Whether you’re training for a race—they’re coming back!—or you’re just getting back on your bike for the first time in a while, it’s helpful to create some structure, such as having schedules and goals. But throwing all your focus into what’s on the bike’s computer readout may have a downside: It can feel like work.
During Bike to Play week, hosted by Bicycling and Degree (the official deodorant of Bike to Play Week), we want to encourage you to make your rides more fun this week. Here are some reasons to balance out the PR quest with some rides for fun—the kind where you don’t turn on the computer, leave your fitness tracker at home, and explore some new routes instead.
Don’t forget to document your ride, and share it with us on social media using the hashtag #BIBiketoPlay.
1. You Can Boost Your Mental Health
Although the mental effects of COVID-19 will be a subject for research well into the future, we already know that it’s been tough. The Centers for Disease Control found that just a few months into the pandemic, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported considerably elevated mental health conditions.
In the midst of that, the lack of events for athletes caused many to feel aimless and experience training fatigue, Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S., a USA Cycling certified coach, told Bicycling.
“There are many who are struggling because there’s no big goal to work against, like you’d have with an upcoming race,” he told Bicycling. “But maybe that can be an opportunity to let go of those goals right now. Riding for fun and being more relaxed could turn out to reignite your love for cycling. It can remind you why you started in the first place.”
2. You Can Reduce Your Stress Levels
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the results of a ride that we ignore some indications that our mid-race ergonomics are not ideal. Aching wrists, locked-out elbows, overly hunched shoulders, neck pushed into an awkward angle—these are very common when it comes to riding posture, according to Chad Walding, D.P.T., who often sees cyclists in his Austin, Texas-based physical therapy practice.
Over time, those can cause issues in the same way that sitting in the same position at your desk for hours every day can shorten up a few select muscles. Dynamic stretching before and after you ride can help, he told Bicycling, but so can doing some rides where you’re focusing more on how you’re moving than on your speed or distance. Not only can that improve your mechanics and alignment overall, but you’ll also be doing your emotional wellness a favor, too.
“There is a huge connection between mental health and body position,” he said. “How you sit or stand can actually affect your biochemistry—it can trigger the brain to release more of the stress hormone cortisol, for example.”
For instance, Walding says your elbows shouldn’t be locked out because that puts strain on the forearms and wrists, which then kick off a stress response to deal with the subsequent pain.
Cortisol release is a regular part of everyday life—you couldn’t get out of bed without it—but when it remains elevated, it can wreak havoc throughout the body, including lowering your immune response and reducing bone density. When you take a more relaxed position on the bike, like sitting upright on your bike occasionally, you trigger the opposite effect, said Walding. Your cortisol lowers because there’s no longer a perceived threat it needs to address.
3. You Can Ride With People You Don’t Normally Ride With
Remember when you were a kid and you met up with your friends and just noodled around on your bikes for an afternoon? Most likely, not everyone in that group was a devoted cyclist, and you were just exploring together. Let’s bring that back.
“Riding as part of a group is a fantastic way to push yourself for training, because it can spark a sense of competitiveness,” said Seacat. “But having a casual group is important, too, because you have camaraderie and that’s the main focus. It’s a great balance to those more intense group rides.”
Plus, he adds, suggesting a fun ride may help you recruit friends and family who might have felt intimidated to ride with you before because they fretted about not being “good enough.”
→ Bonus Tips for Making Your Rides More Relaxed
For some people, not tracking anything about the ride will be enough to make it refreshing, but if you’re looking to be a little extra, here’s what our experts suggest:
Wear casual clothes that still allow you to move freely.
Have a general idea of a route but be willing to explore without a plan.
Take breaks on the route to hang out, grab a snack, and enjoy the scenery.
If you’re with friends who don’t usually ride, let them set the pace.
Look up, as in, look into the far distance instead of directly in front of you.
Although you don’t want to put too much structure and planning into the effort, it does help to designate specific days of the month or week for these kind of rides, Seacat said.
“Planning your fun rides helps you anticipate them and get excited for them,” he added. “Particularly if you’ve been experiencing pandemic fatigue, that can be huge for giving you that mental health boost you might have been missing.”
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