7 Mental Benefits of Cycling
When I decided to get serious about cycling a few years back, I was well aware of the incredible physical benefits. The bike is the perfect tool for long cardio workouts, short anaerobic workouts, HIIT workouts, recovery workouts, you name it (except maybe upper-body workouts, but that’s splitting hairs.) It’s also considerably lower impact than other endurance sports, giving old-timers like me—cursed with wonky hips, knees, or other hallmarks of middle age—the chance to train hard and transform themselves into serious athletes.
What I didn’t count on, however, was the massive impact it would have on me mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. Like any exercise, there’s the serotonin and sundry other chemicals that are released into your noggin, but cycling goes beyond that. Any committed rider will tell you that if you’re serious about it, cycling quickly stops being what you do and starts being what you are. Here are a few of the reasons why.
Cycling encourages self-examination
Exercising for hours at a time is exhausting. You’re pushing yourself physically, demanding your brain stay on high alert, both usually while being slightly dehydrated and glycogen-deprived. This all serves to break down the facades we all like to present and forces you to be “real.” At first, it can be a little rough existing in such a raw state. I threw more than my share of temper tantrums during those first few months on a bike. Okay, fine—I still throw more than my share of tantrums, but still, operating in such an honest state makes it much easier to check in with yourself, to get a better understanding of who you are as a person.
Cycling builds friendships
You spend hours, days, weeks riding with other folks, especially if you’re a member of a club or racing team. You work with each other to be able to cover long distances or short sprints across the finish line. Whenever you see a line of people riding together, the front person, who is “pulling,” is doing the most work because they’re encountering with the brunt of the wind resistance. Usually, everyone takes turns pulling. You also urge each other on and stay strong for riding partners when they’re fatigued. In larger pack situations, you protect each other from unknown, potentially haphazard riders. In races, cooperation is the only way to win. You have no choice but to trust these people and that forms tight bonds.
Cycling builds community
Let’s face it, most cyclists are a bunch of skinny nutjobs in Lycra. The guys shave their legs. The women eschew waif femininity in favor of big, muscular (and very sexy in my opinion) thighs. We wake up at 4am to ride four hours in the rain. We eat 4,000+ calories a day. We are not normal. Because of this and all the time we spend together, we’re sort of one, extended family. Last September, I crashed quite badly on PCH in Malibu—50 miles from home. I was okay, but my hip was pretty road rashed and my cleat broke, so I basically had to ride all the way home using one pedal. Had my friends not stayed with me at the snail’s pace I needed, I’m not sure what I would have done. I have friends I can count on like this from Long Beach to Ventura. I ride with these people every day. For the most part, I know I can trust them.
Cycling is meditative
At the same time, there’s a strong internal aspect to the sport. You’re completely exposed to the elements on a bike, sometimes hitting 30–40+ miles an hour. You need to be aware of your gearing, the speed you’re pedaling (cadence), obstacles in the road (good if you’re mountain biking, bad if you’re road riding), how much your legs can handle, and what anyone around you is doing. Stilling yourself so that you can maintain that kind of focus, isn’t too far off from traditional meditation practices.
And if you’re riding alone, the meditation can become even more intense. I’ve done rides where I focused on my breath and the cadence of my pedal strokes, completely shut down my conscious, and hammered out 20–30 miles in an almost trance-like state. A morning like that clears out the debris of the daily grind like you wouldn’t believe.
Cycling sharpens your senses and reflexes
As I just mentioned, you need to be hyper-aware when you’re riding. Like any kind of training, this sharpening of your senses and the keener awareness of your surroundings spreads into other parts of your life. In a sport where deciding to veer left or right could make the difference between 2nd place on the podium or a broken collarbone, you need to get good at making quick choices using everything you can get from your eyes, ears, hands, and feet.
Cycling makes you more productive
This is a time-consuming sport. In order to get the most out of it while balancing work and home life, you need to be efficient. I find that I don’t really drop out of efficiency mode on rest days or days when I can’t ride, so I tend to get an insane amount of work done.
You get to see amazing things
It’s a big beautiful world out there. Believe it or not, there are parts of it that you just can’t get to by car—and even if you can, you’ll be seeing everything from inside a steel box. And there are other parts that are too far to walk to. A bike doesn’t just take you places, it shows you places.
Once or twice a week, I drag myself out of bed at 5am, have a bowl of oatmeal, and pull my mountain bike out of the garage—a steel, 29” hardtail Spot Brand Honey Badger that, unlike my other bikes, I never bothered to re-name given there’s no way I could beat the name “Honey Badger.”
I then ride 20 miles along the beach to meet some friends in Santa Monica. It’s usually still dark for this part of the ride and I’m very much alone, with only the rush of wind, the rumble of chunky rubber spinning on pavement, and the occasion crash of a wave to keep me company.
I’m typically early, so I grab an Americano at our rendezvous and wait for the peanut gallery to show up. Once we’re all assembled, we head out to the Santa Monica Mountains, often working our way up the Sullivan Canyon single track, going too fast or too slow, taking too many chances or not enough, but always having fun.
Eventually, the path turns into a pitted, unforgiving wall of a climb that ends on Sullivan Ridge which, once our hearts stop pounding out of our chests, we follow until it ends at Dirt Mulholland. There we stop, hydrate and eat, looking out over the Encino Reservoir and all of the San Fernando Valley. At this point, it’s 7:30am. Especially in winter, the air is still clean so that you can see forever—not that you’d want to, given how beautiful the reservoir is. I often think of Los Angeles as a cruel place, but at this hour, when the smog has washed away and the sunshine is still gentle, I can almost feel the fresh hope of millions of ambitious souls. If that’s too hippy-dippy for you, well then peace and love, brother. Peace and love.
After taking that in, then comes the fun part…getting back down again. Within an hour, I’m stomping—muddy, dusty, or some combination thereof—through the halls of Openfit’s Santa Monica offices. By 9am, I’m showered and ready to start my day. By the time my co-workers are slurping their way through their first cup of coffee, I’ve experienced more solitude, more camaraderie, more fitness, more adventure, and more beauty than some people experience in an entire month, maybe even a year.
And damned if it doesn’t feel awesome.