Mindfulness on two wheels!

I really love the concept of mindfulness, but I often struggle to do it. Mindfulness to me is about focusing on the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or fixating on future events. It’s about being present, even if it’s not something that brings you pleasure.

Mindfulness and cycling go hand-in-hand. The link between cycling and mental health has been recognized since the sport’s very earliest days. Being mindful makes you more grateful for being alive and healthy. From a purely physiological perspective, riding a bike produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and cannabinoids in the brain. Regular riding also helps keep hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in check, reducing your stress levels and enabling you to deal with anxiety more easily.

Science and research have shown that increasing our mindfulness can lead to a variety of health benefits such as reduced stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, and improved sleep. This applies when you are on your own or riding with a group. If your mind is focused elsewhere you are more likely just to drift along without putting in a huge physical effort. If you really focus on pushing yourself physically even if it’s in short intervals you’ll be getting a better workout than if you just keep turning over the pedals.

For many of us, it represents freedom: an escape from home, work, the phone and the inbox – a chance to drop out of time, regain our anonymity and disappear for a while. It is about reconnecting with feelings, physical sensations and the world around us, confronting fears and limits, overcoming challenges and becoming self-reliant and independent – all fundamental to our mental well-being. The awareness we develop on the bike can help us to detach ourselves from desire, regain perspective, escape entrenched thought patterns and view ourselves and the world more objectively.

While I was undertaking a little research for this post I came across an interesting man called Ben Irvine who has written a book called Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World (Mindfulness). I’ve bought the book and look forward to it in my future summer reading.

It’s also helpful to have a sense of curiosity about what’s going on both inside and outside your body and to be open to these experiences without judgment. Think of it as switching from multi-tasking to single-tasking. Single-tasking involves doing one thing at a time while giving it your full attention and involving all your senses.

Mindfulness can be applied to many activities including eating and exercise.  Staying focused on a singular activity, such as cycling, without other disturbances can lead to both a more productive and safer ride. If experiencing a powerful workout is your goal, being single-minded can lead to better results by limiting distractions and mind wandering.  Preventing injuries through mindfulness will also keep you on the road longer without the inconvenience of downtime from injuries.

Before getting on your bike, mentally run a scan of your body from head to toe. What sensations are present? Be aware that as you try to focus, your mind may wander and lead you down a rabbit hole. For instance, you become aware of tightness in your calves and begin to recall the killer spin class you took and wonder how you can seek revenge on that instructor. If your mind meanders, gently bring it back into focus. As you complete your body scan you can choose to take action-based on the sensations you observed. The tightness in your calves may be alleviated by some stretching before riding. A feeling of emptiness in your stomach may move you to grab a protein bar.

As you get on your bike, notice your position. Be aware of the places that your body comes in contact with the bike. Notice any sensations: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Do any adjustments need to be made?

As you prepare to ride, take a few deep breaths. Feel the way the breath fills your nostrils, expands your lungs and makes your stomach rise and fall. If you’d like, this may be a good time to recall how grateful you are for the ability to be outdoors and ride your bike.

As you ride, begin to offer your full attention to your surroundings. What do you see? What do you feel, hear and smell? Try to avoid using electronics while you are riding so that you give cycling your full attention and avoid potential conflict with motorists, pedestrians or fixed objects. If your mind wanders to past events or future concerns, gently bring it back to the present moment.

As you complete your ride, make another quick scan of your body. What do you notice?

An exercise in mindfulness is to follow your breath, meaning to focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale. You can practice this while you ride. Attempt to maintain a natural breath, not controlling the breath, but simply noticing the sensation of breath moving into the body (through the nostril, filling the lungs and stomach) and out of the body. Notice how your breath changes as you increase speed or climb a hill. Notice in your pedaling as your legs rise and fall with each movement. Is there a rhythm to your breath and regular consistent cadence as you spine the pedals?

Integrating mindfulness into your workout can improve both the quality of your exercise and the safety. As you continue to practice mindfulness in your cycling and your everyday life, you will notice an increased awareness of your body, feelings, and thoughts.

June 27, 2018 Wednesday will be Bike to Work Day in Fort Collins again this year, which can offer a great opportunity to practice mindfulness on two wheels.

Enjoy the ride!

Amy LaTendresse Glaser, DPT, OCS, CSCS, COMT, FAAOMPT is a physical therapist at Colorado In Motion

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