Life can be stressful. We might harbour grand illusions of control but sometimes even the most organised can feel overwhelmed. At work, a sudden avalanche of emails or an impromptu meeting can easily distract you from what you set out to do. By the end of the day, your once calm exterior is beginning to fade and the various plates you’ve been spinning all day look like falling to the floor. And it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes even home provides no sanctuary from the chaos.
Rapha Manuals: Clear Your Mind
Cycling’s meditative qualities are much vaunted but these claims are more than just hearsay. Here’s the science behind clearing your mind on the bike.16 July 2018
Cyclists have long proclaimed the meditative qualities of time on the bike. Riders often speak of the “need” to ride regularly, rather than simply the desire. Besides the obvious mood-boosting effects of regular exercise, cycling appears to offer a deeper, more meaningful solution to the chaos of daily life. Patrick Drapac, an Australian cyclist who appears in Rapha’s Outskirts: Route 66 film, says of the sensation: “I never have the same gratification as being on the bike. It’s addictive. I think any cyclist can sympathise with that. Bike riding is like a form of therapy forever for me. I keep finding myself coming back to it.”
Former British cyclocross champion Helen Wyman, another rider who knows the meditative qualities of a ride, used to work full-time during her racing career and found her bike to be a sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life. “A bike to me is freedom: to go anywhere, whenever you want to under your own steam,” she says. “There’s nothing better than breezing along on a sunny day with a tailwind on a quiet lane just listening to the birds and crickets, taking in the world around you. It’s heaven.”
As psychologists like Professor Rob Copeland will tell you, there’s more to riding your bike than the rush of the wind in your hair. “There are several well researched psychological mechanisms to link cycling to wellbeing, the first of which is autonomy,” he says. “We have little to no control over some things in our lives but cycling allows you to take back control. You determine your speed, the direction you take and the duration of your ride. As opposed to other parts of your life, you are not beholden to anyone on the bike.”
What do you think about whilst you’re out on the bike? If you’re struggling to recall, that might be because you often don’t think about anything in particular. Out on his local roads near Sheffield, Copeland has little time to think about the past or the future. “If your quads are hurting, you’re feeling that now and that’s all you can think about. We just don’t think like that off the bike, many of us worry constantly about the future or stew on the past. Psychologically speaking, we are in a state of constant ‘activation’, which is linked to higher levels of stress hormones. Riding your bike can be a key respite, time to think about nothing.”
The more you ride, the more often you’ll be able to clear your mind like this. You will also become a naturally stronger and more competent rider. As you grow in confidence, another powerful psychological mechanism kicks in, something Copeland refers to as the mastery experience. “Everyone likes the feeling of getting better at something,” he explains. “An individual’s perceived ability to be able to do a task is intrinsically linked to their confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing. As you start to ride more often, you will improve to become a stronger and more competent cyclist. This obviously has physical benefits but has also been found to help mental health too.”
While the physical benefits of regular riding are well known, it is the freedom and headspace that gets many cyclists hooked and continuing to ride week in week out. With the wind in your hair, you’re in control, living in the moment and free to think clearly.
Getting Started in Road Cycling handbook
For guidance on how to get out on the road and experience the meditative effect of turning the pedals, our Getting Started in Road Cycling handbook is a great place to begin. Stuffed full of useful advice, it answers the questions frequently asked by new cyclists and will get you ready to ride in double quick time.