Review your mental-wellness and relationship with cycling

Cycling can be healthy and stimulating, but it may become a lonely and damaging place.

[First published in Cycling Weekly, June 15th 2017]

By Tom Daly

Our mental and emotional relationship with cycling can be seen as a spectrum. At one end it is a healthy and stimulating pastime. At the other extreme it can become a lonely, dark and damaging place.

The gruelling demands of cycling are one of its attractions but the pressures involved, combined with certain personality types, can gradually undermine mental well-being and degrade quality of life. Then, a person’s relationship with the sport than becomes mentally, emotionally and socially destructive rather than enhancing.

Some become wrapped up in ‘the cycling bubble’. They lose perspective and a sense of proportion with ‘normal life’. Their identity and sense of worth becomes associated with ‘making it’ in cycling.

Training becomes gruelling and the routine exhausting. Riders become isolated from the moderating influence of family and friends. The prospect of failure is a constant fear. ‘Making it’ is always just over the next horizon, no matter what level they are at. A spell of low form sparks deep anxiety.

Some may have perfectionist tendencies which contribute to high-level performance. However, they can equally be a vulnerability as the rider struggles for fulfilment if expectations aren’t reached. In her autobiography ‘Between The Lines’, Victoria Pendleton graphically outlined how self-doubt and the mismatch between her personality and the emotional rigors of the sport eventually led her to self-harm.

Similar self-imposed pressures occur at the amateur level, but without the professional supports.

It has been estimated that as many as one in five elite athletes have depressive tendencies and cycling may help trigger the condition. Graham Obree has outlined how cycling can become a form of self-medication for the condition but stressed that cycling won’t fix it. The underlying causes have to be dealt with outside of the sport.

It is good for all of us to assess our mental wellness and review our relationship with the sport from time-to-time.  Where are we along that spectrum – from cycling being a satisfying pastime to that dark place which Pendleton described?

Check out our questions to help review your mental and emotional relationship with cycling.  If needed, seek advice and support. Doing this is a sign of courage and strength, traits you will have if you are a competitive cyclist. Harness them to face this challenge in your life now.

Review your Mental Well-ness

These reflective questions will help you to review your mental well-ness and your relationship with cycling.

  • Has cycling become a major stress in my life?
  • Is it impacting on my relationships?
  • Am I isolated from people and interests outside of cycling?
  • Could I have a form of exercise addiction that is masking other issues?
  • Do I constantly feel tired, irritable, sleep badly or have poor appetite or sex drive?
  • Am I unhappy, lonely or in a low mood a lot of the time?
  • Am I feeling anxious and getting little joy out of life?
  • Do I have self-destructive thoughts or feel suicidal?

If you need support?

  – Cultivate interests and relationships outside of cycling that help provide a broader perspective

  – Reflect on your qualities as a person, other than your ability to ride a bicycle quickly

  – Talk openly with trusted people to help review your situation and to make a plan for regaining mental well-ness.

If you are feeling in a low mood over a number of weeks talk to your GP or other medical practitioner

  – If you think you might be suffering from depression, or have self-destructive or suicidal thoughts, contact your doctor immediately or the Samaritans anonymously on 116 123.

Insight and Advice from a Coach

Scott Saifer, M.S, is a Head Coach at Wenzel Coaching. He has expertise on mental-wellness and works with riders to help them maintain a healthy relationships with their sport.

Tom Daly: Scott, how do cyclists’ mental well-ness issues manifest themselves to you?

Scott: When clients are making their training-decisions based on a desire to just ride more and more – a form of exercise addiction – or a fear of losing fitness rather than on an informed plan to get faster.

TD: What is an effective way for riders to re-build a healthy relationship with the sport?

Scott: This is easy: advise them not to ride unless they are enjoying it. Take time off and think about what it would take for you to start enjoying riding again, even if it means taking months away from the bike.

TD: What advice would you give to riders who think they may need to review their approach to the sport?

Scott: If you are unsure whether you need to review your approach or not, then you do need to. Take some time to get there with the help of a coach or cycling mentor.

TD: Thank you, Scott.

 Insight and Advice from Graeme Obree

 Graeme twice broke the world hour record, in July 1993 and April 1994, and was the individual pursuit world champion in 1993 and 1995. He suffers from bipolar disorder and has attempted suicide three times.
Cycling is good for coping with the symptoms, but it will never resolve the underlying causes.

In my case the obsessional need to achieve only prolonged the moment of real change. It is not like that today, though, since I have changed only two things in my life – the next decision and the next reaction.

I almost live for cycling now and I love it more than ever because I do it as a non-competitive and non-comparative activity. Riding for the present moment of it, and living life the same way as much as possible, are the two main things that have freed me from the depressive situation with no need of medication or other input.

[See also – Awareness of the Darker Side of Cycling]

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