Cycling and depression: can riding help beat the ‘black dog’?

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For those who have never experienced depression, it is nearly impossible to understand. The mentally healthy among us try to help those with depression with well-meaning advice (or hurtful barbs) dispensed in a manly manner: “Harden up mate. Drink some concrete.” Or “he just needs to get over it.”

For those with depression, it is best described as being in a deep, dark hole with no way out. It feels as though you are letting everyone down and there is nothing that can be done. You want to climb the walls, but a search for the motivation to start climbing leaves you feeling empty. The gradual greying out of all that matters leaves the depressed person feeling nothing. Just despair.

According to the World Health Organisation, depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030. And Beyond Blue confirms that men are experiencing it at unprecedented rates.

Could exercise, and cycling in particular, be a silver-bullet to the mental-illness scourge?

It’s true that study after study shows strong associations between wellbeing and exercise (including cycling), but the evidence does not show exercise as what causes wellbeing. In other words, you can exercise and not feel better. These relationships appear correlational, not causal. It even appears the relationship may actually be the reverse of what many think — that wellbeing causes exercise rather than exercise causing wellbeing.

But wellbeing is defined differently from study to study, measures vary, and experimental design is not always rigourous. Instead, let’s look specifically at depression.

Research indicates that once depression has struck, exercise may be an effective treatment. Moderate exercise (usually aerobic) has led to alleviation of the symptoms of depression in a similar way to cognitive-behavioural therapy.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. Exercise seems to be best used as a management strategy for people with mild or moderate depression rather than a certain way to wellbeing.

Many of us have friends whose battle with the ‘black-dog‘ has been won, with cycling and being on the bike oft-credited as ‘the reason’. One of my mates lost his wife to cancer. Cycling, he says, kept him sane and stopped him living in his bedroom for the rest of his life. Another two got through messy, painful, depressive episodes brought on by divorce by getting on the bike and riding.

But as the evidence shows, being on the bike (or exercise in general) may not always be the answer. cyclist, Tim Guy, has documented how depression and anxiety affected him, with time on the bike (and the corresponding performance expectations) making things worse. In his words:

“After I made it to junior worlds and had been racing overseas it all got too much. I struggled with riding and feeling endlessly anxious… and then everything fell apart. It wasn’t just the performance anxiety. I thought I was alright and then this weight would sink over me.

“I couldn’t even get on my bike. I really wanted to want to race. But I just couldn’t. It was so confusing. I mean, if you want to walk away, that makes sense. But I didn’t want to walk away. I wanted to race but something was stopping me.”

Tim described how he hated the thought of getting up the next morning. He could feel the weight of tomorrow’s burdens today. He felt tomorrow’s pain now, and then tomorrow hit and he felt it all over again. He had to will himself to get up, to put on kit. He had to force himself to put his leg over his bike, clip into his pedals, and ride.

Tim stopped racing and went to university. He still felt depressed. Not the “I feel sad” kind of depression. The “I’m in a black hole and I can’t move” depression. He broke up with his girlfriend. He still felt the same depression. He took time off the bike completely. Even with medication, things deteriorated.

“In order to get through it, hiding it wasn’t an option. I had to learn to talk to people.”

After Tim’s extended break, he decided (with some coaxing from a new team and his coach, Mark Windsor) to return to racing.

“I didn’t leave cycling because I didn’t want to race. I really wanted to race. I just couldn’t. I had to come back and finish the business. It’s taken four years to come back.

“At the start I couldn’t ride for more than 5 minutes without the weight holding heavy over me. I’d just get off the bike and go back inside. I hated the sport. But I knew it wasn’t cycling that was doing it to me.

“I came back and barely raced in my first year back with My team were so supportive. It’s taken time – a long time. But now, I can actually think about a future of riding that has enjoyment.

“I saw no hope before. Now, I see a future in cycling and I am starting to find it enjoyable again.”

Hope is a key factor in overcoming depression. It’s powerfully linked to wellbeing. So is a sense of making a meaningful contribution in life – or living a life with purpose. Tim adds that he feels better about life because he’s sharing his story with others and it’s making a difference in the lives of others who suffer depression.

“I love being able to give back a bit. There’s a benefit in having the platform I have and being able to talk about cycling and share my story with depression and anxiety. People are affected by stuff I’m saying and that makes me feel good that I can make a difference.”

And he acknowledges that being performance-oriented had some impact on his anxiety and depression, and thinks a change in orientation has helped.

“I’ve lost the feeling of the stress about how I could ever race at a high level again. It’s a massive adjustment in performance expectations. But now I know I don’t have to win the race this weekend. I just have to go and participate in the process. Learn. Do what I can.”

If exercise really did prevent depression, cyclists should be among the happiest people there are. And the professionals would be top of the heap. But it’s not that simple. High-profile cyclists have faced significant depression battles. Tyler HamiltonMarco Pantani, perhaps Sir Bradley Wiggins, are each on record as having significant mental illness issues. Retired, controversial riders like Bjarne Riis have also struggled.

In several cases, performance goals, drug use, and other factors likely contributed. But not for all (such as Wiggins). There are likely many others who simply choose not to speak about it and battle their demons alone (or at least out of the public eye).

Of course female professionals aren’t immune. When German powerhouse Ina-Yoko Teutenberg retired from professional cycling in 2014, she left the sport as one of the most respected riders in the women’s peloton, with more than 200 victories on her palmares. Her retirement, however, was far from planned.

A hard crash the year prior to her retirement led to a severe concussion. At the same time, she struggled with depression. Teutenberg left the sport on terms other than her own. Her concussion would take the remainder of the 2013 season to heal. Her road to mental recovery is still in progress.

Clara Hughes is a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating; the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both Summer and Winter Games. She has been outspoken about her issues with depression.  By sharing past struggles with depression, Hughes hopes to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness. She recently published a book about her career and mental health struggles.

Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that depression and other mental health issues are not caused or eliminated by any obvious, simple solutions like ‘ride your bike more’. Pressure, alcohol and other drugs, anxiety, relationships, loneliness, status, and biology all contribute to and predict mental health issues in one way or another.

But what about the rest of us – the punters? Getting on the bike might fix some people. But in Tim Guy’s case, the past three years have felt like he’s going backwards. It’s only in the past six months that the grey, heavy fog has been lifting.

“These days I’m enjoying riding. But it has taken me three and a half years of my comeback to feel this way.”

The bike offers an escape for many of us, whether we experience depression or not. But the black dog shadows the bike no matter how fast the paceline or how steep the descent. As Tim Guy suggested, “recovery doesn’t mean getting rid of the problem, but it might mean being able to function again while managing the depression.”

While cycling can improve our outlook, provide a new focus, foster goal attainment, offer something to savour and a host of other protective benefits I’ve written about previously on Cycling Tips, we still need to deal with our stuff. For some of us, the bike might take that away. For others, starting a conversation with someone might be all we need to get help.

If you’re struggling with depression, get help. Talk about it. Reach out to Beyond Blue here, or Lifeline here.

About the author

Dr Justin Coulson speaks to professionals and parents about positivity – at work, at home, in life. He and his wife are the parents of six children. He rides less than he used to – and he’s finally ok with that. You can read more of his work at his website and you can connect with him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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