• Pedal, look ahead, lean, breathe (Kath Bicknell)Source: Kath Bicknell
Of all the reasons to ride, the mental reset is one of my favourites, writes Kath Bicknell.
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Cycling Central
24 Nov 2016 - 9:00 AM 

I got some bad news the other week. Not terrible bad, life bad, or health bad. Bad in the future work plans kind of way. Bad in the way that makes it hard to concentrate on other tasks for the rest of the day; your mind keeps drifting back to said news, instead of much nicer, more immediate things.

I’d normally jump on my bike on an occasion like this. Pedal to nowhere in particular, for as long as it was useful. I’d let thoughts play out, breathe hard up some hills, feel the mental reset, and come home feeling much calmer, more balanced.

I can only think of a couple of occasions when I started riding angry and came home still feeling that way. I’m pretty sure on both occasions it was because the ride was a very short one.

Laid up in injury-land lately, the bike and its patented mental health benefits weren’t an option this time. So I headed to the pool.

Swimming is something I typically only do when I have a pool-friendly injury that is keeping me off my bike. Or, back when I used to think racing for 12 hours at a time was a good idea, I’d hit the pool for some upper body strengthening so I could hold on to the bars for longer out on the trails.

When I swim, I often wonder what my stroke must look like to people who know more about swimming than I do. There’s some comfort in the fact that I can make it from one end of the pool to the other, but the particularities of my stroke are a hazy memory from lessons I had in primary school. It was important to my mum that my brother and I could swim a kilometre without stopping in case we ever got caught in a rip. I’ve always been grateful for that.

About a month ago I was sharing a lane with someone who took a few generous moments to give me some pointers. Some people would hate this, but I couldn’t have been more glad.

“Aim for your hands to enter the water like this,” he said demonstrating the position of the fingers. “Breathe through your armpit. Use your glutes for kicking. Follow this line through the water before exiting your hand in this way. Try swimming a lap with your hands clasped in fists to feel the way the rest of the movement contributes to the stroke.” I’m paraphrasing heavily here, but hopefully, these memories are more accurate than those hazy ones from primary school.

“The aim is to get to the end of the pool with the least amount of strokes possible,” said my new favourite person in the world. I wanted to say that I missed my bike, and I was full of explosive energy, and I was happy to take all the time in the world to reach the other end of the pool, but I held those thoughts in. The thought of unleashing explosive energy with a modicum of style was very appealing too.

I swam the next lap trying as hard as I could to do everything and succeeding at not much at all. Then I did it again. And again, slowly becoming more fluid in the water. Breathe this way, hands this way, breathe again, hand, armpit, hand…

As I hit the pool again on the bad news day, these same cues were running through my mind as I swam. Hands, armpits, gluts. There were sensations saying I wasn’t going too badly for a stroke or two. And sensations saying there’s a lot still to learn, but sensations, effort and concentration all the same.

Standing in the shower, barely able to lift my arms to wash the chlorine out of my hair, my mind eventually returned to the day’s news. The news didn’t feel as charged as it did earlier in the day. I felt like I could step back from it now, think through it more productively. More than that, I realised I hadn’t thought about it for the last little while. I'd been completely absorbed in one stroke after the next. It had been a mindful experience that wasn’t so different to some of the things I enjoy and rely on when it comes to riding my bike.

In the psychological theory of flow, a term coined by Mihaly and Isabella Csikszentmihalyi, one of the key elements conducive to a flow-type experience is when the challenge is just that little bit harder than you have the skills to meet it with. This is why we can enter this mindset when we’re really good at something, but we can also enter it when we’re just starting out. The difference, in my opinion, is that the more skilled we are, the better we are at staying in that zone, rather than being knocked out of it by doing something like choking on the water or breaking awkwardly into a series of corners.

This challenge-skills balance is something I love about cycling and why it never gets old. The more you learn, the more that opens up to keep learning. To keep trying. To keep exploring. And to keep feeling those joyful sensations of skilful immersion. Sometimes they’re fleeting, sometimes they last long enough to overtake competing thoughts as you tune into the motions that take you from one moment to the next.

The best part is, as my swim reminded me, as have early rides back on the road, you don’t even have to be very good at it to enjoy this immersive, recalibrating effect.