I love to mountain bike. Even when I am not physically on a bike, a vast majority of my thoughts revolve around riding bikes–future rides, past rides, what bikes or components or gear I want to buy someday, skills I want to work on, how I can mountain bike even more than I already do… the list goes on.

I'd rather be out on the trails, mud-covered, than most other places. Photo: Brent Rader.

I’d rather be out on the trails, mud-covered, than most other places. Photo: Brent Rader.

For me, riding bikes is more than just a fun hobby. It’s a lifestyle. I’m sure many of you can relate to that. It’s not just something we do in our spare time. It’s something that we plan our lives around, incorporate into vacations, and spend a lot of effort and money on. It’s what we do.

But it’s even more than that for me. It’s a way of dealing with negativity, self-doubt, and bouts of depression. Mountain biking has become a necessary part of my existence.

I wouldn’t call myself a “naturally happy” person. It seems to me that happiness comes much more easily to other people. While I have a really great life, doubts and negativity creep into my mind all too often. My own head is quick to turn against me. Most days, it takes effort to feel good. I don’t particularly like to admit that I struggle with these feelings. I spent several years berating myself for not being happy enough, which, of course, did not make the problem any better.

But more recently, I realized that I have the tools to rise above this negativity, and getting outside daily for aerobic activity, especially biking, is one of the most effective.

The outdoors have always been my happy place, and it turns out there’s good reason for that. Recent studies have shown that being outside in nature literally changes the human brain to quiet the area responsible for excessive brooding and negativity. And exercise releases endorphins in the brain, contributing to a more positive attitude and energized outlook on life.

On a more personal level, being in the woods helps me detach from all the things that stress me out, and completing a challenge such as a long, hard bike ride reminds me that I am strong and capable. Even on days when I’m tired and “just don’t have it,” I always feel better after a ride (or run or hike) than before I started.

snow smiles

Bikes make me smile! Photo: Sarah Anne Wharton, SAW Photography

Though I’ve always loved being outside, I started really being conscious of the effect of exercise and the outdoors on my mood when I was in college. I was going through a rough patch and hadn’t been dealing with it in the best of ways, until I started running regularly. Whenever I was upset or angry, I would go out for a run, and a quick half hour or so would make me feel a hundred times better. I began to cultivate a more positive, healthy lifestyle based around this outdoor physical activity. Soon after, I rediscovered mountain biking, and it became my go-to.

But I still didn’t realize just how important these activities are to me until very recently, mainly because I didn’t want to admit that I “need” anything to feel okay. I have a great life: a job that I enjoy, the best husband and friends that I could ask for, a great house in a place that I love. I should just be happy, right? I didn’t think that whether or not I felt like a normal human being should hinge upon whether or not I got a workout in. But the truth is, a daily (or almost daily–I do have to skip days here and there) dose of the outdoors and exercise is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to my happiness.

With this realization, I also have tried to free myself from the guilt that sometimes comes with putting riding (or another activity) ahead of most other things on my list of priorities. I used to feel like a terrible friend if I would skip out on social events to go ride instead, or duck out on visitors to go run for an hour. I sometimes felt irresponsible and selfish if I went out to “play” when there were other things I “should” be doing. But after days of skipping my workout to get work done, and then not being productive anyway because I couldn’t focus, or not enjoying social time because I was in a crappy mood, I began to become more accepting of my need for time outside. Now, I actually put my outdoor time on my list of things to do on particularly busy days, and I try to treat it with as much importance as anything else on my schedule.

Because really, what’s the point of life if we don’t do what makes us happy?

A lot of people that I know who don’t ride–and even that do–think I’m crazy for riding my bike in the rain and snow and freezing cold. But the truth is, I’d rather be covered in mud or slogging through powder than sitting inside any day.

Everyone has something that helps them cope with the ups and downs of life, that results in smiles on even the darkest of days. Mountain biking is one of mine.

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By Greg Heil


# Comments

  • Corvo

    I feel the same way. MTBing and breathing are one and the same for me. I get real grouchy when I don’t ride. After a week of rain the wife is ready to throw me out of the house. I ride, I’m a happy camper.

  • Spanky

    I agree, but i felt like I didn’t have to read the whole article.

  • Greg Heil

    This article is SO GOOD!!! This totally resonates with me, and puts into words some of the reasons why I ride that I wasn’t really able to articulate before.

    Thanks for writing this awesome article Helena!!

    • Helena Kotala

      Thank you, and you’re welcome, Greg!

  • Bill Pitts

    I went riding this past Saturday, planning on being on the trail only two hours because of work, and wound up staying out four hours! When I finally got down to my project, I was so energized that I threw myself into it and accomplished more that afternoon than I had the previous week. Mountain biking is almost the best thing that’s come into my life. However, I do wish I hadn’t waited until I was in my sixties to pick it up, but I got it now!

    • Helena Kotala

      Better “late” than never!

  • mongwolf

    Flat out awesome article Helena. And thanks for being so transparent and even vulnerable. And good for you for finding out what works for you. I must confess that I am “guilty as charged” when it comes to planning much of my life around mountain biking. But then again, I have never felt much guilt in life =) … … a blessing indeed and to be honest one that comes from my faith. And it’s great to see that there is some science backing up what so many already knew … … that time in nature is transforming. I’ve always spent as much time as possible in the mountains and exercising (especially trail running). It was only four or so years ago that I discovered mountain biking. The two — time in the mountains on my bike — have become a passion. All the best. Thank you again Helena for sharing a part of you with us.

    • Helena Kotala

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading!

  • mongwolf

    You know Singletracks puts up a whole bunch of awesome material to read and watch, but it’s these kinds of articles that I like the best. It’s so cool to get insight into others, their personal lives and what mountain biking means to them personally. I remember one of my favorite article/series was John Fisch’s series on his spring break trip with his son through the Southwest. It’s just “stuff” I think most of us can relate to. Though we are all different and riding in various places, there is so much substance that we have in common as to why we ride. Keep up the great efforts Singletracks team. It is appreciated. You’re the best.

  • CFM

    Great article, Helena! I know many people who could brighten their moods and increase their productivity with a little exercise in the outdoors. Just gotta keep nudging them toward it . . .

  • typingfool

    Thank you for articulating this so well! I’ve been wanting to put this into words for a long time… MTB has been a literal Godsend

  • Phonebem

    Fantastic article! Since I started mountain biking in the early 90’s it’s been my way of staying centered and keeping everything in perspective. Thanks to fat bikes, I don’t even have to take winters off anymore! Unfortunately, I’m currently coming-off a bout with mono and have been forced into my longest break from riding in 4 years…
    The thing that’s kept me going is the downtime gives me time to get my parts-bin hybrid ready to tow my 9-month old son’s trailer around the neighborhood when I’m ready.

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