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How to overcome the winter blues

Training seasonal affective disorder, it's a real thing and here's how you can stop it

— by Dr. Chris Willer

Climate change is a real consideration when it comes to planning your winter training. It might help to know that if you experience a dip in motivation, the “winter blues,” or even full-fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is also called “seasonal pattern depression,” you can do something about it. Just because the thermometer reads -30 C and it’s dark when you go to work and return home, you don’t have to sacrifice your athletic goals.

Depression is common and a leading cause of disability here in Canada – the annual prevalence is around four per cent. Combating seasonal pattern depression starts with knowledge. It is a medical problem that rears its head in the fall/winter and recedes in spring. It is felt to be due to a number of factors that intersect to create conditions for depressed mood and lack of interest. The good news is that SAD is treatable through a variety of specific and evidenced-based styles of talk therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), anti-depressant medication and first-line treatment in the form of daily light therapy. While exercise treatment for depression is the second line in terms of its research strength, it’s something worth strategizing about and using to your advantage.

Let’s first talk about your health as a person with seasonal pattern depression, then plan how to address this problem as it impacts you as an athlete. Depression is thought to be associated with physical problems relevant to athletes like back pain, high blood pressure and asthma. Having depression is also a risk factor for developing heart disease and cardiovascular problems. Depression not only predisposes us to health problems, it also worsens existing health issues by leading to a more sedentary lifestyle and a greater chance of obesity due to amotivation and fatigue. Taking care of you as a person with depression and planning how to manage the winter as a triathlete intersect.

While there are theories about why seasonal pattern depression occurs, it may be a matter of reduced daily light exposure. Light therapy of a specific intensity with a light box can help in as little as six weeks. Many athletes and coaches realize anecdotally the value of training camps in sunny locations for our winter training needs. Consider joining one of these trips if you are prone to SAD. The proposed mechanism for the benefit of light could be through alteration of circadian rhythm, modulation of the neurochemical serotonin often deficient in those with depression and regulation of catecholamine chemicals like epinephrine and dopamine implicated to have antidepressant effects. If you can’t travel to a training camp then set up a similar triathlete gathering in your neighbourhood. Many clubs run camps, new year intense one-day workshops and fun non-conformist special workouts over winter. You will receive an antidepressant effect from socializing and the added exercise in a concentrated burst can be re-energizing.

Related: Training camp hotspots

Changing your exercise regimen can keep you on track.

  1. Take things in stride: When depression contributes to poor sleep, drains motivation and causes fatigue, it is important to be gentle with yourself if you miss a workout. While depression is, in part, biologically mediated and it is about your brain chemistry, depression is also related to your state of mind. Beating yourself up for falling behind in a pool workout exacerbates your depression. If you ever need to give yourself a break, it’s in the offseason. Rest doesn’t have to be a bad thing as it can provide immune system rebound and protect against overtraining. You might consider taking a holiday that isn’t specifically to do triathlon training and join friends and family.
  2. There’s an app for that: Mental training is important for sport performance. It’s also crucial for addressing depression. You can exercise your depression-fighting mental powers online or on your smartphone. Online self-therapy sites including moodgym.anu. edu.au and ecouch.anu.edu.au are free and proven sources for cognitive workouts. Social networks recommended include confidential support groups like 7 Cups of Tea at 7cups.com or help through depression.supportgroups.com. Apps for your phone include mood trackers like whatsmym3.com or self-help guidance through trending apps like Buddhify at buddhify.com.
  3. Change it up: You need to vary exercise type and intensity to improve. This holds in addressing seasonal pattern depression as much as it does athletic performance. Don’t expect to get better if you’re doing the same workouts. Try something different. This could be trying yoga, which helps depression symptoms by turning over body chemicals like dopamine and our central relaxing chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). You could spin at your local bike shop with popular social platforms like Zwift at zwift.com that introduce you to other sport enthusiasts worldwide. Do cross-training with skiing, snowshoeing, or cold-water open water swimming. Mix up the people you work out with to broaden your network. Consider something provocative in the form of psychologist Marsha Linehan’s concept of “radical acceptance.” Truly accepting that you have depression can be a start toward solving it. Acknowledging that you have crushing seasonal pattern depression and that you can get better puts the concept of radical acceptance into play. Trying these new training approaches can invigorate and challenge you cognitively and emotionally, improving your depression.

Related: Mix it up with cross-country skiing

Seasonal pattern depression is trainable and treatable. Talk with your coach, friends and medical professional about options. You don’t have to throw away your off-season goals. You can combat SAD through talk treatment, medications and natural health products, light therapy and a planned adjustment to your exercise routine. This can bring back your sunny mood even before we see the summer temperatures return.

Dr. Chris Willer is a Toronto-based sport psychiatrist and has been an avid triathlete for the past 18 years.