Sport… in fact, not even sport – just getting out and getting active – can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to taking care of your mental wellbeing. Whether it’s the sense of belonging that comes with joining your Sunday morning group ride. The fresh, mind-clearing perspective that comes with getting out for an early morning run. Or the life-affirming buzz that comes with finally getting to the finish line of a Zwift race. Sport is a uniter, a leveller. It gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. But when you’re struggling with your headspace, actually getting out there and continuing to do the things you love can become difficult. Even when you know it’ll do you the world of good – when you’re overwhelmed and overstressed, just getting through the front door can feel completely out of reach.
I’ve experienced it for myself. I live and breathe triathlon. Training hard for races and challenging myself is what gets me up in the morning – literally. Well that, and the promise of coffee. But every now and then my brain and I will have a falling out and suddenly the sessions that I wouldn’t think twice about, the big rides I’d be excited to tackle feel… impossible. And soon I’m in a trap. I’ll start getting anxious about training. I’ll desperately want to want to do it, and I’ll tell myself I’m useless and lazy because I’m not ready and raring to go. Which of course doesn’t help, because when you’re feeling bad and then you make yourself feel bad about feeling bad… it’s just going to make you feel 10 times worse. Out of nowhere, this sport that I love – that has such a positive, transformative impact in terms of helping me to find my “yes I can” energy and escape the anxiety and self-doubt that can get its claws into me day to day – becomes another drain. It’s scary and frustrating. You feel out of control. You feel like you’re losing a part of yourself. You start to believe that the feeling might never pass, and you’ll be stuck in this dark place forever.
More than ever, as a society we’re having conversations about mental health and wellbeing. Which is great. Talking about it is so important. But often, these conversations will turn to ‘getting out and getting active’ as a silver bullet for improving your mindset. It’s true, it really can help: but it’s also not that simple. When just going through the motions of getting up in the morning feels like an enormous task, getting out on your bike or going for a run can feel impossible.
When you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s easy for people to say: “just go for a walk” or “get out on your bike, it’ll be fun – you’ll enjoy it.” They genuinely mean well. But they also perhaps don’t understand that it’s not quite as simple as just getting up and getting out. And actually, that helpless feeling of not being able to just go and do the things you usually wouldn’t think twice about compounds the negative headspace, and the riptide of the vicious cycle grows stronger.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you or someone you know is currently struggling a little bit. Sitting there, knowing all too well that if you can just get yourself in the saddle or lace up those running shoes, you’ll probably feel better for it. But also not being able to see a way to make that happen. I wanted to start this article by sharing my own experience a little bit, because I wanted you to know that I’ve been right where you are. I’ve sat on the bottom step in my hallway, all dressed up in my sports kit, frozen to the spot because I can’t quite get myself through the front door. I’ve felt like a total imposter because the sport I’m supposed to love is making me anxious, instead of joyful. The tips I’m about to share are things I’ve found helpful to break the cycle, to get the joy back and to bring me back to myself. I hope they might help you too.
Don’t be afraid to ask for support
Needless to say: this goes beyond sport and exercise. If you’re struggling, you don’t need to struggle on your own. Asking for help can feel scary, but it’s amazing how much support is there for you if you can just find the courage to ask.
Now, in the context of sport, this doesn’t mean you have to tell your friends or your cycling club mates everything if you don’t want to. It can be as simple as just letting them know that you’re struggling with getting out on your bike and asking if they’ll stick with you for a bit on a ride for some support and encouragement. It can be asking your partner to hop on their bike and ride next to you on your Sunday morning long run. Even if you don’t want them to talk to you or do anything in particular, knowing that they’re right there with you can make those first few steps feel a bit less scary. Don’t be afraid to communicate what you need to those around you. The people you surround yourself with are your Herd for a reason – and I’ll bet they’ll be willing to help you.
Give yourself the Freedom to let go of what you should be doing or what you’d usually do. When you’re feeling low and overwhelmed, the prospect of a really long ride or a super tough interval session can be enough to stop you from even trying. I talked about the importance of keeping things small and manageable in detail in this recent post about getting your cycling ‘mojo’ back. But when you’re struggling with your mind, it’s even more important to be kind and gentle with yourself.
Remove all pressure and expectation. If you ride your bike for 2 minutes and decide to come home, that’s fine. You still did it. If you get out there and suddenly 2 hours have gone by – great. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Give yourself permission to simply take the first step and see how you feel. It’ll make getting started feel so much easier.
Accept and acknowledge your feelings: then sift through them to identify any practical steps you can take
Stop beating yourself up for how you’re feeling. Stop trying to ignore your feelings or squash them down. You’re just making them more powerful. Instead: get curious. Instead of telling yourself “ugh I feel so anxious and miserable about going on this ride, I must be completely useless and I have no right to even call myself a cyclist” (yep, real life behind the scenes footage of a conversation between me and my brain right there!) – try giving yourself a moment to say: “Huh. Interesting. I’m feeling really anxious about this ride. I wonder why?” It’s something we don’t do often enough, asking ourselves why we are experiencing an emotion, rather than just trying to snap ourselves out of it. Doing so might help you to identify some practical things you can do to help ease some of the worry.
For example, in my case if I’m struggling to get out for a ride it’s usually because I’m subconsciously piling a load of pressure on myself to hit a certain pace or power, so I know I’ll be upset if I can’t achieve it. If that’s the case, then I’ll go back to the ‘bite-sized adventures’ point above. Riding for a couple of hours at whatever pace or power my legs want to give me, is going to be better than staying in and being horrible to myself. So let’s take the pressure off! Suddenly it feels that much easier to get out there.
Everyone’s different. And it might be that you still can’t quite put your finger on what’s making it feel hard to get out there. But just going through this process of acknowledging how you feel, and reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel that way can help to ease the building sense of overwhelm and put a stop to the cycle of making yourself feel bad for feeling bad.
Find a way to make it fun
Just because you’d usually find a really challenging interval set or a fast-paced group ride fun doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to go and do that if you’re really not feeling it. This is where an element of allowing yourself to be in the moment comes into play. Never mind what you’d usually do, never mind what your training plan says or what that person you follow on Strava is doing. Ask yourself: “what am I going to enjoy today?” If that means swapping your structured workout ride for an easy café ride, so be it. If that means ditching your usual group ride to go and get some solo headspace, go for it. If it means abandoning the run you had planned and doing some yoga in front of the TV with a cup of coffee to hand instead… so what!
When we talk about getting active to boost our mental wellbeing, we’re talking about moving our bodies in a way that helps us to feel calmer and happier. So ditch the pressure, tear up the rule book and do what’s going to make you happy today. The simple fact that you’ve done something will make you feel awesome. And tomorrow? Well maybe because you’ve been kind to yourself today, you’ll wake up feeling that much better and that much more ready to get back to what you’d usually do.
Talk about it
Sport is powerful, and so is honest communication. Our minds like to play tricks on us from time to time. They like to tell us that we’re all alone, that no one else feels like this and that we must be a failure because we’re struggling. That’s absolutely not true. Being honest and allowing yourself to feel vulnerable in the process is hard. But you my friend, are brave. And you can do it. And when you do? You’ll be amazed at how many people will understand exactly how you feel.
Sport is a great way to make having that scary conversation a little bit easier. I’m a firm believer that riding side by side with a trusted friend, putting the world to rights or just talking through whatever you’ve got going on has a therapeutic effect. Being on the bike, or out for a jog, takes away that awkwardness of having to sit and look someone in the eye while you open up about something difficult. It gives you both the freedom to be that bit more honest and to take the time to process what the other person is saying while you navigate the route ahead.
But if that doesn’t sound right for you, there are also other options out there. I’ll pop some links below to some resources that can guide you to the support you need. And, if it’s a bit of inspiration, motivation and a reminder of the joy of adventuring you’re after – I’d highly recommend checking out the Stolen Goat Herd Facebook group. There are plenty of genuinely lovely fellow Goats in that group, who we at SG HQ consider to be our friends as well as customers. Sometimes it’s those little moments of connection with likeminded people (even if it’s just a comment on a social media post) that can make a world of difference.
Take care of yourselves and those around you, Herd. If you are finding things tough right now, I’ll just leave you with a favourite quote of mine that I find grounding: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
Sport in Mind – UK charity helping to support adults and children with their mental health through sport and physical activity.
Rethink Mental Illness – Offering local networks and support groups, plus online information and resources.
Shout – 24/7 text message support service.
Performing Under Pressure – Dr Josephine Perry. If you’re interested in learning more specifically about sports psychology, how the mind impacts our athletic performance and practical strategies to help you perform at your best, Josephine Perry’s book is a really great read.
Bravey – Alexi Pappas. In her memoir, Olympian and film-maker Alexi Pappas shines a light on her own experience of post-Olympic depression. It’s a raw, candid and insightful account of her journey, described by Mindy Kaling as ‘heart breaking and hilarious’, Alexi shares some really useful thoughts and anecdotes that might be helpful if you’re going through your own journey.