Cycling as a Stress Reliever.
The world is a stressful place. Growing up, graduating high school then having to decide what you want to be when you grow up, surviving college, getting a new job, meeting deadlines at your job, raising a family, buying a house, moving… the list goes on and on but I think you get my point. Life is stressful!
When we are plagued with stressful situations in our lives, what can we do to avoid a complete meltdown and ensure that we are operating at peak mental capacity? Something that I’ve found personally helpful is to ride a bike!
During my most recent set of midterms, at the risk of feeling like I was wasting my time, I skipped out on a couple of study sessions in favor of riding my bike. I reached the top of a tough climb and while completely out of breath, I felt refreshed as I looked out over the incredible view. Later, when I sat down to study and work on my various projects, I had a clear head. I worked efficiently and even noticed a significant decrease in my stress and anxiety surrounding the impending doom of midterms.
Due to the benefits I felt, I became curious about different stress management techniques and did some digging on Google Scholar (once the exams were all wrapped up, of course). I found an article that broke down several stress management techniques. While reading through them I felt myself comparing each technique to cycling and began to realize how much “just riding along” keeps me sane. Although some of these techniques did not directly relate to cycling, I will elaborate on a couple that had a clear correlation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Alternating between tensing and relaxing muscles. Traditionally this is done in a sequential pattern involving a lot of focus.
I compare this exercise to descending a technical trail at your limit. This comparison may diverge from the traditional sequential pattern, but involves an immense amount of focus and body control. When bombing a technical descent, your body goes through numerous contractions and releases of various muscle groups to maintain a steady, smooth flow. I generally feel tense under breaking, especially at the beginning of a rocky section or getting ready to hop over an obstacle. The muscular release comes at the exit of a corner, the “flow state” over a group of rocks, the moment both wheels are off the ground, and when the technical section concludes. That feeling of euphoria you feel at the bottom of the trail means you completed the exercise properly.
- Repetition of a word, thought, phrase, sound, or muscular movement.
This exercise happens often on a bike. In fact, the repetitive motion of pedaling is enough to complete this exercise. If you take some time to concentrate on your pedal stroke for 5-10 minutes, you will feel everything fade away and your mind will open. I often catch myself repeating the same line of a song over and over during a long climb, which helps me focus on my breathing while letting go of the millions of thoughts swirling around in my brain.
- Deep belly breathing.
When I was racing, I used this exercise before and during stressful moments to keep my mind clear and the anxiety at bay. Focusing on taking long deep belly breaths can drastically ease stress. It’s as simple as taking a moment to pay attention to your breath, breathing in through your mouth allowing the air to fill your belly while exhaling in a prolonged and controlled manner.
- Tuning out distractions and focusing on the present.
The article referenced also discusses meditation. While reading this portion, I was reminded of something one of my classmates said during a presentation about stress. He talked about different forms of meditation and said he had tried traditional meditation, which he defined as trying to calm his mind while sitting still in a quiet room, without any profound effects. After a few years away from that practice, he realized that meditation doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what your body is doing, but it involves having a still mind. He went on to describe his love for writing poetry and the state of writing flow he enters where he believes he is in a meditative state and his mind feels still. As a person who thinks he’s never meditated in his life, I realized that riding a bike puts me in a meditative state. There have been countless moments of clarity and stillness in my mind while out on my bike. I am sure you have also encountered this meditative state as well. Cycling is magical.
I hope this helps you realize how much of an impact getting outside and riding a bike can have on your physical and mental wellbeing. See you out there!
- Chris Stastny