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).

Guest Post 2: Lesley Pinder

Another guest contribution. This time from a clubmate and friend of mine, Lesley Pinder. You can find her on Twitter under the handle @Skipinder and there are more thoughts on stepping back from racing, and injuries, on her blog here. Here she ponders ways to deal with stress, and has a few thoughts re work and life after reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest. SS

 

Racing and Deep Play

I’ve written a couple of blog posts already about giving up racing my bicycle and so in some senses, this is Part 3 of a journey. When I wrote those posts I was gradually coming to terms with giving up racing and generally felt a sense of relief. The pressure I put on myself, the high (and unrealistic) expectations and disappointments led me to decide that the net impact of racing was a negative one. 2017, my first year in six not spent racing, was instead spent exploring new sports, enjoying cycling as a hobby and coaching. On paper I felt better, less stressed out about how fast (or not) I rode my bike and even a bit more holistically healthy but…. I am starting to wonder if it is not actually all that simple. While I was less stressed on the bike, during the summer of 2017 I became considerably more stressed at work. As a result of it, I have spent a lot of time pondering my mental habits and also trying out new strategies for work and for self care. Along with lots of yoga and meditation I’ve been reading more about healthy work patterns which led me to an excellent book called Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Rest explores the relationship between work and rest and argues that the two are not mutually inclusive. With the right sort of rest, it argues, you will work better. It is an antidote to the modern obsession with busyness and the increasingly blurry lines between work and home life. I honestly can’t recommend it enough. The book journeys through different concepts including working less but in a more focussed way (four hours a day is optimal by all accounts), the power of sleep and naps (preaching to the converted here) and also the importance of taking regular time off and how you can make the very most of that time. But it is the chapter of Deep Play that made me think anew about my cycling, and specifically racing.

Deep Play happens when you are so wholly engrossed in an activity that it takes up your entire thinking brain. It is mentally absorbing, allows you to use skills you also use at work (like strategic thinking or creativity), provides a more immediate satisfaction than you may get from work and is also, in some way, linked to your past and things you did as a child.

Activities that can involve Deep Play include playing a musical instrument to a very high level, writing a novel, painting or sports that are intense both physically and mentally. The author talks a great deal in this chapter about sailing and rock climbing which are two sports disproportionately popular with people with demanding jobs that involve high levels of problem solving (scientists, designers or lawyers for example). Both sports involve physical exertion but beyond that they also involve intense mental concentration, problem solving and creativity. Physical exercise is great for both physical and mental health but often still allows space for mind wandering while Deep Play, although it may involve some of the same skills you use at work, provides a more profound break from it.

This really resonated with me. I struggle to switch off. As my partner will confirm, I rarely sit still and I am always doing twelve things at once. When I am out on a bike ride in the lovely Kent lanes I can really only do that one thing otherwise I’d crash but my mind will still wander and I’ll still ruminate over work challenges and while I can come up with some great ideas or solutions it doesn’t really switch me off. On the other hand, I used to always say that racing or race training behind a derny pacer was the most mindful thing I did. That was when I completely and utterly focused on the activity at hand. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that it wasn’t just the race itself that constituted Deep Play, it was also all the surrounding thinking, planning and preparation. Climbing, sailing and cycling are united by the need to think deeply not only while you are doing the thing but also when you are planning for the thing. On race day, and sometimes even the night before, my mind would be entirely engrossed in the event ahead… What kit and shoes will I wear? What gearing do I need on my bike? Which wheels? What will the weather be like? What food and drink will I need? Who is racing? What do I know about them? Track cycling, like sailing and climbing, can be complicated and hard to grasp but once you’re in it, the complexity deepens the level of engagement. My mind is very active at work so it makes sense that sometimes (but not always) in order to switch off from work it needs to be very active doing a different thing.

And so I wonder… while in many ways racing my bicycle had become a stressful thing no longer enjoyable in itself, did the Deep Play nature of it actually reduce stress in another part of my life? If I could approach bike racing with the patience, acceptance and self compassion I’ve been trying to nurture through meditation and yoga, could I benefit again from the complete immersion that the act of racing brings? Could I be content with being ‘okay’ at racing in return for the benefits that the act of racing can bring? Or do I need to find a new Deep Play hobby? When I was younger I found immersion in Amateur Dramatic Musicals! Maybe it’s time to get my tap shoes and jazz hands out again…

 

 

Guest Post 1: Jo McRae

I am happy to present the first guest blog post, written by the lovely Jo McRae (Twitter – @JoMcRae1) who is an exercise professional of many years. What do you do when you simply can’t ride? When injury or illness prevent you from even getting on the bike? Here Jo shares her personal experience punctuated with professional observations. SS

 

Taking the Piss.

Having missed the much talked about gig at Look Mum, I’m keen to keep the ball rolling in sharing some of my own brain and bike experiences via this blog. Only problem is, though this ball may be rolling, the wheels on my own bicycle are not going round and round at all. I’ve been grounded by one of the worst things a cyclist can have to deal with – an actual physical reason for not being able to ride the bike.

Like many mentalists with a therapeutic love-hate relationship with the bike, I’ve sometimes not wanted to ride the damn thing at all, the biggest hiatus being a five year divorce. Sometimes, the hurdles have been insurmountable, the pressure I put on myself too great, or the general lethargy or depression too much to swing my leg over the cross-bar. Frustratingly many of these aspects of my own mental health are rather well in check just now, so the Universe has sent me a different kind of challenge just to check I’ve really GOT IT.  Due to an ongoing bladder infection and subsequent complications, I’ve been off the bike completely for about six months now.

A chronic bladder infection sounds like nothing much I know, but this is a bona fide, albeit not too common problem that really can become pretty serious if untreated. In practice, it means daily and even hourly changes in bladder problems, pelvic and urethral pain, dysfunction and all manner of awfulness that I won’t go into here. The main symptom for me has been bladder pain, something I didn’t know you could even have, let alone would have to learn to manage for more than a year.

Helpfully the centre for anxiety in the brain is right next door to the one receiving feedback from the bladder, so needless to say, the anxiety I have been experiencing has at times been pretty much off the scale. I’ve experienced crippling anxiety before, but usually associated with no REAL cause, or rather one magnified and exacerbated by thought processes themselves. This whole experience takes moment to moment management to a whole new level, and several of my usual coping measures are currently off the table. Riding my bike would be one, and lifting heavy weights would be another. Both are, for the moment, off limits. Almost uniquely amongst the exercise options available, these two favourite things are most like to make pain and physical symptoms worse. This feels like a particularly cruel blow.

Luckily as an exercise professional myself I’m not short of movement vocabulary, so I’ve been embracing ‘BEING IN THE NOW’, and doing whatever I can on any given day to keep moving and keep healthy in both body and mind. One day that might mean having a swim. Another it might mean a light gym circuit. And one mental health technique that I’ve used in the past is really coming into its own. ‘Goal chain-ing’ is when you don’t look too far ahead, but instead prepare for an activity step by manageable step, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the size of the challenge or floored by the disappointment of failure. You might focus on putting your exercise kit on before you decide what you’re going to do, or ride the first 15 minutes out of town before deciding if you want to go any further.

Fortunately for me I have access to several gyms, so I’m able to chop and change my activity at the drop of a hat and still get something useful done. I’ve been trying to keep my hand in a little by including short half hour/40 minute sessions on a watt bike. At least by cycling indoors I’m not in the arse end of Kent with a sudden onset of pain and no way of getting home in a hurry. I don’t want to induce pain, but some days I don’t have any problems at all so having no set goal in this instance is helpful and important, but it is hard to swallow. I like to have structure to my work-outs. Training is my business after all, but for now I just want to use exercise to stay sane. Surely that’s achievable with goal-chaining and a flexible mind set. After all, who cares if I get on a watt bike for 15 minutes only to get off and have a super comfortable row with a lubricated padded chamois.

So I’m doing my best and I’m managing, and there have even been some unexpected perks, for example I have improved my running. But what I’ve remembered the most is that I like to ride my bike. Just for the pleasure in that. And I’m looking forward to a time when I can get the wheels turning again, at whatever speed.

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