6 People & Organizations Improving Mental Health Through Mountain Biking

Feb 10, 2021
by Alicia Leggett  

We all have reasons why we're compelled to ride bikes. Some ride for the A-line hoots and hollers, while others ride for fitness. Many ride to connect with a community or to feel the sense of achievement that comes with riding a bigger jump or climbing a steeper hill. And the bike world is becoming increasingly open about the ways some riders use mountain biking to improve mental health. For many of us, biking is a way to motivate ourselves to do something for our wellbeing, to take ourselves out of our heads and into the moment, to develop self-respect and personal agency, and to teach ourselves the art of getting back up when we fall down. Mountain biking – just the simple thing over dirt on two wheels – has changed and even saved countless lives.

February is 'Recreational Therapeutic Health Month' in Canada and the USA, and we wanted to recognize some people and organizations that are making a difference by promoting the benefits of mountain biking in clinical, recreational, and social settings. I reached out to a few of those people to learn what they’re up to.

Note: This isn't an exhaustive list. We'd love to hear about more people and organizations doing great work. Please let us know in the comments!





Katie Marlow, MTB for Mental Health
When Katie Marlow started mountain biking, she noticed how being out on two wheels improved her depression. When she started to feel how much riding helped her, she started a blog and began writing about her progression. She wanted to share the benefits she experienced with others, she said, and hoped to make the sport more accessible to people who were just taking the first steps.

Through the process of improving her own life with riding and writing about her experiences online, Katie started organizing group rides every two weeks and runs the Facebook group MTB for Mental Health, where she has organized a supportive community to help people improve their situations, regardless of where they start.

From Katie on the Cycling UK website:

Before I was cycling I was very depressed. It was a dark place. When I started cycling it gave me something to focus on. As I got fitter I also started smiling more. It got me out the door and became something I did with friends.

I had something to improve on, that I could see myself getting better at and so it changed how I thought about myself. I started thinking positively, from “I can’t” to “I can”.

It’s all thanks to mountain bikes, which is probably why I stare at them lovingly in the garage sometimes. Cycling makes you lighter. You stop worrying about family or life. It's just you, your bike, pedalling and tuning into your body.

In equal parts it excites and terrifies me. When you're not hurling yourself down something steep it's relaxing, when you are, all other thoughts disappear and you just wonder am I going to die? Your body is the last thing to give up. Your mind goes first. So if you can get your mind in the right place and keep pushing you'll discover how far your body can go and it will amaze you.

A lot of life is spent inside. You’re inside your car, an office, a shopping centre. People need to be outside, and cycling is a wonderful way to experience the outdoors. Has cycling become a wallet destroying obsession? Yes. I have three bikes and fight my dad for garage space. I’ve taken on 75 mile races and travelled coast to coast. I've crashed a couple of times, but you know, I’ve never regretted a ride.


Ride It Out MTB
Clayton Peterson is a US veteran who struggled deeply with his mental health before he started mountain biking. "I got into mountain biking and slowly started opening up and becoming a more open person and being happier," he said. "I think it was 2015 or something, while at Snowshoe Mountain Bike Park in West Virginia, I was taking a chairlift with a friend. He asked me a question and I openly shared an incident while deployed. I’d never share that type of stuff before, and I told him that. He was like, ‘Well it must be the bikes!’ I was like, 'It’s got to be.' Riding bikes has helped me process a lot of stuff I’ve seen and done, and helped me deal with a lot of PTSD. And he’s like, ‘Yeah man, you just gotta get on your bike and ride it out.’ And that’s how I got the idea for the name of Ride It Out, my nonprofit."

He’s built a network of riders around the US who meet up and ride, and has helped get lots more veterans on bikes. For Memorial Day, Ride It Out gave 25 Marin bikes, along with helmets and gift cards for clothing, to 25 veterans who applied and were hoping to start riding. In the future, he plans to partner with a local bike shop to contribute partial payment for veterans who come into the shop looking for bikes.

bigquotesThe adrenaline and the sense of accomplishment make you trust yourself more. It makes you more self-confident. In civilian interactions, I still am kind of scared to talk because I don’t know how my attitude and how I perceive things – it doesn’t really jive well with how the civilian world operates. But being on my bike and knowing I’ve ridden some of the steepest, gnarliest stuff in the United States gives me confidence to go out and be in public and not be scared and not shut myself out. If I know I can ride Upper and Lower Supreme at Angel Fire, clear all the jumps, and stay off the brakes through the steep stuff, I can go to a crowded store and shop. I can go to the grocery store and walk down the aisles and not feel trapped.Clayton Peterson, founder of Ride It Out MTB
Ride It Out has created a community of veteran riders nationwide.

MTB Vets
Another veteran-focused organization is MTB Vets, which was started by Bill Langham in memory of a close friend. Bill recognized that transitioning back into civilian life from the military can be brutal for many veterans, who are suddenly without the community of people who have gone through the same traumatic experiences as them. MTB Vets aims to use mountain biking as a tool to make veterans feel less alone and give them a sense of community.

After Bill retired from the military, he hit a low point as he tried to relearn how to move through everyday life. He started working at a bike shop in his search for something to keep his mind occupied, and as he started to mountain bike more through the shop, he realized that he started to feel like he had a place in the community. "I know what the bike did for me, and I call it trail therapy," he said. "Getting out on the bike, putting everything on the back burner, being free and having fun – I know how it changed my demeanor and changed my outlook."

bigquotesSuccess to me isn't about how many people I have riding or how many people I have following my Instagram or Facebook. Success is just one person riding with us, talking with us, that was in a bad spot – was thinking about taking their life – and we showed them that 'Hey – that's the wrong way out.' And they choose not to. That's success for MTB Vets.Bill Langham, founder of MTB Vets

'Trail therapy' has been essential for Bill, and he started MTB Vets to share the benefits with others.

Mike Ivanov, @luciddreamzbikeco on Instagram
Even though the individual experiences are different, the same feelings are echoed again and again in the stories I’ve heard. Mike Ivanov started mountain biking after he hit rock bottom. In 2019, he was celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife and he started crying uncontrollably. He told her he was going to kill himself because it was the only way he saw out of the way he felt. His wife helped him get help, and one day his therapist suggested he go ride a bike. That was the turning point, he said. After that, his life changed. “It was the first step to me becoming better, and it was so definable that it’s not even funny. I got on this bike and all the shit went away. I can’t explain it any other way.”

As he reclaimed his life, he decided to build a bike, so he put together a Joker-themed green and purple Evil. He wanted to figure out a way to give back to the community while raising awareness about suicide, so he auctioned off the bike and donated the proceeds to Mission 22, an organization that raises awareness about suicide among veterans. Mike chose a veteran-focused organization because watching some of his veteran friends experience mental health crises alerted him to the starkly disproportionate suicide rate among veterans. Now, he has auctioned his first bike and is working on the second, with help from Banshee and a handful of other companies. He plans to continue to build and auction as many bikes as he can for a variety of causes. “It can fix any issue,” he said about mountain biking. “It doesn’t have to be an issue that I’ve dealt with. It can fix anything.”

Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS)
There is research accumulating on how exercise affects mental health and how being in nature affects mental health, but few studies have sought to quantify how the unique mix of factors in mountain biking – being outside in the woods, exercising, and engaging in a sport that improves feelings of resilience, achievement, and personal agency – can affect a person’s wellbeing. A group of Scottish researchers started the ball rolling on research specific to mountain biking with a 2018 pilot program that incorporated mountain biking into treatment programs for mental health.

Now, DMBinS is diving deeper into the topic and will be hiring someone full-time to lead initiatives around mental health. Building upon the success of the 2018 program, DMBinS is now launching a set of two programs in partnership with Scotland's national health service to integrate mountain biking into mental health treatments in very real ways that could have massive effects.

More information about the Mountain Bike Trail Therapy Leader job is available here, and detailed information about the programs is available here.


Outride
Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard’s path into the mental health advocacy world started when he realized he didn’t struggle as much from his ADHD when riding a bike. In 2012, he partnered with the Harvard-affiliated RTSG Neuroscience Consultants and later with the Stanford Medical School to research how biking affects brain function. Sinyard’s research program found quantifiable cognitive, emotional, and social benefits associated with biking, and The Specialized Foundation was launched in 2015 to further that research. In 2019, the foundation separated from Specialized and became Outride, a 501c3 nonprofit specifically dedicated to supporting original scientific research, school cycling program, and riding community development.

Outride funds grants for schools to develop PE programs that incorporate biking and for communities to develop youth riding opportunities through education, youth rider development, bike cooperatives, earn-a-bike programs, and trail, bike park, and pump track projects.


Bike-Adjacent Bonus: Mike Sinyard and Project New Day
After Outride grew beyond Specialized, Sinyard continued his mental health advocacy and started Project New Day, an organization that aims to help people overcome addiction and other mental health struggles through the therapeutic use of psychedelics.


29 Comments

  • 42 0
 What an awesome write up and great insight into the programs out there available for those struggling with mental health. I have struggled with mental health and anxiety for years and the cycling world has picked me up and kept me going for many years. Hoping this can reach others in the same boat and help them realize there’s always help out there!
  • 17 0
 This is only going to get bigger and bigger as more people get into biking and realize how amazing it is for a multitude of reasons.

One of the great things about biking is that it doesn't prejudice; if your mental health kick comes from solitude, solace, and time alone its got your back. If it comes from being with friends, sharing experiences and having a laugh, its got your back.

I know, having spent years biking, how even just a small ride helps boost my mood when I'm down. Once those new to cycling get more into it and realize the same, it is just going to snowball.

Love this sport / hobby of ours.
  • 8 0
 I am a person whos mind never stops thinking about the future. Not in a bad way, but I grew up relatively poor (or at least 2008 made us relatively poor) and I am naturally now a saver and someone who has a hard time living in the moment. Honestly, mountain biking and snowboarding are the two things I love most in this world because of the flow state you get on the downs. I literally can only think of what is in front of me.
  • 7 0
 Our area has a pretty big group called Ride4Recovery that supports each other in their sobriety. A lot of people who were in a pretty bad place in their lives have turned themselves around by offering mutual support while riding together and serving the community as part of their outreach.

One of the group leaders recently posted a pic of a truck full of bikes that they were working with the local police department to rebuild and distribute to low-income folks in need. He said something like "Back in the day, I would have been headed to the pawn shop with these bikes and hoping the police didn't catch me on the way..."
  • 7 0
 It is great seeing this kind of content. I have TBI and was recently turned onto Love Your Brain - they have a lot of helpful information and programs.

www.loveyourbrain.com

I am not affiliated, but Revel bikes has teamed up with them. I think that speaks highly of the brand.

www.revelbikes.com/our-bikes/loveyourbrain-rascal
  • 7 0
 It's amazing to finally see that exercise plus nature is recognized as a prescription for mental health. In whatever discipline you find yourself in (biking, walking, photography etc). I think so many of us have known without knowing and it's satisfying to see it recognized. There is so much that still needs to happen and these articles are helping to move forward.
  • 1 1
 I doubt it. The air gets warmed before it hits your lungs. You would have to be in some really, really cold weather to have issues is my guess.
  • 8 0
 Thanks for the shoutout for RIOMTB! Our website is www.rideitoutmtb.com We are in the process of relocating to Western MO to be closer to NWA and be more accessible to riders all over the US.
  • 1 0
 Hell yeah @Clay10MTB! Cool to see your organization mentioned here!
  • 6 0
 Mountain biking is extremely therapeutic for me. I can't think too much while riding or I'll hit a tree or worse. I've fought with a chronic mental disease for most of my life. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to mountain bike and find some peace there.
  • 6 0
 As someone who has dealt with mental health issues for most of my adult life a few key things keep me going. One being mountain biking and for that I’m truly grateful. Ride on and be kind to one another even on PB. Ha.
  • 4 0
 This is fantastic. A lot of great research and community partnerships around mountain biking and mental health (especially in schools) in Northwest Arkansas:

University of Arkansas Adventure Therapy Lab: cned.uark.edu/adventure_therapy/index.php
David Christian, PhD: cned.uark.edu/profile.php?uId=ddchrist
Bike NWA
Arkansas Arts Academy
Ozark Adventure Therapy: www.facebook.com/OzarkAT
  • 6 0
 Go 4 Graham is also out here working in Colorado!
  • 2 0
 "February is 'Recreational Therapeutic Health Month' in Canada and the USA"....... Right now it's -20 F outside, with a -35 F windchill..... Outdoor recreation is challenging at the moment.

On a related subject, does anyone know if exercising, i.e. breathing very hard, in such cold can actually damage one's lungs? Google results don't seem to have any consensus.
  • 2 0
 As opposed to hunting and trapping in such cold as our a ancestors did? I am pretty sure that it does not, as we evolved in such conditions as did other mammals.
  • 3 0
 Dress for success, even if you overdress. Don't go hard at the start to protect your lungs and also try a chewing gum or a lozenge for the first bit. The human body is incredible, we are built for everything. Scale it back and just go for a walk and consider it active recovery.
  • 1 0
 @carym: Yeah, I hike in the cold, no problem, but biking involves breathing at a far higher rate. Most sources say it causes damage, and some sources say it can cause permanent damage. I mean I've certainly felt pain sorta like a sore throat and dry cough for the rest of the day after a very cold exercise. I just don't know if it's true or false that doing it often can cause permanent damage.
  • 2 0
 Man, need to give some kudos to Davi at @HookitProducts

Always mentioning on his podcasts if listeners need some help whether it be a chat or whatever, he is there. Big big props.

(The HKT Lockdown podcast has kept me super sane through this last year or so.)
  • 1 0
 There are a bunch of organizations like these! List em here if you know of any that weren't mentioned!

@Rideitoutmtb on IG and FB. Rideitoutmtb.com
@Dirttherapyproject on IG and FB thedirttherapyproject.org
@EVA_MTB_FOR_ PTSD on IG (ExpeditionaryVeteransAssociation on FB) expeditionaryveter.wix.com/mtbforptsd
@Warwithin (ambassador for veterans in Phoenix Arizona)
  • 5 0
 Clayton is Rad!
  • 5 0
 Thanks! Only as rad as the people I ride with.
  • 2 0
 @Clay10MTB: Confirmed rad then. Your username is clever too haha.
  • 2 0
 Not an MTB specific foundation but Stacy Bare is a US Vet who's based his entire life around getting everyone in the outdoors. You should look into him!
  • 3 0
 thesacredcycle.org

Is also, an extremely rad organization.
  • 2 0
 What about MTBDropIn from youtube?
  • 1 0
 Go4Graham is another fantastic U.S. based non-profit shredding the stigma towards mental health!
  • 1 0
 was gonna say this!

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