It’s been said a million times before: ‘happy head, fast legs’ – and we tend to nod along and agree. But why is it that a cyclist that feels settled in their mind is more likely to be on top of their game physically, too?
Feeling relaxed brings with it plenty of other rewards, which can lead to stronger pedalling and more efficient recovery. Here are some of the benefits - and a look at some of the ways you can achieve that happy head....
You'll sleep better
To become a better cyclist, you need to stress your muscles, and then recover. Recovery takes place when you’re resting – and you’ll get the optimum dosage if you’re catching enough z’s every night rather than lying awake counting sheep.
Insomnia – not being able to get to sleep, even when tired – is closely related to stress. Even in cases of depression, where people often don’t feel like being active at all, they might struggle to sleep. So harboring stress or sadness will not lead to positive recovery.
The exact amount of sleep we need varies between individuals – but whilst most people get their optimum shut-eye at 7 to 9 hours, athletes training hard can need more. So if worries are keeping you awake, it’s best to address them wherever possible.
You'll eat better
Cycling fitness isn’t all about ‘power to weight’ – which put simply means that the more power you can produce at the lowest weight, the faster you’ll go. Losing too much weight will reduce the power you can produce. This said – most amateurs live busy lives, and few of us are at our ‘optimum weight’.
Feelings of stress or anxiety are closely related to emotional eating, or comfort eating. In most cases, food consumed as an emotional response is not the kind of fuel that will power up our best rides, or provide the best recovery.
When we’re happy and relaxed, we’re more likely to untie our eating from an emotional response, and instead use food for its intended purpose: to fuel or bodies and to help them recover.
You're less likely to get ill
Folklore has long connected mental grievance with physical poor health – but research has shown that the link is medically sound. The immune system is made up of billions of cells in the blood – the main type being white blood cells. The stress hormone corticosteroid has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of one type of white blood cells: lymphocytes.
As well as the natural hormone response, mental unease can of course lead to a string of responses such as poor sleep, unhealthy eating or alcohol abuse – all of which of course lower the immune system.
Being in good form on the bike generally comes following a solid base of training, unhampered by colds and infections. Being happy in your head can certainly pay dividends in avoiding winter bugs.
You'll be more motivated to train
Poor mood is closely linked to lethargy – which is the absolute opposite to what people who want to jump out of bed to ride every morning experience.
Research shows that exercise can be effective in revitalising energy levels, even in patients with chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease.
Following his research, Patrick O'Connor, co-director of the University of Georgia exercise psychology laboratory, in Athens said: "A lot of times when people are fatigued, the last thing they want to do is exercise. But if you're physically inactive and fatigued, being just a bit more active will help."
Effectively – it’s a self perpetuating cycle. Exercising will boost your energy levels and motivation, which will make you feel happy – so even if you’re in state of stress now, just get on the bike for ten minutes and see how you feel.
You'll feel more confident in your abilities
As a rule, we feel more confident when we're viewing ourselves, and the world, with a positive lens. Which is helpful, because confidence plays a huge role in how we actually perform.
As sports psychology consultant Josie Perry told us: “Sports psychology research that looks across the board finds that confidence is by far the biggest predictor of success. They do massively feed into each other. So the more confident you are, the better you perform."
So - what next?
Knowing that having a happy head will improve your overall well-being, and therefore your cycling prowess is one thing. But realising this is never going to be a quick-fix to perpetual joy.
If feeling low is making you avoid getting on the bike, then the best cure is to do it anyway. The simple act of cycling, or taking any exercise, can provide rejuvenation as endorphins and adrenaline pump around the body.
Even if the going has got really tough and you're battling depression, then cycling itself can play a part in breaking the cycle. So if you're currently not living life with a smile on your face, cycling more could be your route to improvement.
Here are a few simple ways prevent the day-to-day stresses of 'life' getting in the way of you and your bike:
- Ride Early Deadlines always getting in the way of what you want to do? Boss peering over your shoulder? Then set your alarm early and pedal it out before anything can get between you and your bike.
- Always have your bike and kit ready to go A simple bike ride can take twice as long if you've got to hunt out your lights, shoes, and find a tube and pump before you can get out the door. Find a special place in your home to store your kit, and keep your bike well maintained to make the miles easy to squeeze in
- Take it indoors Training indoors doesn't provide you with the healthy dose of Vitamin D that a spin outdoors does. However, you'll still get the endorphins, and a feeling of happy, tired, sweaty satisfaction. And a good high intensity interval session indoors is much easier to fit in.
- Write a plan If you have a training plan that you intend to stick to, you'll be much more motivated to find time in your day to squeeze that training in. Having a set session to do will help make your intended ride a priority - especially if you keep a diary and record each planned and completed ride.
- Find a cycling buddy If you plan to ride with a friend, then you're much less likely to skip it - and the social element of the ride will help to lift any lowered spirits
- Stop comparing your efforts with everyone else In our modern social-media-ready world, it's easy to get the feeling that everyone is doing more than you. And if they are? So what. Concentrate on the moment, and live your own ride.
- Watch the sugar We're not going to tell you all sugar is the root cause of all evil. Far from it - when you're riding hard, it's sometimes exactly what you need as fuel. However, when in a sedentary state, then quick dumps of sugar can spike your insulin levels, resulting in a slump. Stick to lower GI foods at regular intervals for steady energy levels.
Mood and exercise are so closely linked, sometimes it can seem almost impossible to separate the two. For best results, pay attention to your head and your body - and love them both equally!
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