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Three Deep Breaths: Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Mountain Biking

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There is a near-annual thread across online mountain bike forums discussing the psychological benefits of riding in the forest, and a related query on how to cope with the wet months. What we get when we strap on our smelliest shoes and go for a pedal beneath ancient towering trees, or through ever-shifting sands, is something profoundly special. Some say that the joy of two-wheel motion is magical.

My longtime ride friend turned professional therapist, Rachel Bagley, calls the tuned-in trail state “Shreditation.” She describes mountain biking as an opportunity for our minds to take a pause from their well-worn grooves and processes, formally known as neuropathways, and focus on our present actions and the natural world around us. This notion resonates with me, as I imagine it may for others as well.

Three Deep Breaths is a series dedicated to exploring the meaningful ways our sport can provide positive mental health benefits, and methods we can employ to improve our riding experience. I will delve into the benefits of being in nature, positive attributes of endurance sports, how challenges and fear might improve our vision of the world, the benefits of traveling to shred, and healthy ways to improve our inner-game and our riding capabilities.

The series will cover cognitive challenges including performance anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), working through injury recovery, exercise addiction, and healthy ways to feed competitive desires, among others. To paint the picture with clear and intentional strokes, I will interview riders like you and me, as well as sports psychologists and professional mountain bike racers. Let’s dig in and learn more about the relationship between mountain biking and the mind.

Here are four quotes on the subject from impassioned mountain bikers in our community.

On the positive effects of riding in nature:

“I will say mountain biking improves my mental health.  It helps me burn off stress, decreases depression and anxiety, reduces irritability,  and just helps me clean out my head and all that “junk” that gets stored up. I’m able to get a lot of things straightened out in my head while I ride.  I also use the time spent riding just meditating and marveling at nature and all of God’s creation which helps me build spiritually and gain a greater connection… and that’s the largest part of my mental health improvement.”

On pushing limits and rushing endorphins:

“MTB’ing for me is like therapy. The endorphin rush you get from pushing your limits is addictive.  And when you’re riding there really is no time to dwell on the stressors in life as your mind needs to be focused on the trail and your line.  The downside, however, is getting really bummed when you can’t ride.”

On working through external mental health challenges:

“I suffered for a long time with devastating PTSD after getting out of the Marines. When I finally got back into biking, and running, my MTB literally helped save my life.  I battle my demons with every crank stroke.”

From former professional racer (and current professional poet) Laura Winberry on exiting competition, and an ode to those just getting started:

On top of being a (mostly) healthy conduit for processing trauma, bike racing has also given me a shitload of pure gold. Mostly people and experiences and the opportunity to travel and see and build bridges. Mostly joy and laughter and heartache. Mostly a circle of strong, strong women and men unafraid of loving one another. Mostly: tough love. […] To those just starting out, as well as everyone still pushing around out there, in every category—find what you need, give and take and take it all in, make it your own. And please, carry the torch with big hearts and even bigger middle fingers. I love you.

In the next Three Deep Breaths piece, I will share a collection of ways we can hush our conscious mind to better enjoy the ride.

If you’re itching for more news on the subject, check out this article on a pilot program in Scotland where participants ride mountain bikes to help them work through mental health challenges.

If there are topics related to mental health that you would particularly like to read about, please share them in the comments below or email me directly.

Knowing when to hold em’, when to fold em’, and when to chill out and enjoy the forest requires mindful focus.