Light and dark: Exercise addiction, and the different forces of cycling

There is a saying that goes, “light cannot come without darkness.”

This resonated with me a few years ago, when I was transitioning out of competitive cycling and entering the world of graduate school to become a clinical sport psychologist.

I can remember being on a training ride, pedaling up one of my favorite climbs, Mt. Diablo, when I started to reflect about how the sport of cycling has been a type of “force” in my life. From the day I learned to ride clipped in, to winning my first bike race, cycling had instantly bitten its sharp teeth deep into me, and was not ever going to let go.

This force brought with it many positive experiences that were a source of “light” in my life — new friends, community, confidence, empowerment, strength, challenges, meaning/purpose, physical exertion, stability, and mental/physical well-being, to name a few.

If you’re a cyclist, some of your happiest moments have probably come this way — mountain-pass exhilaration, coffee-stop contentment with friends, or just the simple, vital pleasure of self-propelled liberation. Riding simply makes us feel alive.

However, cycling also produced some “dark” aspects when I experienced unexpected challenges transitioning out of racing. I recently did a podcast interview with In The Crosshairs, where I explained more about the void I experienced after I ended racing, as well as the transition process and depression in athletes. As I mentioned in the interview, I started to realize that the multidimensional sport many of us love often dances between the light and dark.

What do I mean by the light and dark sides of cycling?

First, let’s focus on the “light side,” or healthy benefits cycling provides us, whether that be a professional, elite, amateur, or recreational rider. When we discuss the many health benefits linked to cycling, almost every article highlights the physical advantages.

While the physical health benefits are certainly noteworthy and abundant, it is important to recognize that cycling is beneficial to our mental health too.

In today’s stressful working environment, people are often looking for ways to relax their minds and take a break from the daily hustle that causes stress. From work drama to family issues, the list of daily anxieties goes on and on. Cycling, however, is an excellent way to curb many common stressors for all types of people. It has long been noted that exercise such as cycling can boost mental acuity and mood.

Like all exercise, cycling reduces our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with anxiety. It also increases our levels of endorphins — our body’s natural “feel-good chemicals,” such as serotonin. Some antidepressant drugs increase serotonin levels chemically; cycling does it naturally.

Furthermore, riding gives us a sense of purpose and control again. Every ride feels like an achievement. Riding allows us to think things through, head cleared by the fresh air — or drift Zen-like into a relaxed, thought-free state. I often describe riding as my own form of meditation. We can choose to ride in solitude, or enjoy the community and sociability on a group ride. On the seat of my bicycle, I have “written” sections of my dissertation, or passages of articles, and reflected usefully on life decisions. Of his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.”

Whether you choose to ride for fitness, competitive purposes, or for social reasons, riding a bicycle is an excellent way to keep the mind and body happy and healthy.

The dark side of cycling actually stems from the light. All of the positive aspects listed above can also lead to negative behaviors and consequences. The endorphin fix that cycling provides can also be toxic for some people. The dark side of cycling can involve doping, other forms of cheating, and the overlooked challenges of retirement that can lead to financial, occupational, and interpersonal difficulties, depression, or worse.

However, another important and unhealthy consequence of cycling relates to the prevalence in endurance sports of what is alternately termed “exercise addiction” or “exercise dependence.”

Over the years, I have had numerous cycling friends and teammates share that they sometimes feel “addicted” to cycling, which also explains why it is often extremely challenging for many professional athletes to transition out of the sport.

What is exercise addiction?

First, let’s put things into context.

What distinguishes professionals and everyday cycling enthusiasts from someone addicted to cycling? Would we consider an elite athlete training for the Olympics as having an exercise addiction? What about the devoted weekend cyclist who plans his or her entire weekend around training and preparing for long group rides?

Exercise addiction is based on the following criteria that are modifications of the criteria for substance dependence:

  • Tolerance. Increasing the amount of riding in order to feel the desired effect, be it a “high,” or sense of accomplishment
  • Withdrawal. In the absence of riding, the person experiences negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, and sleep problems
  • Lack of control. Unsuccessful at attempts to reduce riding, training, and intensity for a certain period of time
  • Intention effects. Unable to stick to one’s intended routine as evidenced by exceeding the amount of time devoted to training
  • Time. A great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from training
  • Reduction in other activities. As a direct result of training, social, occupational, and/or recreational activities occur less often, or are stopped
  • Continuance. Continuing to ride and train despite knowing that this activity is creating or exacerbating physical, psychological, occupational, and/or interpersonal problems.

Like other behavioral addictions, exercise addiction is often referred to as being compulsive or impulsive.

A key point is that like others who are addicted, the person addicted to exercise often considers the negative consequences (e.g., training while injured, riding in the rain when sick, skipping work, isolation from friends to train, etc.), but ultimately ignores them in favor of riding. The sense of pleasure or feelings of happiness associated with riding tends to lose its effect and is overtaken by an innate need and obsession with spending time pedaling at the expense of one’s mental, physical, social, and occupational well being.

Though most cyclists will not meet the clinical criteria for exercise addiction/dependence, it is always helpful to reflect and watch for symptoms that could lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

On the other hand, many cyclists do find it hard to stop riding, and even express feeling guilty if they miss a ride or training session. Therefore, a question I often bring up to my athletes when they are struggling with not being able to train due to an injury, rest week, or off-season (or what I refer to as the transition season) is: “Will the world end if you do not train or ride?”

What I mean by this is for the athlete to focus more on what they can control, and not allow the idea of not riding or training hold them back from their objectives.

This is why it is important for professional, elite, and amateur athletes to maintain a well-balanced life; if they only focus on their athlete identity, they often have a harder time coping with sport and life stressors such as injury, rest weeks, or a transition out of competitive cycling.

One of the first signs I know that I am making progress with an athlete is when they decide on their own and are able to sense both physically and mentally that they need to take another day of rest.

Remember, train hard, recover harder. Tap back into the positive feelings associated with spending time on two wheels — the light side of cycling. It’s something we all need to remind ourselves, whether we’re riding for pleasure up Mt. Diablo or racing up the Passo di Gavia.

Dr. Kristin Keim is a Clinical Sport Psychologist. She is a Certified Consultant in the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and member of the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Psychology and Mental Training Registry. Dr. Keim’s research focuses are on mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs) in athletes, depression in athletes, athlete identity, and the transition out of sport. Follow her on Twitter, and learn more about her practice on her web site, keimperformanceconsulting.com.


Originally published at cyclingtips.com.