeling awesome after exercising. I've heard a lot about it, but I don't experience it. When I use the elliptical or treadmill, I feel terrible -- terrible -- afterwards. I often end up crying in my post-exercise shower!

Cardio is very important to me, and I want to be able to use the elliptical regularly. I don't have great knees (although I am not overweight; I just have crummy knees) so the elliptical is great for my body. But it's not great for my mind. I just feel depressed afterwards.

I do try to eat something to get my blood sugar up a bit directly after working out, but it doesn't seem to help. By the time I get the food in my mouth (typically 3-5 minutes after working out) I'm already down in the dumps. I read the AskMe thread "Why do the weights make me a grump" and have ruled out the other factors mentioned there as well -- I typically run for 30 mins to an hour, break a great sweat, and stay hydrated. It doesn't matter what gym I use, so I don't think it's cleaning products or floor wax making me feel weird.

I'm not interested in running outside, because of my knees and the humidity/heat here would be pretty unbearable to run in.

What am I doing wrong? What can I do to combat this post-exercise low? How can I feel awesome after I exercise, like everyone else does?

(I asked my doctor and she said it was strange, but had no other suggestions for me.)
posted by k8lin to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure I have any brilliant advice, but maybe some more detail would help pin down what kind of chemicals might be involved....Do you do anything to cool down afterwards? And how long does the mood persist?
posted by Diablevert at 6:54 PM on May 22, 2011

What do you eat before exercising? What does your diet look like, generally? Do you consume refined carbohydrates?
posted by halogen at 6:55 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I typically do 2 to 5 minutes of cool-down (walking slowly) to bring my heart rate back to normal. I'm usually unhappy for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour afterwards; sometimes, it can persist all day/night. I like to work out at about 5 or 6 pm; perhaps that is part of the problem? I usually eat about 3-4 hours before I work out. Do I need to eat a little something right before working out? If so, what kind of thing would help?

My diet is generally very healthy. I do not really eat refined carbs. I eat bran flakes or other non-sugary ceral, skim milk or nonfat yogurt, lots of fruit and veggies, and some kind of protein (beans or chicken) daily.
posted by k8lin at 6:59 PM on May 22, 2011

Perhaps you've seen this, but apparently this issue is surprisingly common.
posted by halogen at 7:00 PM on May 22, 2011

Response by poster: PS - I don't drink anything but water and coffee (decaf) with a bit of nonfat milk and sugar. Sugar in my coffee is typically the only "bad" thing I consume, usually every other day (I use 1 tsp per cup; no more than 2 cups/day).
posted by k8lin at 7:01 PM on May 22, 2011

Response by poster: halogen, thanks! I did a bit of Googling before posting this, but was using bad keywords I guess. This is helpful.

And now I will stop thread-sitting; apologies.
posted by k8lin at 7:02 PM on May 22, 2011

Hrm... For me, the endorphins and all that come from the StepMill and Elliptical machines. But I approach like a game. Getting my heart rate to X, getting to raise the level, ready to add to the time. I log everything and see my progress over time. A great mix of music. I'm still feeling great and I've been home an hour.

If you're not training with a heart rate monitor I don know that if you're not actively trying to push yourself, you're not going to exercise as much as you could and it can get boring and seem to take forever.

Also, if it a blood sugar thing, remember it can take up to 90 minutes for food to get from stomach into your bloodstream. So eating something closer to the workout might help.
posted by birdherder at 7:02 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you listen to music while you exercise? or do you work out in gyms that are full of tv screens and loud music? Bring your own, something that you really enjoy, try different types, see if this helps. Or even book podcasts.
posted by mareli at 7:16 PM on May 22, 2011

Hmmm. I can't seem to google up supporting evidence, but I have heard that a banana eaten about 20 minutes before a long run can help keep up your energy. Well, any small snack can but bananas are especially good because high in potassium. Perhaps try something like that --- a small snack of 100 calories or so shortly before exercise, and see if that helps you feel less depleted and down in the dumps?
posted by Diablevert at 7:24 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: This might sound weird, but if you have a lot going on in your life, exercise may be sort of taking the lid off your emotions. Is it possible that you could be repressing some sad feelings that are only coming up when you let your guard down?
posted by LizzyBee at 7:37 PM on May 22, 2011 [11 favorites]

Running doesn't work. Elliptical makes you sad. What else have you tried?
The elliptical hurts my knees. I know it is not supposed to, but it does, so I don't use it. Maybe a group class of some sort would make you happier. Or the rowing machine. Or kettlebell work. I don't care much that the elliptical isn't supposed to make my knees hurt but does, I don't use it and I do other things that don't work. If everything makes you sad... maybe you have something you need to work out of your system? But maybe you are just saddened by the pointlessness of sitting on the elliptical and doing a fake movement for periods on end.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:39 PM on May 22, 2011

I went through a period of time where I was exercising an hour a day, three times a week to try and fix some anxiety and depression problems.

No matter what I ate or drank before/after my workouts, I would immediately shower, go home, and curl up into a ball of rage, despair, and exhaustion. It finally got so bad that I had to stop because I was having suicidal thoughts after my workouts. I wasn't having suicidal thoughts at any point before I started my exercise regimen. I was in touch with my doctor and therapist throughout the 6 month period I was exercising with that frequency, and neither of them had any answers for me. But, it happened. I didn't make it up. I will be watching this thread with interest, for sure.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 7:44 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with LizzyBee. This has happened to me, too; not with running, but with other movement -- yoga especially. I've seen tears in yoga class from a lot of people, actually. Do you have unresolved "stuff" in your life? Do you do other brain dumping -- like journaling or counseling? That shit has to go somewhere.
posted by pupstocks at 7:47 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You also may want to look into reevlauation counseling. That's a system of peer counseling wherein the whole point is to help your partner "discharge" -- usually by allowing them to cry, laugh, beat on pillows, whatever -- just to let stuff out. The theory is that stuff builds up and just has to come out.

I've done RC and found it helpful.
posted by pupstocks at 7:49 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: This just happened to me today. I went and worked out for the first time in a while; felt great for about 30 minutes, then curled up in a ball of depression for the next ~4 hours. (One of the reasons I work out is to help deal with depression)

The following is just a personal speculation but:

I think it's some combination of a) any time you come down off a high, natural or not, it's unpleasant and b) maybe related to the way people feel suicidal after coming out of their deepest depression- because when you come out of a state of total numbness you notice the pain again.

This might sound stupid, but I think I do better when I make a smoothie after I get home. Besides getting nutrients in me, it gives me something to do and feels like a "reward." It's different than just eating a granola bar or whatever because I am "making" it myself.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:10 PM on May 22, 2011

Cardio workouts tend to exacerbate my mood, no matter what it is. For the first 20 mins or so, anyway. Fortunately after that endorphins or something seem to kick in and I feel good again. But if I go into a workout grumpy or sad or stressed, the fact that my brain has nothing much to do while I run or whatever means it has time to really obsess about my feelings in a way that doesn't happen the rest of the time. Watching TV, listening to an audiobook, or to really engrossing music is the only way around that for me.
posted by lollusc at 8:17 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: I've never had this problem but the first thing that came to mind reading about your experience is to dial back the exercise period and see where the threshold is. I.e. if you're feeling bad after an hour's workout, cut the time to 45 minutes, check for symptoms. Repeat until you get a symptom-free workout. Now stay at that workout level for a spell and try to increase it gradually.

After that the other thing to try is to vary the intensity in the same way.

Once you have a feeling for where the no-go zone is, it might help.
posted by storybored at 8:25 PM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Working on the theory that this is nutrition-related, what about trying one of the nutrition gels? I've found that they make me feel much better during long periods of exercise, so maybe they'll help you feel better after short periods? They taste like crap, but they've worked wonders for me.
posted by dg at 8:28 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: Are you eating enough?
posted by salvia at 8:33 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happens to me when I'm really overwhelmed with work. My personal trainer told me to pop a piece of sugar free gum in when I start my cooldown, and to try to take deep cleansing breaths. I fail at the mindful breathing thing, but the gum helps. Probably placebo, but a huge impact for me.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 8:36 PM on May 22, 2011

You need to want to exercise. If you force yourself or aren't engaged with the activity your mind wanders and it's not fun. Also if you're in pain it's usually hard to ignore that. Maybe you could try swimming if your joints are weak.
posted by apdato at 8:46 PM on May 22, 2011

Maybe try lifting your blood sugar before your workout? It really takes carbs about 30-60 minutes to work their way into your bloodstream in the form of blood sugar, and that's what your body is using to supply energy to your muscles while you're working out.
posted by kavasa at 8:51 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happens to me frequently, too, and I think it just comes from being tired. I tend to exercise at night (because it helps me sleep), so if I've worked all day, done chores after work, then exercised hard, I'm pretty tired. I feel good, positive, mentally sharp while I'm exercising, then there's a let down from that "high" afterward, accompanied by physical exhaustion and my natural tendency to be depressed at night, so I think that's what does it to me. I try to go to bed right after exercising, so that I don't sit around and get gloomy.

I would try reducing the time you exercise and see if that helps; as you get fitter, you could increase the time gradually.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:17 PM on May 22, 2011

I'm wondering if you're not getting enough carbs and protein? Might be worth checking out. Do you have any fat at all in your diet? You may just not have enough fuel for what you're asking your body to do. Or it may be that physical activity lets the lid off your emotions, as others have suggested.
posted by purenitrous at 9:40 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: If you're exercising 3 or 4 hours after your last meal, you're starting your exercise on an empty tank, then running on fumes the entire time. Have something like a yogurt and a piece of fruit before, and chug some chocolate milk after.
posted by facetious at 9:50 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

A former roommate of mine always felt like crap after exercising. Finally she went to the doctor & found out she had a severely low red blood cell count (anemia?). After treatment, she felt a lot better both during and after exercise.
posted by jenmakes at 10:01 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm currently mostly unemployed, and in a new city without many friends. I feel fine when I work out, but heading home makes me feel awful. I've realized that it's just about me returning to the house with nothing to do there, but that took me a while. It wasn't the exercise, but returning to the home environment. (My home is nice, but I'm a social creature, so leaving the gym full of people for the house by myself makes me a little sad.)
posted by raccoon409 at 8:21 AM on May 23, 2011

No one should have to do extra dietary preparation for doing mild cardio for 30mins to half an hour. You also don't need to eat immediately after. It's like people that "carbo load" for a 5K. It's just not necessary. (Lifting is a different story and for different reasons)

Your glycogen stores are probably near full when you do your workout and I'd bet that you don't deplete them during your workout either.

I think going to the Doctor and getting some blood work done is a good idea.
posted by zephyr_words at 8:55 AM on May 23, 2011

Very excited to find this thread, as I though this was just me.
posted by Touchstone at 9:29 AM on May 23, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone!

The thing is, while I'm on the elliptical I don't feel sad. It definitely doesn't feel like a terrible chore that I am just slogging through. I do make it into a game, like birdherder suggests, and I do listen to fun music or watch TV on occasion. The gym is quiet, comfortable, and really nice; I am frequently the only person in there. It should definitely be fun. I like being active, I like sweating, and I like feeling like I am doing something good for myself when I work out. So I don't think it's that I don't want to exercise -- even the post-run super lows haven't stopped me, yet.

I have gotten blood tests recently and everything was fine, so it's not an imbalance in my general health.

I'll try eating about 1 hour before. I like that idea. I'll see if it works. I'll also play around with the length/intensity of my workouts.
posted by k8lin at 9:43 AM on May 23, 2011

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