Riding out of the dark – MTB and mental health

You know that anxious, unsettled feeling you get when you haven’t ridden your bike for a while? Well it turns out you’re not the only one.

In 2016 OpenMTB and Cycling UK collaborated on a major survey of British off-road riding habits, including a section on physical and mental wellbeing. We expected people to tell us riding improved their mood, but were astonished to find 66 per cent of respondents ranked it “very important” for their mental health.

Women on MTBs
Lisa Roberts (turqouise helmet) and friends at Gisburn Forest Trails, Lancashire.

However this wasn’t a surprise to Lisa Roberts, an occupational therapist who was asking similar – but much more detailed – questions in a thesis produced during her National Insititute for Health Research internship.

Lisa’s work has the appropriately formal title “Why do you ride: A Characterization of Mountain Bikers, Their Engagement Methods, and Perceived Links to Mental Health and Well-Being”, and she’s taken time away from her job on a psychiatric ward to explain it to us in simple terms…

First tell us a bit about yourself and your MTB life

I’ve owned a mountain bike all of my life, and growing up in Wales, I used to get out on my bike a great deal; just around the local country roads really.

I got more serious about two-and-a-half years ago. I was going through a bit of a tough time, and felt I needed a challenge to focus on; something that would get me outdoors and pushing my boundaries.

So I dusted off the old bike and hit a trail centre with some friends; and the world of mountain biking unfolded before me! I became hooked quickly and began taking it more seriously, racing in enduro events last year and completing the Megavalanche this year.

I enjoy the competitive side, but I also get a great deal out of just heading off the beaten track with some friends and a packed lunch, seeing where the tracks take us.  

 What gave you the idea for the study and what were you hoping to achieve with it?

The idea simply came one evening after a ride. I’d been learning how to jump and was talking with my partner about how great mountain biking made me feel – better than hiking or road cycling; more exhilarated, with a bigger sense of achievement.

We got talking about what might make MTB different – the risk, the skills, the fact that all sorts of people can participate in it in all sorts of ways… and I wondered if there was much research on it.

It turned out there wasn’t a great deal, so that’s where it all began.  

MTBer hitting sweet jump
Lisa catching some sweet air at Gisburn (pic: JWDT Photography)

What were the most significant aspects of the findings, from your point of view?

That one-in-three riders consider themselves to have an existing mental health issue (mild and not necessarily diagnosed), and pro-actively ride as a coping strategy. A huge majority (more than 90%) state MTBing helps them to deal with stress, and when they ride ‘their everyday worries fade away’.

That there are LOADS of ways to engage in MTB and you don’t have to be a ‘risk-taker’ to enjoy it. People got similar mental health benefits no matter how they engaged or who they were.

Some people enjoy the risk more than others – slightly more males, younger riders, and downhill riders.

More children are riding than in the past – MTB is becoming more popular and more accessible.

It also encourages people to explore their local countryside.

Have you had much interest in the study?

Yes, a fair bit of interest. I presented my findings at the IMBA 2018 Summit in Slovenia, and was on a panel discussing ways that different sectors can work together to promote mountain biking. I hope my findings will help support funding bids in the future.

I’ve had some interest from Anxiety UK and have written a guest blog and an article for them. My plan now is to advocate for more adventurous outdoor activities to be used within occupational therapy practice.

Interested in delving deeper into Lisa’s study? Step right this way.

CASE STUDY ONE: JOANNA

Take a quick look at Joanna Shimwell’s Instagram feed and you might think she’s got a pretty enviable life.

The 31-year-old manages a campsite on the family farm in the Peak District and works part-time as a personal trainer – spending her spare time mountain biking or wild swimming in some stunning locations.

Read her captions however, and you’ll see she’s also unusually frank about facing the kind of mental health issues that many of us experience.

Woman carrying MTB
A picture is worth a thousand words.

I have a history of depressed mood and anxiety,” she explained. “I never had anti depressants but had counselling and then cognitive behavioural therapy and since then have gone on to read about overcoming dark thoughts and combatting waves of depression.”

She’s also frank about how she dealt with things in the past: “In my early twenties I got very into partying, did no exercise and turned to class A drugs and alcohol as my escape from underlying unhappiness.

Several times this came to a head and I was hospitalised on one occasion. Eventually aged around 27 I decided to stop going out, leave that life behind and to try to become the wholesome outdoor-loving girl I grew up as.”

Borrowing a hardtail MTB from a friend, she began riding on her own, then after a few months joined an MTB Meet-Up group.

That way I learned new skills, new routes and met people who loved to ride and have banter. It was great! A new way to spend my weekends and a definite mood enhancer.”

Of course it’s not just mountain biking that can have a positive effect on our mood.

Exercise in general helps my wellbeing and gives me head space,” Jonanna continued. “I feel calmer and happier afterwards. It helps quieten any voices in my head that can lead to destructive thinking patterns and habits.”

Woman riding rooty trail
Joanna on home territory in the Peak District.

But, just like Lisa Roberts, she found something uniquely engaging and rewarding in MTBing.

It is such a challenge for me that I really do find it a massively uplifting experience,” she explained.

Being afraid and overcoming my fears, my strength being tested, my skill, my resilience. That’s what gives me a buzz…. I can prove to myself that I can achieve feats I could never have imagined.

The feeling of fresh and air freedom is unparalleled when you are on your bike in the Mountains, there’s no greater high for me any more.

I also love the peace. My work can sometimes feel very claustrophobic and overwhelming but the mountains heal me and re-energise me so i can face the world again.”

And it’s not just while riding that she feels the benefit.

When I can’t ride I spend a great deal of time reliving the happy moments on my bike in my head.

If I’m struggling, I try and tap into that happy time and focus on that, and tell myself that I need to look forward to the next opportunity to get out and have my escape.”

CASE STUDY TWO: ADAM

Adam Rowlinson is a freelance graphic designer and artist living in Lancashire’s West Pennine Moors. Gregarious, talkative and funny, he’s also experienced mental health problems on-and-off throughout his life.

The 48-year-old said: “I’ve suffered at various times with depression and anxiety. I’ve taken anti-depressants (with varying degrees of success) and take beta blockers for anxiety attacks.”

Man on MTB
Adam out on the moors.

It was at one of his unhappiest moments that he discovered the positive effect mountain biking could have on his mood.

During my most-severe bout of depression – after losing my business-  I was probably at the lowest point of my life.

Spending the days applying for jobs and getting nowhere, then just worrying – I started to break the day up to get outdoors and get out on my bike.

I started with small local rides, then got a bit more adventurous – getting cheap off-peak train tickets out to Hope or Rivington, putting some more serious miles in. I found it relieved my depression massively, especially in comparison to sitting in the house stewing.”

And Adam has a few ideas about why MTBing proves to be such a positive distraction.

You’ll never appreciate a great big grin on your face at the bottom of a brilliant descent more than when you haven’t so much as raised the corners of your mouth for days,” he continued.

When you’re picking a line down a rocky, technical descent you’ve not got time to think about anything else. No time to worry. I found that level of concentration, or the physical effort of a massive climb to be the best anti-depressant you can get.

As well as the obvious benefits of being out in the hills and among fantastic views in beautiful countryside. Also there’s an element of fitness. As you ride more and get physically stronger, it makes you better equipped to deal with the mental side of things. This is added to by the sense of achievement you feel as you get faster and better technically.”

The concept of “self-medication” has negative connotations when associated with drink or recreational drug use – but that’s pretty much the approach Adam takes with biking.

I find now that I know when the black dog is on the horizon, that’s when I need to go out and ride. I know how much good it will do me. I know it can help keep it at bay.

So I end up in the situation some might find perverse, where the worse I feel, the more I ride. If that makes sense? I know that getting out on my bike is the best weapon I have in my armoury in combating my mental health issues.”

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3 thoughts on “Riding out of the dark – MTB and mental health

  1. Oh wow yesterday going out with the mtb club saved me. I’m fighting depression off. I won’t let myself go there again I won’t let ptsd control me. Yesterday was hard. I woke up and just wanted to stay in bed and cry. I thought of excuses not go on my bike. I felt so down and alone but deep down I knew a ride would help me feel better. I cried in the car on the way I couldn’t stop the tears but the closer I got to the meeting place I sorted my head enough it wouldn’t be noticed. I got on my bike, the anxiety was rife but half way round it cleared and I loved being out, with people and after I felt great. I’m down again today but not as much and I just have to stay strong to get me to the next weekend on my bike.

  2. Living on your own can be hard as you drop into the same regime, coming home to the same four walls depression looms- getting myself a Mtb was a release, Iv not appreciated the local countryside so much, then found work colleagues and neighbors also ride, giving focus fitness and fun

  3. Glad to here I’m not the only one who uses Mountain Biking to combat depression. I feel so much better for being able to ride. The last time I got depression was after having cancer and being unable to go Mountain Biking. I’ve come to rely more on Biking as it has become harder to access councilling through the NHS. I’m taking Mountain Biking more seriously and have entered some Endro races as well as putting a training program together to do this and get me fit after cancer as well as combat depression coming back. I’m very lucky to only live 2 miles away from my local trails and to have this activity that’s become my life in it!. I would encourage more people to get envolved with this activity!.

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