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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.

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# Comments

  • Richard Shoop

    I would be interested in articles about battling back from injury. I am in that situation now, and am struggling to regain confidence in myself.

    • Brian Gerow

      Hey Richard,
      I added your suggestion to the list.
      I broke my hand and shoulder two years ago, and I remember all too well how hard it was to feel whole again. It took quite a while, a load of PT, and a thoughtful mtb community to get me back to full trail party mode.
      Thanks for your feedback!

    • rftc006

      I would second that. Just finishing 4th week in a sling after broken collarbone. Kinda going stir crazy but grateful the wreck wasn’t worse.

  • gorskett

    Hey Brian. Thanks for this article! I’m a 51 year old MTBr who started racing about 6 years ago. Many years before that I was involved in a Sports Psychology Intervention project with high risk youth. It used sport to help with goal setting, self esteem, and enhancing relationships. I wish I was involved in MTBing back then and wish I could be involved in something similar today. I would be interested in more articles that talk about similar programs. Thanks very much!

  • SimianSlacker

    I just started mindfulness and meditation practice so this series really resonates with me. Mountain biking is a great analogy for life. If you hold on too hard you will have an unpleasant and rough ride. Don’t hold on hard enough and you will fall off. But when you hold on just right everything flows smoothly. Ultimately you are really not in control, in this case gravity is mostly in control. You are just appling influence to increase the surface area of your success. Concern yourself too much with the future and what might go wrong, you will manifest that destiny. Think too much about your last fail and you won’t be able to enjoy the present. Ride the middle and flow from one obstacle to the next and only give attention to where you want to go.

    • Mtbzenmaster

      Please check out my video intro to my Gaycity state park ride. It appears we are part of the same tribe:-)
      https://youtu.be/fhY70aGMeeE
      Be Safe and Ride
      Namaskar bro!
      Sam
      P.s. your posts has remained me to do more…but do you think we are ready?

  • rmap01

    I’ve not come across many articles on this topic. Looking forward to reading the series Brian!

  • Brian Gerow

    Thanks for the feedback y’all! Injury recovery is now high on the list of topics.

    Simian Slacker, this line is golden “applying influence to increase the surface area of your success.”

  • TK34

    Brian – this is a GREAT topic and I look forward to the series. I have zero doubt that trail riding helps with mental balance.

  • Mtbzenmaster

    Whoa! Brian check out the intro to my recent Gaycity state park video and hopefully you will know i am right there with you bro! https://youtu.be/fhY70aGMeeE
    In short YES. Send it! 🙂 i just started my YouTube channel with the Intention to share this very type of content from time to time. But i realize i will need to create some trust and credibility with our mtb community before i go all in on the depths of this type of content. As an executive cocach/personal development coach the connection for me is clear. Yesterday i was thinking about doing research to compare mtb and martial arts. Whats great is now we have the research and or cultural movement and acknowledgment (in the United states) out there communicating the validity of the mind body connection. And in my experience being in the flow, or being in the zone mountain biking facilitates positive things inside and out. I
    could go on. I would love to connect with you. Mtbzenmaster@gmail.com. Yes. The content will help benefit many. There is a challenge though. Sharing this with a balance to allow it to be digestible to as many mtb community members as possible. But we’ve got this. Mtbers enjoy a healthy challenge;-)
    Be safe and ride well
    -Sam A.

  • skypig

    I have been working Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) for 10 years.
    This basically means living in a hotel room, or “camp” for half my life. Two weeks at a time.
    FIFO is a known strain on mental health.

    Currently I can leave a MTB at work, and have access to great (but hot) tracks.
    It has changed my life for the better, in a big way.

    I’m riding more at home as well, and notice improvements in my life from many of the things mentioned so far. If I clear a new jump, or ride a new obstacle, I’m basically giggling like a school girl for the next few hours. (I’m the wrong side of 50)

    The fitness and confidence helps with my passion for Motorcycle racing as well.

    • Brian Gerow

      I am stoked to read everyone’s stories of catharsis and trail therapy. Nice work y’all!

      Skypig, your shredding program sounds fantastic. I also laugh with childish joy when I clean a feature that has long been on my list. It’s one of my favorite feelings. I recently decided to call the process of taking on trail challenges “dancing with dragons”.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • mjhenry

    Excellent idea! I’m really looking forward to reading more on this topic–especially the brain science behind it, if you ever want to go there.

    Happy writing!

  • fiskagirl

    This sounds like a great series! I started riding a few years ago and found it to be a great way of managing my depression and processing my thoughts. There’s something about being on a bike that makes me feel so happy. I find it really interesting that it forces me to focus only on what is happening right now.

  • skypig

    Exactly. I never seem to think about “work” while trying to clear a gap jump! 🙂
    Or my overdue tax return while riding near the top of the wall of death.

    I’ll be unsurprised if I end up injured, but the benefits so far make this risk more than acceptable.
    (Watching TV and eating cakes, and ending up with diabetes, an epidemic in Australia, would be worse in my opinion.)

    I’ll find out if all the mountain biking helps with motocross, this weekend.

    Keep enjoying yourselves people.

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