Our "Focus on You" article series is here to share what cycling means to you, your mental health and life away from the bike.
2020 has been such a different kind of year, I don't need to spend any time telling you why or what's going on; we're all living it and we're all finding ways to cope or thrive in this new environment - but one thing does seem to have thrived in lockdown and that is cycling.
Obviously we're not complaining, and personally I have absolutely loved seeing so many more cyclists on the road and trails.
Even more enjoyable is seeing the families that have taken to two wheels together to get out, move and find ways to burn energy and keep smiling.
I'm no stranger to the concept of both exercise and the outside being great for our mental health and wellbeing; even if we ignore the multitude of research and information out there that explains the benefits to both body and mind - you can simply feel it for yourself.
A brisk walk or cycling outside in the fresh air promotes so many positive emotions and can help keep our mind open to making good decisions and feeling great.
It's this research and my own experience that drove me to start offering positive psychology coaching on two wheels!
Getting people out on the bike whilst having challenging conversations side-by-side can really open your mind to new thoughts and directions. So recently I took the lovely Internationelle Helen Bridgman for one of those rides and had a chat to her about what cycling has meant to her mental health.
For those of you who don't know, Helen was part of the 2019 Internationelles team of women who took on the Tour de France route one day ahead of the men to promote gender equality in cycling and to campaign for womens tours to be held alongside the mens.
I loved following their progress and felt very privileged to chat with Helen about what I feel is such a valuable subject. So here goes...
How do you find cycling helps your mental health?
Cycling gives me a sense of freedom and helps me be present, to stop worrying about the past and thinking too much about the future.
Getting outside in the fresh air on or off road, discovering new places or riding the same routes, gives me time and space to think, especially if I’m on my own. If I’m with others I can happily spend hours riding and chatting and focusing on nothing but being in and enjoying the moment, not thinking about anything at all.
If I hadn’t been able to ride my bike outside during lockdown I think my mental health would have suffered and I’d have gone stir crazy.
I notice a difference in my mood on the days where I get out and ride and those where I don’t. I am more energised and positive on days where I’ve been out. On the days where I haven’t been out I am prone to negative thoughts and low mood and find it harder to be in the moment.
When you’re alone on your bike, how do you feel?
At first I didn’t like riding on my own as I felt nervous and a bit unsafe.
As my cycling experience has broadened and my confidence has grown, I’ve started to enjoy riding on my own a lot more. It’s easier to do specific training sessions and it’s also good thinking time.
I’m quite happy in my own company so I feel great when I’m out on my bike. I get an immense sense of freedom. If I’m on my gravel bike I also feel a sense of adventure and like I’m a kid again!
What do you find yourself contemplating when on your bike?
Often I don’t think about anything except what’s in front of and around me. I’m concentrating on riding my bike and enjoying the moment. That’s why it really clears my head.
I can forget any troubles for a few hours. but if I need to think something through, it’s great thinking time and it allows me to run through challenges or issues and gain some perspective.
If you're riding with a friend it’s a good time to put the world to rights too!
What are the most amazing things you’ve discovered when riding your bike that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise?
I’ve learned a lot about myself - in particular to be more accepting of who I am as a person and to not be afraid to be me.
Riding the Tour really made me appreciate just how amazing and strong both my body and mind are, and how incredibly powerful that is. I also know that I can get through anything if I put my mind to it.
I know that if I break it down and tackle it in small pieces - sometimes if you look at a task or challenge in its entirety it can seem so overwhelming that it paralyses you from acting - that I can do it.
Also that life is much more enjoyable if you stay in the moment, not worrying about what I can’t change about the past, or control about the future.
If you could name 3 emotions you associate with riding, what would they be?
How many rides do you do in a month without any numbers or objectives?
My gravel rides don’t really have numbers to hit, apart from maybe amount of time on the bike. But most of the time I’m training so my rides have a purpose.
So it’s maybe only one a week (out of 5) that I ride freely. During lockdown and the summer it’s been more like 3-4 times a week as I’ve been ignoring my training!
What parts of cycling do you feel make it good for one’s mental health?
Getting out into the fresh air; the camaraderie you find and friendships you make with others who ride; the sense of achievement when you’ve climbed a hill or mastered a new skill is immense and makes you feel great; the fact it forces you to be in the present moment.
Tell me a story about how a ride has changed your mood?
I’ve had a few times recently where I haven’t left the house for a few days and my mood gets quite low. I’ve struggled to get the motivation to get out on my bike and everything seems difficult.
One time in particular I then went on a short gravel ride with my husband. The sun was shining and we were doing routes I knew and suddenly my mood just lifted. I had to concentrate on riding around the various obstructions, including people, dogs and other cyclists, and not wallowing in self pity!
I was in the moment, appreciating being outdoors and the feelings of freedom and adventure that come with that type of riding. I went from being quiet, moody and a bit miserable, to happy, laughing and feeling positive. It re-energised me and motivated me to get on with my long to-do list that I’d been ignoring too!
Great jackets for any conditions
How does riding with others affect your relationships with them?
I rarely see my non-cycling friends these days!
I find that even just one ride with a new person can form an instant bond and create the basis for a lasting friendship.
When you do an event together, either single or multi-day, that bond becomes much stronger because you go through so many highs and lows together (everyone has moments where they feel good and bad and everyone helps each other through the bad moments).
I’m completely myself when I’m on my bike (unlike at work where I often put up a front). And because cycling is a leveller I think everyone is more genuine so it feels like the friendships are more genuine.
If you could offer a line of advice to other riders to get more from their cycling to improve their mental health, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid to push your limits when it comes to cycling - dream big and work hard and you can achieve any goals you set out to achieve. You’ll find out more about yourself as a person and discover just how amazing you are!
How do you feel cycling supports your mental health? Come and chat with us over on our Facebook Group...
If you're interested in Helen's story of the Internationelles have a nose at the website here. Helen is also just starting out as a cycling coach, so if you're interested in chatting to her about this, please give her a follow on Twitter or Facebook!