Cycling is sanity… part 1

So… it’s been a while. I’ve struggled a bit over the last few months. Work as been constantly anxiety-provoking and I’ve found myself drained by the evening and without the cognitive alacrity to compose prose. I’ve also been intermittently and increasing preoccupied with the current political bonfire and it’s been a psychological block, a procrastination, between me and my plans. Anxiety is all about fear of the future, fear of the unknown, and when the future is in doubt… well… many of you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s exhausting, and depressing. I’ve spent much of this year rolling from despair, to anger, to indifference, to sadness and back again. I seriously considered going back on medication earlier in the year. I have, as always, taken solace in the bike, and social gatherings with all those friends I have made through riding. I have, at times, filled my evenings and weekends almost desperately with activity, as if to keep my attention diverted from the distasteful backdrop of reality.

 

It hasn’t been 100% gloom. I received a lovely email a few days ago from Steve Rooney up in Glasgow, who doles out coffee to cyclists passing The Broomielaw. Steve is on hand to give free coffee and to lend an ear to commuters heading along the Clyde. Alas, when I was up that way last summer I didn’t spot him – I suspect I was in town way too late in the day! It’s a genuine chance to connect and share stories – of advocacy, of wellbeing, of many other things. Steve says that many riders share their experiences of anxiety and depression. Sometimes these things are way easier to broach over a brew. It’s such a lovely thing to do and next time I find myself Glasgow way I’ll definitely drop by. Have a read about Steve here .

I’ll be adding to this update in stages – it seems wiser than trying to cover all that has happened in one sitting. Since February I’ve been out to visit Anna Glowinski in Spain, taken part in the panel on cycling and depression for Casquette Live at the Cycle Show, marshalled the Tweed Run (which clashed with the 400k London-Wales-London audax and, to be honest, I was a little relieved not having done much training), done Dunwich Dynamo for the first time in 8 years, did Ride London to raise a bit of cash for my work group, rode the Velocino a lot, and (after saying I would for AGES) finally got back down to Herne Hill Velodrome and got on my track bike after a two year break.

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Back at Herne Hill Velodrome

Last Saturday I met up with some of the women I met through the London Fixed Gear and Singlespeed Forum. We had got together offline for our first ride in 2009 so this was a 10th Anniversary event. We were a proper Miscellany of Bikes and it was awesome – Brompton, tourer, penny, Velocino, fixed, road, commuters. We rode out from Buckingham Palace to Richmond Park, even picnicking in the same spot as a decade ago. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent on the Velocino and the Brooks saddle hasn’t been broken in yet. I slightly borked my bum and after nearly 30 miles to Richmond and back and home I did succumb to the train, going the last two stops and avoiding going over a large hill. I think I would have been walking it anyway!

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Not all bikes have matching wheels… Penny and Meep-Meep.

 

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Mid-morning by Buckingham Palace

Anyway, more soon – in stages!

Catching up with the changing seasons

Having a bit of a moment. No blogging for ages then two at once. Sort of. Forgive my laxity of late.

January and February felt a bit tough going. I had a few slumps and at one point felt miserable enough to seriously consider going back on anti-depressants again after a break of two years. Twice weekly turbo sessions and park runs kept my physical fitness up and helped to split the period into manageable chunks – for the most part. I tried to get a ride of 35-ish miles in on Sundays too, though ‘allowed’ myself the odd weekend off. A dear friend of mine who’d been away for a while arrived back in London in January – their company had been missed and I was cheered by being able to catch up again. But the short days were a struggle, and the grey cloudy days were a struggle. I found myself searching for every little sign that spring was on the way and I even felt something akin to relief when the daffodils and snowdrops emerged from slumber. Then the crocuses.

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I’ve not been hibernating though, despite the occasional urge to do just that (I’m sure many of you are all too familiar with that feeling).

Back in January I was invited by Club Peloton to speak at their evening event in Surrey Quays – discussion around cycling, mental health, and the workplace. Evidence shows that those who cycle to work are generally more productive, happier, more energised, than people who don’t. They’re also healthier both physically and mentally, take fewer sick days. It’s worth a company providing for those staff who cycle – secure parking, bike to work scheme, showers etc. It all benefits the workplace in the long run. I was on a panel of three, alongside Rachel Morris and other guy – we inhabit different cycling worlds and it was interesting to discover our differing opinions on certain subjects, as well as our similarities.

I managed to fit in a week away at the end of March (something to look forward to!) in Southern Spain, staying with the lovely Anna Glowinski. Anna went through some very tough times last year with fibromyalgia which, at one point, made her so ill she was considering how to live her life beyond cycling. We had some great chats about managing your mental health or not when you can’t do the activity you love so much and which is such a huge part of your life. My own wellbeing was very much boosted by a week in warmer (if not exactly hot) climes and the sheer bliss of being able to ride day after day in a amazing landscape without having to consider the daily grind of work and usual responsibilities.

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Casares, the Costas near Gibraltar.

 

A week after that was the London Bike Show and Danielle of Casquette had asked me whether I’d take part in a panel discussion with Molly Weaver and Josie Perry around cycling and depression. I was glad to participate and the whole Casquette Live stage at LBS was great; engaged audiences, wide variety of topics, and a chance to chat to many other amazing cycling women. Again, we on the panel approached our subject from differing angles and were able to complement each other – Josie as a sports psychologist, Molly as a pro rider, and me as an experienced rider and mental health worker.

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I’ve been talking, too, to Bella Velo, the SW London-based women’s cycling network regarding an upcoming evening panel discussion on cycling and mental health which takes place on Thursday. (Links in the previous blog post).

I’ve mentioned in the past about trying to find alternative ways to benefit from riding when I have become disillusioned with my riding. For a while I wasn’t fit enough to find any satisfaction in racing and even training rides with my club felt too much of a push. I ended up riding alone so as not to compare my fitness unfavourably with that of my friends. I did feel a bit unsatisfied with my cycling for a while until a spell of sick leave led to joining a gym and, for the first time out of choice, undertaking Some Running. There were other factors too but taking up other exercise helped me get my fitness back. That I was signed off work was key – there’s no way I could have exercised the amount I did each week whilst working 9-5 and being stressed from work. After months slow slide into exhaustion I began to feel more emboldened – my confidence in the abilities of my own body gradually seeped back. I’d forgotten how long it can take for this to happen. As it did, however, I started trying new things or revisiting activities I’d participated in in the past. Aside from the riding I went dancing once. My dreams of Strictly are entirely imaginary though. I’m shit at formal and structured dancing. Still, I did it and that was WAY out of my comfort zone. I also nourished my mind and visited galleries and museums. I’ve always been a passionate advocate of feeding ones intellect, drinking up new knowledge with the thirst of a desert island castaway discovering a source of fresh water. As an aside, I’m currently taking part in a series of workshops at a local museum to help develop a wellbeing resource – so many possibilities here to get the old grey matter bogling. But I digress. I’ve rediscovered bmx-ing in the last 2-3 years, tried touring (I’m a late bloomer!), and played around on penny farthings, velocipedes, rovers, sociables, tall bikes, and more. I’m currently having pangs for some off-road too – tempted to find a cheap mtb that I can thrash a few trails on. The current N+1 situation is more like N+5; a penny, mbt, Brompton, gravel bike, BMX… Last Autumn I acquired a Velocino, which is ridiculous and fun. Perfect for marshalling the Tweed Run recently. My outfit was made by the wonderful Kat Jungnickel from Dashing Tweeds material.

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It’s a ridiculous bike

 

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Kat made both her own outfit and mine

If there is a tip of sorts to be taken from all this, I guess, it would be that if for any reason you find that you have fallen out of love with the specific riding that you are doing… try another type. Try riding without any set goals other than just to ride. The Countryside Appreciation Ride generally does the trick for me and especially around this time of the year. The recent warm weather in the South of England during Easter was a gift – I spent a significant part of it barrelling around Sussex, Surrey, and Kent ecstatically yelping at the glory of the bluebells. Once I even alarmed some walkers emerging from a woodland path with a yelled “AW WOW!” as I descended from the ridge down towards Pilgrims Way and Otford. I can see the headline now –

WHOOPING BLUEBELL DEATH CYCLIST MAULS INNOCENT HIKERS.

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Anyway, it’s time to get down the BMX track again – a number of the London tracks have dedicated women only coached sessions and I attend one SE London regularly during the middle of the year. The ages range from early 20s to mid 50s. It’s a great workout, it’s social, and it’s fun. There’s an initiative from Access Sport called BMXercise aimed at getting women on the bike. It’s a bit different to some sessions out there but I can thoroughly recommend them. I’ve attended a couple at the Lee Valley VeloPark in East London. The Olympic track is definitely more technical than my local (though they have dropped the height of the start ramp since 2012!) but there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of learning to handle the lumps, bumps, and jumps that have been ridden on by the likes of Shanaze Read even if one can’t pretend to be as accomplished as her on 20″ wheels. I’m still excited I’ve properly learned to bunny hop… and have the scar to prove it.

What are your bikes plans for the summer? Do you have any particular goals set or is the joy of cycling in warm weather and not wearing ALL THE LAYERS enough of a plan to bring you joy?

 

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MHAW, 13th-19th May

Many of you will have detected a rise in the articles on mental health recently in the run-up to Mental Health Awareness Week which commenced today.

I had just hit publish on a post but it seems to have been eaten mid-update or my wifi dropped out or something. I’m trying not to be too frustrated about losing text I’ve spent the some hours coaxing into a timely piece on MHAW, body image, an upcoming series of programmes on MH and an event run by Bella Velo on Thursday 16th in SW London. Forgive me if this post seems a little brief in places. I may go back and pad out paragraphs again as I remember what I wrote originally.

So, this year MHAW is focused on body image. I think this may be very relevant for many of us, particularly perhaps those of us who came to cycling later in life may have experienced significance physical changes and become fitter and healthier that we have ever been. There have been various ‘cycling changed my life’ stories that have focused on weight loss but what happens when these gains slip away with injury, illness, pregnancy, or changing life commitments? How do we adjust to the changes in our own body image and sense of self? How do we manage when our peers seem so much stronger and how often do we unhelpfully compare ourselves to them? How can we direct our energies when we can’t get on the bike at all? I spoke to Anna Glowinski recently about her fibromyalgia and how it interferred with her life – more on this in due course.

Those of you who have attended a Bikes and Brains evening event or who have been reading the blog for awhile will know I’m not a fan of simplistic motivational cycling posters. Cycling is not a cure, it is a great tool, a practical coping mechanism, sometimes a crutch, perhaps even an obsession. If you wish to move forward you need to look at the Why? What’s behind it all? Working on self-awareness and (know thyself!) will prepare you for next time. Great if cycling has a considerable therapeutic impact but… it isn’t therapy. Having said this, I had a group turbo session a few days ago after a few stressful days at work and the intense physical effort of 15 x 30 sec pushes, with 1:30 recovery absolutely hit the spot in terms of turning my mood around. I’m also a bit fan of accessing counselling, therapy, mindfulness, yoga, or whatever helps you get to know yourself and better help you manage mental ill health. Mental health awareness of self.

 

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This week there is a series of three programmes on BBC1 to coincide with MHAW, the first one on anxiety with Nadiya Hussian, with subsequent ones with David Harewood on psychosis and Alastair Campbell on depression. I see the value in those with a platform highlighting this issues. I think it’s helpful to be reminded that we *really* aren’t alone and many other people have similar experiences. I’m all for activities beyond just awareness though, and trying to do something practical whether supporting people close to us or more generally through support services. I think I’ve said before that it’s pretty easy for me to talk about my mental health, I’ve been doing since before I started working in mental health, but I’m all to aware that this is not a given for everyone. Hence why I’ve been hosting the Bikes and Brains evenings IRL. Re the BBC focus on MH this week,  I think the first programme in the series was the one I was interviewed for about 18 months ago. It was my understanding that Miranda Hart was attached to the project but it seems that Nadiya Hussain has stepped in since. I don’t know whether I made the final edit but I’ll be watching regardless!

I’ve been chatting to Bella Velo in preparation for their evening event on Thursday in SW London. There’s a great line up and the evening is hosted by Adele Mitchell. It’s open to everyone, not just Bella Velo members so if you can make it to Richmond on the evening of 16th May please come and join us…

 

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Awareness is not enough…

ADD YOUR VOICE… You may not be able to make the Bella Velo evening but you can always write a guest post for Bikes and Brains! There’s a page on submitting a piece (with a few guidelines) but if you have any questions you can always drop me a line through the contact page or on Twitter @bikesandbrains if you prefer. I’m happy to chat about how your particular experiences might be represented. Did cycling come first, and then mental health issues appear later on? Did you take up cycling as part of recovery from depression? Do you find that anxiety gets in the way of achieving what you want to achieve? Does pedalling relieve the symptoms of OCD or PTSD? Is the bike more of an all-round wellbeing thing for you? Are you and ultra-distance rider who endures intense lows after a race? Is the bike a way of facing your issues or escaping from them?

On the blog I’m hoping to build up a kind of Library of Experiences, if you will, to being able to record how cycling can interact with mental health and vice versa. It’s also to be able to provide moments of recognition; that others can read and know that others travelled similar paths. Some may wish to highlight what they’ve learnt along the way, raise the issues that have arisen. If you have concerns about having your name searchably associated with the blog I can publish your piece anonymously – you can identify yourself as much or as little as you are comfortable with.

 

The cycling social circle

Some of you may have read the interview with Jools Walker in the Observer yesterday. I’m proud to know Jools and she was kind enough to be part of the first Bikes and Brains evening at Look Mum No Hands about 18 months ago. Do check out her blog if you haven’t yet. Also, look out for her book which is published in about ten days! Exciting! It covers, amongst other things, her depression and her love for the bicycle. I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on a copy 🙂

 

Club Peloton – Bikes, Brains, and the Workplace

It’s taken me awhile to get my arse into gear and thump out another post but here goes. I was contacted a short time ago by Neil Webster who was putting together and event for Club Peloton – a grant-making charity that’s been going for over a decade, and that focuses on using the bike to network within the property industry. Neil was proposing an event for members that focused on cycling and mental health and how that might link benefits in the workplace. Neil kindly hosted and introduced the panel as well as highlighting some relevant conclusions drawn from Club Peloton members on the subject of the evening.

The event took place a week or so ago on a cold evening in British Land’s Canada Water venue (I appreciated the soup and sourdough on offer!). My Cohorts-in-Speech for the evening were Paralympian, Rachel Morris MBE and Richard Lord of Equipe Cycle Coaching. I think we had an interesting diversity of experiences between us – with mental health providing the overlap in the Venn diagram.

A survey that was sent out to members in advance of the event provided some context for the evening and some thoughts from attendees on how their use of the bike for transport had a beneficial effect on their work patterns. A substantial 60% of those polled thought that they arrived at work more energised than they would otherwise and felt that they were more productive from having cycled in. All those who returned the survey felt that exercise eased depression or low mood. Probably not a surprise to many of us cyclists but, in this context, it was satisfying to see the trends reiterated so firmly.

I’d love to see more workplaces embracing this kind of event as part of the ongoing process to normalise discussions of mental health. Some large companies are starting initiiatives to support the mental health of their employees. From a purely economic perspective it makes sense (a ‘no brainer’, if you will). A more supported workforce is a happier workforce, is likely to be a more loyal one, a more coherent one. Individuals will stay longer, be more productive, take fewer days of sick leave. We spend so much of our lives at work – looking at factors that improve or sustain wellbeing in the workplace should, in my opinion, be standard. An organisation *is* its workforce. Businesses can work at offering more flexible working, work environment changes, support options such as employee helplines and access to counselling/therapy, be willing to embrace reasonable adjustments. It’s not all up to the individual to build up their own resilience and tolerance; businesses and organisation need to be willing to examine their own culture/practice and be willing to modify where there are structures in place which negatively affect staff.

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Squirrel! (We were actually looking at the results of the attendee survey)

Thursday is Time to Talk Day – a great opportunity to get together with colleagues over a cuppa and have a chat about how your head is – whether that be good, bad, or fair-to-middling. When we are asked how we are we so often default to ‘fine, thanks’ even when we are far from it. This might be for various reasons – we don’t want to talk to that specific person, we don’t want to talk in that environment, we shut down the conversation because we don’t want to talk at all. Why not make time to have those chats, to not be alarmed by people sharing sensitive subjects, to allow space for people to show a bit of emotion?

During the Q&A one attendee to the Club Peloton event asked about the signs that someone was struggling and how one might help. Sometimes it might not be clear to the individual themselves what is happening, especially if its something they haven’t gone through before. We described some of our own experiences. I notice that I’m becoming more withdrawn. I socialise less, and when I do it takes much more energy. My sleep patterns can be interrupted, or I might sleep through the night and wake still feeling exhausted. There are usually very visible physical signs of my mental health taking a slide. Lower energy levels can mean my diet takes a downturn too as I have less energy to prepare meals and less interest in what I’m eating. Then I have less energy because I’m not eating properly. I can feel much more on edge emotionally, smaller things can upset in a way they wouldn’t do normally. I experience a sense of ‘greying out’ when life seems to have less colour (I take fewer photos when this happens and notice my instagram output drops!). A salient point which I neglected to mention is that if you are concerned that someone might be having a tough time don’t be afraid to ask them. Sometimes being there, listening, and small acts of support can be incredibly valuable. Don’t try and fix someone. Ask them what they would like to happen. They might not know but it’s a good place to start. Perhaps ask questions that have few possible answers – anxiety and low mood can squash decision-making and too many choices can seem overwhelming. Sometimes taking charge can be useful – ask the individual whether they would prefer if you made a choice for them. One of my friends announced that we were going to a cafe for tea and cake and chat – and no arguments! I was happy to oblige. When I’m at this stage it’s not as simple as just going out for a bike ride to make it all better – it will take much more to get out of the front door and the ride also will be much more of a physical effort because I’m so drained.

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What practical steps can be take within the worksplace? Facilitating access to Mental Health First Aid Training is one. An additional approach is training for managers in how to support those colleagues with lived experience of MH issues. Mental health workplaces are equally playing catch-up – just because MH is the focus of the business or organisation it isn’t a given that there will be a higher level of support in place. Where resources are tight there canbe a tendency to focus on the clients over those who provide the service. Setting up a LEN (Lived Experience Network) can be of huge benefit in terms of staff peer support and a resource for employers to draw on order to develop focused and effective services for employees.

Aside from that, there is the option of going to your GP, contacting psychological therapies services, taking medication. Personally I’d go for any and all of these (and have done). Some people prefer not to take medication, perhaps opting for yoga, Mindfulness, mediation, exercise, gardening, and so on. It can take a little while to discover what works for you. I’d say keep an open mind and read up about tried and tested approaches.

Read a bit more on the Club Peloton evening in the fab write-up in Velocity Magazine. Images of the event used here are by kind permission of David Taylor, editor of Velocity Magazine. Aside from the t-shirt design pic which I nabbed from Neil Webster . Here are a few other relevant links which may pique your interest…

Mental health in the workplace – Time to Change

Economic and Social Cost – Mental Health Foundation

Mental Health FIrst Aid – MHFA England

Resources – Mental Health At Work

Time to Talk Day 2019 – Time to Change

Possible colour perception alterations in depressives – Harvard

Psychological Therapies Services – NHS

Wellbeing boost from cycling or walking to work – NICE

A Year On…

A Brief Look Back

 

It’s just over a year since I started up the Bikes and Brains Blog and admittedly the posts have been a bit sporadic as I’ve juggled writing, organising the occasional evening, the day job, the riding, and the fluctuations in my own mental wellbeing. This is still a work in progress… it’s just that the progress is at a slower pace than I’d planned. What I’ve achieved so far is in no small part to those who have so generously contributed guest posts. I tip my hat to their willingness to write about their own experiences so honestly. I hope that reading these may have resonated with your own life, or perhaps given you some insight into the experiences of someone close to you. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are often unwelcome bedfellows to depression, anxiety, and the like. I hope that the feelings and thoughts in the posts here have lessened those a bit.

My warm thanks to: Jo McRae, Lesley Pinder, Emma Cooke, Mildred Locke, Graeme Willgress, Geoff Waugh, Anna Dingle, Robin Sheeran, and Stefan Puno for their posts. Also to Alex at Look Mum No Hands, Holly and colleagues at Rapha Manchester, and Krysia and co. at The Bristol Bike Project for hosting Bikes and Brains evenings. My gratitude to the contributors Adele Mitchell, Jools Walker, Bruce Karsten, Roann Ghosh, Tom Hill, Jules Sprake, Christine Evans, Eleanor Jaskowska, Ian Walker, Chris Taylor, and to Rebecca Charlton for providing hosting duties at LMNH.

If you ever want to contribute to the blog then give me a shout, or if you know someone who might like to please encourage them to get in contact (have a look at the ‘Submit a piece’ page for guidance). I’m also hoping to arrange more evenings in 2019 so keep an eye out. I’m happy to take suggestions for places to hold them.

 

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The inevitable best nine of 2018; bikes, rides, and… other stuff.

I have mixed emotions about this time as one year slips into the next. Like many who are all too familiar with anxiety I find planning for the future somewhat… challenging. I also feel a slight sense of loss at those amazing moments I am leaving behind – the change of year seems to box those up, pushing them a little out of reach. Still, this temporal compartmentalisation does provide encouragement to move forward.

Whatever your 2018 has been, I hope that your 2019 will be more, better, perhaps just different. May the wind be at your back and the gradient in your favour. Best wishes, Sarah. London 31/12/18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post 9: Stefan Puno

Another guest post. This is from Stefan who is associated with bikestorage.co when he’s not on a bike. He contacted me a little while back to provide a piece for the blog. Here he talks of some of the fundamentals of how cycling can help eleviate anxiety and stress, as well as being of physical benefit. He talks of how cycling has helped him in a very personal capacity, and stirred remembrance of things past…

All images for this post are from Stefan and used with kind permission.

How Cycling Helped Me Beat The Blues

I have always tried to be mentally and physically fit, and exercise has been a very important part of my life. However, at once point, I started to suffer from anxiety and depression, which was brought on by work stress and a bad break up. This is when I discovered cycling, and it really helped. From this point, cycling was my main form of exercise, and it helped me manage my symptoms effectively, and improved my mental health so much. This is my personal story of how cycling helped me.

I first thought about cycling to control my anxiety when I read a blog on bikestorage.co, who strongly recommend cycling as a form of relaxation. They say that exercising regularly not only keeps you fresh and active, but it also minimizes the chances of developing diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, obesity and diabetes. It also appealed because, as a man in my 40s, it was something that was not too high impact.

I quickly found that has a lot of benefits: it is great for the muscles; it is low impact and therefore won’t leave you feeling exhausted and out of breath; it improves stamina and the best part is, as you get fit over time you can increase the intensity of your bicycle work to feel even more benefits. As I said other than the countless physical benefits of cycling, I also found it has a number of mental and psychological benefits too. For a start, cycling helped me to relax: long rides helped me to focus and I finally understood what people had been talking about when they mentioned Mindfulness. For the first time in years, I felt in the moment. All I knew was my feet on the pedals and the tires on the track. I felt at one with the world and with myself.

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I started to read some evidence, wondering why cycling was having such a positive effect on my body and on my psyche. According to a study conducted by researchers at Clemson and the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, people who ride bikes to places are happier. Using the American Time Use Survey, researchers showed that on average the mood of those who cycle was far better than of car drivers or those who take trains or buses. I found my own feelings confirmed in this piece.

I also found that I experienced many other benefits. As I met with other cyclists and started to go on group rides, I understood that I was no alone: you can experience these benefits too if you take up cycling.

  • I had a stressful job, and going out every day for a bike ride helped clear my mind and reduce my stress.
  • Cycling for me is a little like eating a madeleine for Proust: it took me back to my childhood. I remembered the long rides with my friends and the sense of freedom and excitement.
  • I had heard about endorphins, but I never really understood until I took up cycling. Exercising causes your body to release endorphins, which are sometimes referred to as the happy hormones. The release of endorphins triggers an overall happy feeling in your body making you feel good mentally and physically. I felt a sense of wellbeing that I hadn’t in ages, almost like I had taken some sort of ‘wholesome drug’.
  • I also found my thinking was less foggy. Because of this, I was more productive in work, as I could think more clearly.

Cycling has been such a positive influence on my life. The physical benefits are perhaps obvious, but the benefits to my mental health and wellbeing were surprising to me, and may have surprised you when you were reading my story. I have found that cycling is a great way to relax your mind and it had helped me to fight anxiety and depression. I have also enjoyed reading the personal stories on Bikesandbrains, which is a great blog where people share their personal experiences of how cycling made a positive impact on their lives.

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19th November is International Men’s Day. A good time to have a read about men and mental health. Here’s a good piece from Mental Health Foundation on some of the stats and issues around MH and seeking help for men of different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds etc.

November ramblings: routine changes and decision-making

Featured header image taken by/used courtesy of Chihiro Sati Gilmore (03/11/18).

I’ve been remiss. It feels like a long time since I posted. I, like so many, have struggled a bit with the change of season and the darker evenings.

Work drains me and I find I have little energy to much in the evening. Mid-October, however, is when Turbobeat starts. On Tuesdays I switch from BMXings to go turbo-training with Elite Cycling in Crystal Palace, South London. It’s not too far from where I live to be a battle to leave the house again after work when it’s dark and cold. Proximity is key for me in terms of being able to sustain activities when it’s colder and greyer. What I’ve noticed particularly about these sessions is how I can pedal out the anxiety and stresses of the work day. It’s so physical I *have* to focus on what I’m doing. At the same time I only have to focus on pedalling. Coach Paul Mill prompts us when to change gear or cadence, build up heart rate, start and finish the reps. I don’t have to think much at all – just do. No decisions to make. Afterwards I’m tired but energised and satisfied. The data from the session gets sent shortly afterwards so you can get an idea of your improvements over the weeks. This training helps to keep my sanity over the winter.

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Killling time in the velodrome before BMXercise…

I managed to get a cheeky BMXercise session in a few days ago too – my first experience of the Olympic track at Lee Valley Velo Park. It was fab – longer and a bit… sharper… than BMX Track London in Peckham. Full laps were knackering! Headwind on the first and third straight contributing. It was good to see some familiar faces from the Peckham women’s sessions over in East London along with coaches Jacks, Farran, and Silvi. Some of them have ridden a number of tracks around London. We’re particularly fortunate in South London – Greenwich, Brixton, Peckham, Merton, Norbury. Some of these aren’t able to offer evening sessions during the winter as they don’t have floodlights. The Olympic track was pretty amazing though – the view from the start hill is pretty amazing! I also nipped in to the velodrome for a coffee before the session – found a real suntrap of a seat looking SW across the park.

I surprised myself by being able to venture over to East London at the weekend. It helped that I’d already planned to meet a couple of people in town earlier to hand over a bike I’d sold. (And one of the women at the session kindly give me a lift back – thanks Pam!)

Usually I’d go out each Saturday for a ride into Kent for perhaps 2-3 hours. I haven’t done that for a few weeks. Partly because I’ve been out of London (family duties), partly weather, partly tiredness, partly aiming to do a nearby Park Run. It feels a bit strange not to do a regular Saturday ride – I am so much a creature of habit – but I’m gradually becoming ok with the changes I am making. Cycling will always come first though. I found myself looking at the t-shirts of some of the other runners and thinking, ‘why would I ever run 26 miles when I could cycle?’

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Pre-Dulwich Park Run
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Post-Dulwich Park Run

Anyway, I digress. And I’m going to digress further.

Recently I joined Alex and Jenni of the Wheel Suckers Podcast to chat a little bit about Bikes and Brains, and my experience, and bikes. There were plenty of things I didn’t get around to saying but hopefully it will be diverting. It should be up on the site in the next few months.

Anxiety can sometimes interfere with my decision-making and I wrangled for too long recently over whether to go to turbo-training or meet friends for dinner. I find myself trying to make the ‘right’ decision. I want there to be a right decision. I’m still trying to convince myself that the decision you make can be just that… no right or wrong. Things then turn out as they turn out. I considered the level of regret I would feel if I didn’t go for dinner, also weighing up the mental effort it might require to travel there after a tiring day. In the end I chose dinner with my friends Marco and Grahame, and Grahame’s friend Charlie Kelly. Those of you who are bike nerds, or mountain bikers, or bike history buffs will know that Charlie (with Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, and Tom Ritchey) basically invented mountain biking. Charlie is a lovely guy and the chat flowed easily. As you might imagine, he has some great stories to tell. He’s been over here doing talks and highlighting his book that came out in the UK last year – you might want to take a look yourself: Fat Tire Flyer . Safe to say that at the end of the evening I felt content with my decision to go to dinner. (I consciously avoided using the word ‘right’ in relation to my choice.)

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Mountain biking legend Charlie Kelly

Safe to say that at the end of the evening I felt content with my decision to go to dinner. (I consciously avoided using the word ‘right’ in relation to my choice.)

———-

Do you have any routines, hints, or tips to get through the winter? Or ways to help decision-making? What particularly troubles you at this time of the year? Do give me a shout via the contact page (I could compile them into a list to share).

Guest Post 8: Robin Sheeran

I’m happy to present another guest post. This one is by Robin Sheeran, a journalist from Belfast. He’s a member of King’s Moss CC and proudly wore the club’s blue-and-yellow jersey at the Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo Sportive this year.

Mental health, good or bad, is not just in the mind. Here, Robin writes of the frustration and worry before identifying the cause, and where he went from there.

 

Uncomfortably Numb

There’s a long, echoing corridor at work and I’m hurrying along it to my desk when I notice a tiny numbness in my lip. I flick my tongue at it. It’s like the numbness you get after you’ve had an injection at the dentist, but much smaller.

It’s June. There’s a ton of work to get done before the summer. We’re working 12-hour shifts. My mum’s just been told her cancer is back and she’s not going to get better.

The days pass and my tiredness and frustration ramp up.

I’m round at my mum’s a lot. We’ve become more like old friends these days. I make the tea and we watch Pointless. We talk about the past. Her past and mine.

Then I jump back on my old bike and cycle home – it’s 10 minutes away.

The lip thing hasn’t gone away. I nibble on the numbness sometimes. And notice it’s spreads across the whole left side of the lip. It’s become a thing.

Then I’m lying in bed one night unable to sleep when I notice the roof of my mouth is numb – just the left side up to that little ridge line.

In the morning I have a raging headache and my left arm and leg feel a bit numb too.

It’s Sunday and my wife takes me to the out-of-hours doctor.

He advises me to go to A&E immediately. We need to check it’s not something “sinister”. I weep a bit in the car on the way to hospital.

Lying a curtained-off cubicle I can hear the doctor talking on the phone. He wants me to be seen urgently. I’m taken off for a scan. They don’t find anything.

We go on holiday for three weeks.

Hill walks, the heat and a visit to Vienna and, weirdly, it all kind of falls away, apart from the small numbness in the lip.

Then the day before I go back to work there’s a crisis.

I’m hit by a massive headache. It feels like a waterfall of blood gushing inside my skull.

I’m convinced I’m having a stroke and my wife calls the ambulance.  By the time the crew arrives it’s worn off and I sit shamefacedly in the back of the ambulance watching the hedges spool by.

A young doctor half my age takes my details and I cry a bit. Then they tell me they want to keep me in overnight for observation and the neurologist will see me in the morning.

I’m put in a bed in a ward my mum’s been in a few times. An elderly, confused patient keeps us all awake that night calling loudly for her parents.

The neurologist listens to my story and diagnoses migraine brought on by stress.

I’ve to take three weeks off, and just to be on the safe side I’ll have an MRI scan.

So that’s how I come to be lying face up in this torpedo tube – face an inch or two from the curve of the metal pipe.

My broad frame fills the tube from side to side. I’m crammed in, but they’ve told me it’ll only take 20 minutes.

Suddenly 20 minutes seems a bloody long time. I can’t turn over even slightly. It’s OK I tell myself. But it’s not OK. I can’t move my arms. And I can’t move my legs. And I can barely move my head. And it hits me that I’m going to drown in here.

I press the panic button and the radiographer rushes in.

“Get me out, I want out!”

I feel ashamed. It’s a Sunday morning and I’ve wasted everyone’s time.

The next day I’m due back to work. I panic at my desk in the busy newsroom – end up weeping in someone’s office and escape by the back stairs.

Two weeks off this time.

Robin Sheeran2
On the Black Mountain, above Belfast

I begin to take the old bike out in the country lanes. I’m so unfit the sheer struggle to get up the hills clears my head – all I can feel is my body fighting with itself.

I’m eased back into work and the cycling becomes more obsessive. The old hybrid doesn’t like the punishment so I buy a cheap road bike with terrifyingly skinny 23mm tyres.

I find there’s a process to this: get on the bike feeling wound up, hacked off about work, annoyed by the headwind, thoughts racing.

Then, 10 minutes in, the veil’s pulled back and I feel like I’m flying headfirst over the road, between the hedges and through the sound of the wind.

It’s most real when tearing downhill at 40 mph, crouched in the drops, knowing a change in the road surface, or an angry farmyard dog could prove catastrophic – yet my mind’s utterly clear.

It’s been three years now, with just one major relapse, but the bike thing just seems to work.

A more expensive bike followed, shedloads of kit and clothing, and this year a mad sportive escapade to Belgium.

But as therapies go its actually rather cheap. At least that’s what I tell myself.

– – – – – – – –

Looking back at the episode I still can’t escape feeling a little ashamed at not being able to cope. Maybe it’s to do with being a middle-aged man who wants to be strong for his family. And the cycling isn’t a cure-all. The following year I had a fairly major relapse. But the cycling also helps me to set targets. I’ve already surpassed last year’s mileage. Next year I’m hoping to do the Tour de Conamara and I’ve entered the ballot for the Prudential Ride London. Wish me luck!

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – 

Robin kindly reminded me about the following 2017 study by researchers at the University of East London on cycling and middle-aged men.  Something to see in context of the reported statistics of the high percentage of MA men who experience anxiety and depression. Over the last 4-5 years there have been alarming statistics on the high levels of depression amongst men in their 40s and 50s (and levels of suicide in men, generally speaking). A few articles suggested you’re middle-aged in your 30s which is something I’d question. I also came across a reference to ‘manxiety’ (I almost threw up on my Sidis at this appalling portmanteau).

Here are a couple of links that may prove informative and useful (alongside information on various mental health charities and organisations such as Mind, Mental Health Foundation, Rethink, Time to Change, and also NHS England).

 

Men’s Health Forum

CALM

 

 

Bikes and Brains in Bristol, World Mental Health Day

We had a smashing response for the Bikes and Brains evening in Bristol back on 13th September with a great crowd of about 35-ish (I think!) in the workshop space at Bristol Bike Project. I’d been chatting with Krysia at BBP for some weeks before to get things set up. I’ve contributed a blog post for their site which gives a precis of the evening.

I’ve also been in contact with a few people who are planning to contribute a guest blog here – do drop a line if you’d like to add something regarding your personal experiences around cycling and mental health. World Mental Health Day is on Wednesday so there’ll be quite a bit in the news and on social about MH. I suspect it might be weighted to anxiety and depression, but covering other diagnoses such as PTSD, OCD, bipolar, psychosis and more.

It’s a good time to highlight MH and talk about it; I’ve been having a lot of conversations about managing the shift through Autumn and into Winter. A lot of us who experience anxiety and depression struggle with the change in seasons. There’s the lack of motivation and the urge to hibernate – it seems so much more diffcult to get out the front door and onto the bike. Or socialise. Or both. Or get out of bed.

I’ve said, flippantly, that I plan to get through the shorter days and darker evenings by exercising aggressively. I tend not to exercise at home – I find it going to a different space helps, certainly in terms of distraction. Visually there’s too much at home that can divert me, that I can decide is more pressing. If I go to the gym, or a yoga studio, I can compartmentalise the activity which means I focus on it. I also find paying for block bookings in advance usually gets me to a class because I don’t want to waste the money (though this seems not to have happened in terms of the gym over the hot summer months!). All this can get rather expensive… so I’m aiming to do a few Park Runs too.

I’ve said before that I find group turbo training sessions of hugh benefit during winter. Doing a quality hour of structured training on a weekday evening or two mean that I guilt-trip myself less if I don’t go out for several hours at the weekend. (Note to self and others who do the same – we need to look at being a bit kinder to ourselves!)

I think it’s very easy for many of us to fall into the habit of framing a ‘missed’ ride as a deficit in mileage – something that we have to try to ‘catch up’ on. Particularly if you are training for a particular event, or you’ve set yourself a regular, inflexible goal. We can forget that the goalposts can be moved, and that it’s not a failure, deficit, or lack of accomplishment when we do. It’s just a change. Maybe your change is more dramatic and involves much less time riding and more time doing other things. I’m playing with the idea of doing something more art based. If you can’t express yourself in one way why not express yourself in another…?

It’s also all very easy to say all this, and for me to write it. Giving advice to others I think was something I originally suggested was I was going to try to avoid! Whoops…). It is so much harder to follow the advice, particularly your own.

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Food for the squirrels…

I’m not looking forward to the clocks changing. I think/am afraid that this winter is going to be a struggle. National and international news isn’t helping either. I’m torn between ignoring much of it yet wanting to say informed. If I’ve had a bad day I might be able to ride it out but ongoing situations that are waaaaay out of control of one individual is something very different!

My top tip, as ever, is to find something close to home that can provide both distraction and focus on a regular basis. Something which doesn’t use up lots of your physical and mental energy beforehand just getting to the venue, or getting yourself out of the door. And if there are days when that isn’t possible either… give yourself a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. Add up the days when you do do something and don’t subtract the days when you don’t.

I will be *attempting* to take my own advice, though at this point I’m not sure to what level I’ll be able to do so. When the heating properly kicks it and it’s harder to leave a warm house it might be a different story (I’m hoping the milder weather hangs on a few weeks longer…).

For those of you in the London area who are considering coming to London Bike Kitchen’s WAGfest at the beginning of next year… I’ll be there and will be planning to do a bit of workshopping on this. More info in due course. If you’re not, or outside London, I’d still love to hear your thoughts on how to manage the colder, greyer weather. Do drop a line (perhaps I can compile them into a handy ‘Top Tips’ list for everyone).

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