Stress and Cycling: What you Need to Know

stress and cycling

Stress can be overwhelming, and it can manifest in a variety of ways. Adverse effects can include weight loss and weight gain; it can cause fatigue, a weakened immune system and even long-term issues such as high blood pressure. For this article, I’ve teamed up with Niamh Mitchell, avid mountain biker and Occupational Therapist to discuss the impacts of stress on our minds and bodies, and what should we do when we’re too stressed to ride bikes, or when riding bikes makes us stressed!

As an occupational therapist, I see every activity a person does in their day as an occupation – from when they wake in the morning until they go to bed at night including sleeping. For many people I work with, due to the difficulties they are experiencing with their mental health, many aspects of their daily life can be overwhelming meaning that the ‘routine’ activities they do every day become more challenging,” Niamh explains. In small doses, stress can be an excellent little motivator to get you going with some people even thriving under stress and pressure. However, too much stress can be problematic. Stress stems from a chemical reaction in your brain when the hypothalamus triggers a release of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone), often when facing difficult or emotional situations. “Stress is often a slow burner that builds over a prolonged period of time, so it is unrealistic to pressure ourselves to resolve stressors quickly, however persistent conscious decisions to choose activities that reduce stress is most likely to yield longer-term benefits of stress reduction,” Niamh says.

Niamh Mitchell, Occupational Therapist

This chemical reaction prepares you for a fight, flight or freeze situation. In the right amounts, cortisol is very good for you. When cortisol is converted into cortisone, it becomes our body’s natural anti-inflammatory. On the flip-side, low levels of cortisol can leave you feeling underwhelmed and lacking stimulus. The physical side effects of stress are vast and varied. Some people may develop a weakened immune system as cortisol can inhibit the uptake of other chemicals in the body. Commonly, gonadotrophins (the sex hormones) are usually hindered by cortisol, which explains why stress-sufferers may experience a reduction in their libido level. Other physical symptoms may include headaches, muscle tightness, an upset stomach and high blood pressure, to name a few. Cortisol can also slow your metabolism by effectively telling your body to switch to ‘survival mode’ so your body begins to burn fat slower than usual, leading to weight gain and bouts of lethargy.

Mental Stress and Cycling

Another severe impact that stress can have is its relationship with mental health. Stress is a common culprit contributing to anxiety, depression and other illnesses. When feeling overwhelmed, it can feel really good to sweat it off on the bike or at the gym… or, punching a pillow, repeatedly, can have a similar effect. The boost in heart rate gets the blood pumping and adrenaline gushing, which results in a mental boost.   

We use our working memory to ride a bike and to carry out other tasks and activities. However, our ability to process information to carry out those tasks is significantly impaired when suffering from prolonged periods of stress. This impairment causes us to make silly mistakes and lose concentration, which can lead to injury. For many of us, riding our bikes really helps to elevate the effects of stress on the mind and body. But what happens when you’re feeling too stressed to ride, or worse, when riding your bike makes you more stressed? How can we navigate these feels and push through?

If you’re too stressed to ride, then remind yourself that any movement is good movement. So instead of focusing on a big day out on the bike, it’s important to choose an activity that you can do without causing further stress, this includes something you can easily start but without prolonging the activity to the point of avoiding everything else,” Niamh advises. And if riding your bike is making your stress worse, Niamh suggests “reminding yourself why you love riding, then try to pinpoint what it is specifically that is now causing you to feel stressed. Is it getting organised? Is it the fear of riding certain aspects of the trail? Spend time identifying possible stress triggers and then focus on this aspect to try to reduce the stress and regain the enjoyment of riding again rather than allowing it to manifest further.

When it comes to relieving the side effects of stress, we find comfort where we can. It’s a bubble bath and a good book for some people, whereas, for others, it’s an excellent sweaty cycle session. Maintaining a balanced diet and getting regular exercise is a combination that has been drilled into us throughout life, but that’s because IT DOES WORK! Don’t get me wrong, we all deserve an indulgent duvet-day with some trash TV and junk food – once in a while, alas, it’s not sustainable, unless you are a unicorn.

Stress is a natural part of life and a natural part of our bodies. We need some of that cortisol to get us through the day, but too much or too little can have some serious side effects. It’s how we handle stress which affects how much of a negative impact it can have on us.

“If you already have involvement with a mental health professional, I would take their advice as it will be most appropriate to your needs. If you feel that you require further advice regarding your mental health, contact your GP or healthcare professional. If it’s urgent, then contact NHS-24 or call 111,” adds Niamh.

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