Here’s why riding your bike makes you feel great!

Whether you call it the zone, the high or the rush of a good ride, it’s a big part of what keeps us pedalling. But what’s the scientific explanation for this buzz - Zoe McDonald investigates

Cycling highs

When was the last time you were overcome by a sense of awe on your bike? A sudden realisation during or after a
ride that the physical effort required matched your fitness perfectly. You lost track of time, giving yourself over to the cadence of your legs and the rhythm of your breath.

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A spate of books, podcasts and thinking is reframing cycling as the ultimate mindful activity. Philosopher, cycling enthusiast and writer Ben Irvine’s book, Einstein & the Art of Mindful Cycling (Ivy Press, £8.99), explores the way that post-ride afterglow mirrors the benefits of regular meditation.

“I find the cycling high 10 times better than the runner’s high, and I run a lot. On my bike, there’s a different depth to the buzz. I regularly have times when I’m with a friend cycling through fields, and the feeling of wellbeing is almost overpowering. It’s as if I’m not sure I deserve the euphoria,” says Irvine.

He has a theory about what makes the pleasure of cycling so great. “In evolutionary terms, humans have an innate desire to explore, to boldly go. I think there’s a psychological reward that comes from sating this desire. What’s more, when you’re running, you’re far more limited for distance and speed. On a bike, you can cheat time. There’s also an affectionate bond between man and machine: a fondness akin to the feeling you might have for a much-loved dog.”

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Get connected

“At its best, cycling makes me feel at one with the world,” agrees Dublin-based coach Alan Heary (alanheary.com), who has worked with a number of Olympians and was in training for the Race Across America when we spoke to him.

“It definitely helps to reconnect me with the here and now, whether that’s the people I’m with, the landscape, or other road users,” he says.

The science backs this up. After exercise, levels of oxytocin increase, just as they do when you hug a loved one, or after sex. It’s the bonding hormone, increasing feelings of empathy and connectedness. In addition to this, cycling triggers a state of ‘flow’ – total absorption in the task at hand, so the boost you get mirrors the benefits of meditation. Alpha brainwaves increase, leaving you feeling serene.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ (Finding Flow: The study of engagement with everyday life,). He studied everyone from artists to athletes in his quest to understand and explain it. An elite cyclist quoted in the book, ‘Simon’, describes the sense of flow he experienced on his bike as feeling: ‘totally absorbed, 110 per cent… It just amazed me how I could maintain such high concentration for three hours… My body felt great. You feel like just nothing can go wrong. Afterwards, I couldn’t come down; I was on a high. I felt like I wanted to ride up that hill again.’

When you’re in a state of flow, it can feel as if time has been temporarily suspended. Your mind doesn’t wander. You’re totally focused on the ride, locked into a comfortable pace that is just challenging enough. Heary says the key is that you can’t think yourself into this state. “If you’re conscious of feeling in the zone at the time, you’re not really in it. It’s a deep, subconscious state.”

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Sustainable high

What Heary and Csikszentmihalyi are describing is a mellower, more sustainable buzz than the one you feel after you’ve given your body a beasting with a sprint or brutal hill session, or caned your energy reserves to the max in a race. Although, the high that comes after a painfully hardcore spinning or turbo session, done to a blaring soundtrack tailored to press your personal ‘override’ button, is arguably more addictive.

In the US a brand of quasi-spiritual spinning, Soul Cycle, inspires a religious devotedness in its fans (David and Victoria Beckham, Tom Cruise and Lady Gaga to name a few). Instructors gain individual followings, and have their own trademark style and musical personality that enthusiasts match to their own. The chain is planning on opening a London studio this year, but take a look at any of the profusion of new breed spinning studios in central London (Psycle, 1 Rebel and the like), and it’s clear they’re all tapping into a similar vibe. This new breed of spinning is hyper-competitive.

In classes, the atmosphere is like a sexually charged rave (no, really), people even call it a cult. Researching this piece, obsessive spinners this side of the pond sounded just as zealous as the Americans.

“It’s just like a club,” says Katherine Chamberlain from Amsterdam. “There is loud, hard music, intense clubby lighting and people are sweating buckets. Everyone is gasping together when you finally stop doing insane high altitude climbing and start going ‘down hill’. You’re pushed to your physical limits in a room with your senses overwhelmed, that’s the rush…”

Intensity certainly plays an important part in the biggest highs of road cycling too. Steven Tomlinson, 37, an urban designer from Clapton, London, says his most memorable rush came after completing a leg of the Tour de France. “It happened after I’d been cycling for about five hours at pace. The main difference from a regular mood boost after a pleasant training ride in the Surrey Hills was having pushed very hard, and finding a deeper sense of intense concentration during the ride. It was raining really hard, we were jostling for the back wheels, trying to get a good position on the road, trying not to fall off, anticipating the finish, trying to go as fast as possible to keep the pace up but not burn out ahead of the final push. It felt like I was Mark Cavendish for 20 minutes! I was so elated afterwards, and I often replay it in my head.”

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Calming influence

Most people, coaches and athletes included, refer to this sort of experience as an endorphin high, although the science shows this is a misnomer. Professor Arne Deitrich, a psychologist now at the American University of Beirut, was part of a US team that led a study back in 2004.

“I had suspected long before we did the study that endorphins couldn’t explain the sort of high cyclists and runners speak about. Endorphins are proteins and, as a result, can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Plus, endorphins are what get released when you take morphine-based drugs and they have trademark biological signals (constricted pupils being the most obvious). None of these symptoms is visible post-exercise, so it seemed extremely unlikely endorphins had anything to do with it.” 

In his research, what his team discovered instead was that, “In all likelihood, the increase of endocannabinoids (cannabis-like chemicals, which act like messengers between the cells of the body) is what triggers feelings of deep contentedness, calm and wellbeing post-exercise.” When we spoke to him, Deitrich explained feeling incredibly frustrated that the myth of the endorphin rush persists. “It’s just one of those things; it’s become common parlance, but it’s inaccurate.”

Sports psychologist Alice Pinion, who has worked with everyone from World Champions to newbies, agrees with Dietrich that the positive feeling after a challenging ride has more in common with a deep sense of calm than a hyper dose of air-punching euphoria.

“The same changes occur in the brain during exercise as during hypnosis. When you’re able to get yourself into ‘the zone’ during a ride, or a turbo session, it’s no exaggeration to call it a form of self-hypnosis,” she says. Pinion has designed a series of motivational downloads to listen to during training on a stationary bike to tap into this potential, as “during a ride at the right intensity, the brain is ideally conditioned to be open to positive suggestion”.

Pinion is also a fan of the spinning-style use of music to boost endurance. The right music can stretch your usual pain and endurance threshold, she says. “That voice that says: ‘this is too tough, I’ve got no more to give,’ is often the biggest barrier to get past when you’re trying for a personal best, or want to boost performance. Music acts on the idiomotor, the subconscious brain at a suggestive level, and as a result can help you to override your usual limits.”

So whether it’s The Prodigy or The Smiths that does it for you, it might be worth giving a playlist a go (although the use of headphones on the road is a pretty contentious issue). If you’re planning a turbo interval session, Team Sky even has a Spotify playlist, and there are plenty of spin-specific streaming suggestions out there.

Ride Your Way To Calm

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of meditation app Headspace, shares his tips to maximise cycling’s meditative benefits

1. Intention

Even before you step into the saddle, your workout has begun. Your mental intention, as well
as the awareness and focus that you bring to your ride, will dictate the effort you put in. Mentally determine to give 100 per cent.

2. Breathing

Seen those red-faced people in the gym holding their breath as they push up a hill, or suffer through a spinning class? It might look as if they’re working hard, but it’s counterproductive. Your muscles need oxygen, deprive them, and you’ll get tired more quickly and feel nauseous. Focus on breathing steadily, and breathe out with each effort.

3. Timing

Rhythm is vital. Every exercise has its own inherent tempo to recognise. Tune into the movement of your body to find the rhythm of ride that works for you.

4. Form

Good form ensures you target every part of the muscles that are working. When you’re exerting yourself, it’s tricky to remain mindful of good form, but when you focus, it’s possible. Good posture is the starting point.

5. Recovery

Whether it’s recovery between workouts or between exercises, an awareness of your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing during this ‘downtime’ is essential. Stay alert and focus on your breathing and other physical sensations. Is your breathing indicating you could work harder, or that you should ease off? Check you’re not hunching your shoulders, as this limits your capacity to take oxygen on-board.

Recovery periods are essential for a healthy, well-rested and injury-free body. Listen to it, treat it well and give it the rest it needs, so you’ll always be ready for more.

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