Cycling and the Psychology of Fear
You’re riding along, but you know that not far ahead of you is something you fear. Your muscles tense, your heart starts beating harder, you find it hard to focus on anything other than the upcoming obstacle. You might detour to avoid it, freeze in your tracks, or go through it with your heart in your mouth.
Whether you’re a road rider, mountain biker or commuter, the scenario above will be familiar to a lot of you. Fear, and overcoming it, is to a greater or lesser extent part of cycling.
What can further complicate things is that people are fearful for different reasons; it might be a fear of injury, or a fear of failure.
The thing is, sometimes your perception of the danger is much greater than it actually is. Add to this the complication that the type of fear people experience can be different for each person, or a combination of types. Identifying which type or types of fear you are experiencing can help you overcome the feeling more effectively.
Danger Response and Fear of Injury or Death
When people get anxious about obstacles when cycling, it’s often the completely normal and natural worry that they might get injured. This is often a strong response for people if they have recently had a crash and are returning to cycling.
Advice: Keeping calm is key here, as it will allow you to calmly analyse the obstacle to determine whether you think you can navigate it safely. If you feel yourself becoming panicky, take a moment to stop, breathe slowly, and reset yourself mentally. You may also find it useful to walk the obstacle first to see what it looks like from all angles, or roll up to a few times so you can see what it looks like from the bike without the pressure of rolling into it.
No giggling at the back there. This is a recognised phenomena where having to do a complex task with people watching makes you anxious, and can affect their ability to do the task to the best of their ability.
Advice: Experience and keeping calm come into play here again. The more you’ve practiced something, the more you can trust in your ability to successfully navigate the obstacle. If you don’t like riding in front of people, try to practice it away from
Fear of the Unknown
This one usually goes hand in hand with fear of injury, logically enough, as you’ll be concerned you might injure yourself.
Advice: Build up to it. Find a similar obstacle on a smaller scale, and practice it until you are comfortable. Then size up, and repeat the process. When it comes to trying the obstacle you are fearful of, keep calm, and focus on remembering what it felt like to ride through the smaller obstacles. Stay relaxed on the bike, look ahead to the end point if you can, and before you know it you’ll be through. Some people also find that having done it once, it can be helpful to do it a few more times in quick succession to cement the experience firmly in your head.
Quick ways to overcome fear
Breathe and relax – your body will respond to fear by increasing your heart rate, tensing your muscles
Experience – the more you’ve practiced something, the more confidence you’ll have in your ability to navigate the obstacle successfully. You’ll also be able to scale this up to larger obstacles.
Practice mindfulness – This is a technique that encourages you to focus on the here and now, rather than imagined future scenarios. It can help you process what’s going on around you and tune out distractions, which in turn will help you when you’re in a situation that makes you anxious.
Visualisation – In your head, imagine riding through the obstacle. Think about how to position your body leading up to and going through the obstacle. Think ahead to the end point of the obstacle and riding out the other side.
Identify the fear – Which type of fear comes into play for you most often? If you find that you suffer from one type in particular, it may be worth taking some time to work on the root causes.
Change your internal monologue – This can take some work and a lot of practice, but try and change what you say to yourself. Transforming comments like ‘I can’t do this, I shouldn’t do this, I’m going to hurt myself’ to ‘I’ve done something like this before’, ‘I’m just going to give it a go’ and ‘I can do this’ can actually make a big difference.
Give yourself a break – By this we mean don’t beat yourself up about the fact you feel anxious or fearful. It’s completely natural and many people fee the same way. Get to know how you respond to different obstacles, and work out your own strategies for overcoming them; it’s time well spent.