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  • MattF

    Great article on a topic that would have been strictly taboo not so long ago. For what it’s worth, I have found exercise in general and cycling in particular to be a great salve for depression.

    • Matt, your experience resonates with that of several people I spoke to for this article. The evidence suggests it can help alleviate that depressive symptomatology.

    • To Be

      Thank you for sharing. To me, it’s often very hard to get on the bike in a hard phase: It actually takes me hours to manage to get ready for a ride: I get up earlier, but that burden slows me down in everything I do. I have to force myself not to think but to do one step after the other until I truly and really sit on my bicycle. Sometimes, it’s late afternoon by then. – Once I’m pedaling, it’s often much easier even though at times, I have to struggle through a training or two until I can find kind of a rhythm. Then, I still feel bad after training. Nevertheless, I know it’s part of the way I have to follow to keep sane and healthy and not give in to the dark hole trying to suck everything in.

      It’s not just destraction (as mentioned in comments below), but rather a way of shovelling time free for my head to breathe, also of getting myself back into moving mode in general, and finding new trust in basic abilities such as physical power and endurance that help me get on in general. Also, it’s a good means to get rid of surplus energy and restlessness.

  • Blair C.

    In an article like this it would be worth mentioning Jessica Douglas, both as a person who openly deals with depression and the great work she and her husband Norm do to raise awareness with events like ‘Chase The Dog’

    • Great point Blair. I wish there was room to mention everyone who does great work in this area. There were far too many examples to squeeze into an already expanded word-limit. Thanks for mentioning it.

      • Gaffer

        Good article Justin however, there is plenty of room to mention blackdoginstitute.org

  • takethattakethat

    I think cycling can be an escape more than anything. But that is not to say whatever issues one has are not present once they got off the saddle.

    • It’s a great way to create some distance from problems for many people. But genuine psychological distress (such as that found in depression or anxiety) will typically – though not always – require additional coping mechanisms and strategies. Avoidance and distraction alone are not enough. Combining avoidance and distraction with other thing cycling can provide, such as a strong sense of cultural identity, great relationships, goals and something to work towards, a chance to talk, something to savour, and so on can all aid in recovery.

  • jules

    there’s a theory that the flood of information present in today’s world is overloading human minds and contributing to depression/anxiety. cycling is a practical means of simplifying things, getting away from the clutter and focusing on just riding.

    • Superpilot

      Indeed, the need for more stuff, improved stuff, the frantic pace of life, keeping up with the joneses. These are all social constructs. Even the culture around cycling, self-deprecating, someone always faster, all the new stuff coming out all the time, consume consume consume. BUT, when you throw your leg over and start to pedal, you could be riding in any gear on any bike, and still be able to enjoy yourself. For me, it’s the act of cycling, and as someone highlighted, the socialising with new groups of people, that brings the benefits for me.

  • Sean parker

    Well done for bringing out this serious topic into a space that occasionally celebrates the superficial (I’m looking at you: bikes from the bunch).

    I’d just like to point out, even though it is tangential to depression per se, the mental health benefits of exercise plus the benefits of social connectivity that cycling provides many people.

    This is especially important, it seems, in men as they age and reduce social connectiveness.

    So next time you see a bunch of fat mamils celebrate the cardiovascular and mental health benefits they are enjoying…

    • Dale Smith

      Deep down we’re all superficial. ;0)

  • Dale Smith

    I have a close friend who suffers depression and cycling has helped him go from a dose of 300 thingamijigs 2 years ago down to 37.5 now. Lower drug intake means less side effects such as putting on weight (which can add to the depression and reduce the capacity and desire to exercise. Kind of a catch22).
    I’ve found it incredibly painful to watch my mate suffer – I’ve felt helpless to do anything! But we’ve done this riding thing together and it’s inspiring to see him now having more victories than defeats.
    The black dog is always in the background but exercise seems to be at least one tool in the arsenal to keep it at bay.
    The magic bullet? No. But a bullet none the less.

  • Scott

    Having faced this problem myself i know it all to clearly. Do i want to ride today? The hardest part is getting out the front door then it usually all falls into place but pair it with racing and alot more things happen. Am i good enough, will i get dropped, is it worth it, will i even be there at the finish ect ect. Depression is a real killer and id hazard a guess that atleast 10% of people you ride/race against are battling it so for them to even show up is a big effort for them. God only knows its stopped me from racing on many occasions.

    • Scott the issues around performance are one of the critical challenges in this space. Looking at the lives of the pros and even Tim Guy who I spoke with for this article we see more and more anecdotal evidence that a heavy performance orientation only create more anxiety and depression. That is consistent with what I wrote in a previous article about performance orientation compare to a mastery orientation. While we enjoy competition under normal circumstances, if we are dealing with some form of clinical psycho pathology like depression, competition can be the worst thing and drive us away from things that elevate well-being and reduce depression

      • Annie.

        So very true!

  • Ralph

    I sense cycling is probably also an escape from depression as much as an aid in defeating it, also an escape from reality in a sense, similar to travelling

  • MarkL

    Not sure that I’ve ever had true depression, but cycling certainly killed off anxiety/panic attack issues I was having several years ago.

  • CC

    Hey Justin, pro cyclists are most likely extremists, not sure they are good examples. Strava could also be a sleeper, igniting cycling related depression.

    • Yes. Bringing it back to the punters – ordinary men and women who like to ride – should mean reduced performance orientation and greater reductions in mental illness, ideally with a corresponding increase in wellbeing.

    • jules

      I use Strava, but I just don’t get how people can take it that seriously. I’ve never known anyone to admit that.

      • Tawny Frogmouth

        How about forum obsession?

        • quark

          That’s a potential sign of depression –

  • An excellent article and this is probably the best way of explaining depression I’ve seen – “Not the “I feel sad” kind of depression. The “I’m in a black hole and I can’t move” depression.”

  • Tim Cheshire

    Keith McRae @GKam84 has just been declined for a non-paying job mechanic role at a Women’s cycling team due to a rider objecting to his admission of depression. Have a look at his Twitter account for a copy of the email.

    • Wow. Staggering. We had a team member mention you have depression so we won’t hire you. Good luck with your illness.

      Who writes that?

      I’m sure that being told you’re not good enough is going to do wonders with the illness. Give someone a sense of purpose and they may be more successful in that fight. That email shows there is still a long way to go

      • To Be

        …. and how ignorant people can be. :(

      • not good

        Grounds for discrimination against someone with an illness?
        Poor form either way. The least you could do is give a performance based reason for not landing the job.

    • jules

      wow, ignorance and stupidity on a grand scale. we probably haven’t learned anything new here.

  • Bex

    Great article Justin and CT. i’m pleased that you look at times when cycling hasn’t been helpful to some of the subjects. People often hear about how good exercise is (and it is good) and try and pass that on to people who are depressed. The trouble being when some of those who are depressed try to exercise and don’t feel the benefits everyone’s talking about, they can feel worse like there’s something extra wrong with them, and can be put off all together. It’s really nice to see such a well put together article on this.

  • Damien Cook

    Great story and hopefully it will help some one out there who is not quiet right. Panic/Anxiety and Depression (not always together in a package) is a shocker if you get it. I know. Takes help and a lot of work to get on top of it. It is not easy. Please if you have doubts go to your GP as a start and if needed they will refer you on to more help. Take it seriously and life can return. Riding is a good base to get a feeling of the immediate and ground in the present. It can just come out of the blue for no real reason. If this you good luck with it. Ride Safe.

  • Wazza

    Just completed the Peaks Challenge Cradle Mountain as a goal to move from an incredibly dark place, it’s took a monumental effort to get there but I achieved the goal and have had some improvement in my general wellbeing. One of the biggest issues I faced was that the fatigue associated with the training load for an event like PCCM exacerbated my depression and anxiety and at times the very goal that I was trying to achieve took me further away from being mentally healthy. although immensely proud of my achievement I need to reassess where my limits are before cycling negatively impacts on my health. As a lifetime athlete it’s difficult to set limitations like this. Great article, great discussion

  • Matt Ellis

    Excellent, well-balanced article that speaks to both sides of the illness and how cycling can help or further exacerbate the problem- it’s just all about balance and perspective. Cycling can be the most up-lifting and empowering activating that can bring someone out a deep, dark hole. But, at the same time at a certain level and that level fluctuates, the sport can leave us more isolated and push one further into the hole. For me, the trick is to find that right balance with the right perspective. The sport of cycling at all levels from recreational rider to the highest levels of competition, is a means to an end; not an end in itself. Thank you for writing this article about an issue that still isn’t discussed enough in our global society in general and more specifically in the society of our sport. :)

  • Good, thoughtful read, I appreciate it. Working at getting back on the bike lately, I find it extremely hard to face riding when in a depressive slump (they come and go). When things are good, riding is easy and motivating; when things are grim, it’s almost stomach-churningly unpalatable.

  • Spellman.

    Does anybody else experience state-dependent memory/anxiety?

    I’ve used cycling as a treatment for mental illness for so long now that now certain routes and trails sometimes trigger highly specific memories and emotions so strongly that I succumb to the same depressive feelings I was trying to extinguish in the first place. Whilst this is sometimes frustrating, on the whole, turning the pedals usually helps more than it hinders. Good luck out there.

    • Simon Ashfield-Smith

      Spellman, it is common for emotions, memories and images to be triggered by places. The ‘place’ can become a trigger whether the event initially occurred there, or whether one has remember a historical (and emotionally salient) event there. The place becomes a ‘conditioned stimulus’. If theses memories continue to bother you may wish to chat to Clinical Psychologist. Good luck.

  • Andrew

    Exercise certainly helps me deal with depression, but depression often conspires to prevent me from exercising. Lack of sleep will cause me to prioritise getting to and through work over an early morning ride. Mental exhaustion from getting through a day will prevent me from running when I get home from work. The lack of exercise then causes further depression. Its a vicious cycle. Then the one big effort to get out and exercise staves off depression for a day, energy returns, I don’t want to hide and that day extends to a week. Then another event happens, depression kicks in, exercise stops, depression gets worse.

    Like the example given, I want to compete but that put extra pressures on me. I miss a session, get stressed and that adds to the vicious cycle. I compete unprepared, perform below my expectations, feel a failure…

  • jim

    From my own experience, exercise is only a small part of dealing for depression and anxiety. Medication, meditation, diet, regular sleep, cognitive behavioral therapy also play there part.

  • chiwode

    I struggled for decades with depression. Then on a cycling trip across France for a month, where we were averaging upwards of 85 miles a day, it just lifted. I kept up the mileage when I got home and it’s never come back. I’m injured now and can’t ride at all, and may not again, so I’m really worried the depression will return.

  • velocite

    What make it so unbearable is our expectation that it can be fixed. And if depression is a feeling it seems too hard to describe directly, so we resort to terribly concrete metaphors like the “I’m in a black hole and can’t see a way out”. My own experience is that the feeling comes and goes, and when it comes I know it’s come and I know what to do: all sorts of things, but nothing that requires creative thought or expression. Any busy work: do your BAS, do routine shopping, cut the grass or go cycling. When I was a software developer it was housekeeping time. Do not just wait for it to pass: it will pass, but so will your life. I do see that if you’re a professional athlete or any kind of performance artist this will have a significant impact, but c’est la vie.

    When relating to other people, don’t put on a facade but don’t lay it on them either, sympathy is inappropriate and unhelpful – it’s not cancer.

    And finally: there are a lot of happy people in the world. I’m just not one of them!

  • Graybeard43

    Great article indeed. I’m a 72yo retired RAAF, Airports Fire officer and Mines Rescue office who had a career of 38years in Emergency services. Forceably retired in 1990 with Post traumatic stress Disorder and associated depression.The visible me on the outside looked ok but I was in a deep hole on the inside for over four years. Besides great counseling I rediscovered bike riding after i found i couldn’t run much anymore. Slowly but surely I found that i wanted to be on the bike more and more. My family were the first to notice the difference in the way I was handling day to day living. The thing, beside getting really cardio fit, is that when on the bike I MUST be situational aware. I cannot be wandering mentally because I must be focused on what is happening all around me.
    The cycling has and is assisting me greatly to manage the symptoms of the depression and PTSD very well. So which came first for me, I put it down to the bike riding.

  • keir

    Great article, very balanced and considered. I wrote about my own experiences of depression and anxiety and how exercise helps here: https://keirpaterson.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/tony-r-u-ok/

  • rich

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up feeling terrible but I know that when I do get out on the bike I’ll get home with a smile on my face and a different mindset wondering “what was I letting myself getting so worked up about”. Long live cycling!

  • Simon Ashfield-Smith

    Good article Justin. Thank you for helping normalise a very common illness. Its important to remember this illness can be deathly – suicide is all too common.

    I am a Clinical Psychologist, have helped many people tame the ‘Black dog’ – and I have suffered a depressive episode myself. I found cycling very helpful for my recovery. IMO it wasn’t just the exercise that helped but the whole cycling lifestyle: the routine of training, talking shite with the mates, stopping for coffee, building up a beautiful bike, visiting the bike shops, researching the latest gear, watching pro cycling on TV, and lord forbid, shaving the legs. In other words, cycling offers exercise, regular activity outdoors, friendship, achievement and maybe even some laughter.

    If anyone is suffering depression, jump onto the Blackdog Institute website for a read and then have a chat with an experienced Psychologist; Understanding the nature/cause of the depression will then help shape the type of treatment required for a good outcome.

    • Aaron Christiansen

      Vitamin D boost would be a big part of it, too yeah?

  • Alan Doughty

    There are plenty of things which go with cycling that could contribute at least as much as the aerobic excercise. Discussions can ramble on a 2-3 hour ride and go places we may not in our day to day lives. The early start can reset the body clock and improve sleep, and there is less inclination to consume alcohol, especially since it seems to be the only sport where alcohol and sport are separated. So maybe cycling does help depression, at least some part of cycling does so.

  • GG

    I think cycling-or exercise generally can help but it can also hinder. Depression can be linked to unrealistic expectation and huge amounts of pressure. Confronting the fact you’re not climbing like Coppi is one thing, but forcing yourself to go out and flogging yourself relentlessly isn’t conducive to enjoyment or relaxation either.

    Personally, it’s helped me enormously at times-although also led to being wiped out by a speeding driver, massively concussed and with broken pelvis which set off a really damaging chain of events in itself with regards both mental health and finances… Que sera.

    Recently, I’ve enjoyed the social aspect more but also found the day after a really hard ride I have a huge downer-really quite terrible-and anecdotal evidence suggests this is related to exercise-induced cortisol levels combining with my unnaturally high stress cortisol levels. The combination is really quite debilitating for a day or two then I’m ‘fine’ again… Turns out chronic stress is generally a huge cause of both physical and mental health issues so it’s something I’ve taken to heart.

    I also get periods where I’m quite anxious about being taken out by another driver, but I guess that’s pretty natural after what happened.

  • Aaron Christiansen

    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

    I have never heard anyone tell someone admitting to depression to “harden up”.

    That does not sound mentally healthy, it sounds sociopathic or lacking in empathy.

    Do you have any citations?

    Has anyone else reading this article ever admitted depression to a friend or family member and been told to harden up / get over it? I’d be very curious to learn of such cases. And offer my condolences.


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