Cycling and Happiness

What impact does cycling have on our state of mind, our emotions and our general sense of happiness?


Firstly, the act of cycling or any physical exercise can definitely help to create a ‘feel good effect’. Medical people talk about certain chemicals, such as Serotonin, which are released when cycling. These are free mood enhancing drugs, without any side-effects.

To quite a large extent, my training programme is determined by what I feel like doing. The motivating factor is not always optimal fitness in six months time, but what do I feel like doing on this particular cold, dark, December day?

Different rides and their impact on Mood

  • Commute into town. This is a gentle cycle, but,still it’s a great way to start the day. I work from home, but often find an excuse to ‘commute’ into town. The commute helps wake up my brain and get me ready for a bit of writing. The biggest challenge of commuting cycling is avoiding all the problems of interacting with other road users in a small space. Commuting is done on busy roads, and you have to be careful you don’t get annoyed with near misses and bad driving. This kind of ride is the most challenging to have a positive impact on mood. Definitely a bit of patience helps. If you’re rushing and impatient it’s much less relaxing.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that commuting by bike, can lead to higher standards of well being.

“…A wealth of literature from researchers studying stress and related effects reveals ‘persistent and significant costs associated with a long commute through heavy traffic’. By contrast, studies comparing the experiences of commuting by bicycle and car report that cyclists find their mode of transport at least as flexible and convenient as those who use cars, with lower stress and greater feelings of freedom, relaxation and excitement…”

NEF report at BBC ( I wonder if the BBC Mentioned this report on Road Wars?)

  • Slow recovery ride (1-2 hours). A slow recovery ride is generally my least favourite kind of ride. At 65-70% of heart rate, it doesn’t really get you going. During the ride, there doesn’t feel much purpose to the ride (even though recovery can be very important). Often this kind of slow recovery ride will be done on tired legs (after a race or hard interval session). Therefore, your legs are tired throughout ride – you’ve lost that kind of zip which also makes the ride feel unusually hard. A slow recovery ride can be fun, if the weather is very nice, you’re riding with a good group or you are riding in a beautiful part of the world. If you do a two hour slow recovery ride on your own in the turbo, I admire you! But, generally, this ride has the least benefit on mood. If I have to ditch one ride from my week, it would be this.
  • Long steady endurance ride. Often with a long steady endurance ride, there is the sense of trying to achieve a significant distance target. This is hard in different ways. After several hours in the saddle, you’re starting to notice aches and pains in all parts of the body. But, there is also an exhilaration from the constant exertion and effort. Long steady rides can also be opportunities to try new roads, and new parts of the world, which is also one of the great joys of cycling. There is also the sense of achievement on getting back from the ride.It is good to have a feeling of being stretched. But, if you stretch yourself too much, the natural high of tiredness becomes the natural low of suffering like anything. It’s a balance Again the weather and comfort on the bike is important. Long rides in the wet soon become very challenging.
  • Threshold ride.  80-85% of max heart rate. In a way, this is the most fun kind of ride. It seems to create the optimal release of serotonin, yet without the real pain of racing. It’s that comfortably hard level which you can maintain for 1 or 2 hours. There is also a great sense of speed and purpose in this ride. In previous winters, I’ve avoided this kind of ride totally. But, now I’ve incorporated one a week into my schedule – usually done when I find myself on my rollers. If you’re going to spend an hour on rollers, you might as well do it with great purpose. The release of Serotonin, helps combat the boredom of being on the bike.
  • Hill interval session. If you’re in good shape, this is wonderful fun. Well, the first interval is great. But, after than doing intervals on tired legs, is really tough. It requires quite a bit of concentration to keep pushing yourself. Again, there is a real sense of achievement, especially if you manage to complete the targeted number of intervals.
  • Race – 10 mile Time trial. It’s good whilst it lasts. It’s not a bad type of race. Though the effect on your mind can be influenced by the actual time you do. You may have a great race, but if your time is disappointing, you can lose some of the benefit. Then there’s also the thought that if you kind of enjoyed the experience – you didn’t try hard enough.
  • Race – hill climb – Racing so hard, you make yourself feel sick. No honestly, this kind of race is great for your mood.
  • Race 100 mile time trial. Another real challenge – four hours of hard work. I quite enjoy longer time trials though don’t get to do them too often. 30-50 mile hilly time trials are also quite good fun. But, I guess it’s an acquired taste.

What type of cycling has biggest benefit on your mood?

Is the impact on happiness, a big motivator for your cycling?


6 Responses to Cycling and Happiness

  1. Wheezer2 December 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    I find cycling very mood enhancing, just being out for a ride, taking it easy, pushing myself, climbing hills, descending and cranking it up on the flats, riding with mates, meeting new people are all really good mind cleansing experiences.

    The greatest impact for me is always the day after a good ride, i still benefit from the slowed down feeling i get, which obviously comes from expending lots of energy on the ride. I feel mellow, relaxed and just all round calm. I generally am an easy going person but this just seems to free me of the ‘space junk’!!

    The day i stood waiting for a bus outside a cycling shop, i had enough time to admire the ‘new to me’ bikes in the window and i decided to ‘get back’ on a bike………………….life changing!!!!

  2. Al-Bo December 11, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    Although you’re stressing your body, a bike ride can be mentally relaxing. I find if I’m at home, there’s always something I feel I should be doing or something that’s distracting me. It doesn’t really matter what those things are. Whatever it is builds that skittish way of living where you give yourself constant mental stimulation – reaching for the laptop when there’s a set of adverts in a programme you’re watching.

    Cycling slows your thinking down. You concentrate on where you’re going (and on how much you’re hurting) and little else. You daydream and clear away a few nagging thoughts. It’s kind of like meditation.

    You also neglect to mention the impact of daylight on mood. It’s easy to avoid going outdoors at this time of year, but this can have a big impact on how people feel. If there’s some way of getting yourself out of the front door and into natural light for an hour or so, it can do wonders for your mood.

    • tejvan December 17, 2012 at 9:45 am #

      cheers Al-bo. I agree about sunlight. It’s tough if you work 9-5 and have to train in evening. Also, it’s also a very good point about all the things nagging at our attention. When you’re on the bike, you really get away from all that. I think people will increasingly want that.

  3. georgie o December 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    Well, my cycle commute is my least favourite – it’s only 9ish miles, has a nice three mile hill at the end on my way to work and one 2 mile hill on my way home. My ride to work feels much harder than all the challenging, long, off road rides I do for fun. I hate the traffic, I hate having to set off really early to avoid heavy traffic, but the actual riding is enjoyable.

    I love leisure cycling. Off roading on bridleways & cycle tracks is by far my favourite type. I love the challege, the mud, the hills. I’m always elated afterwards.
    Picnic rides with my other half on the tandem are also right up there too.

    • tejvan December 17, 2012 at 9:45 am #

      The thing about commuting riding, is that you appreciate more when you can get to cycle in a nice place.

  4. Doug December 10, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    I think this is a really good topic, nicely captured.

    Yes I agree with the link between cycling and an uplift in ones mood. There is a definite link between exercise and the release of endorphins(?) which can give a “high”. The runner’s high is well known but less so with the cyclist’s high.

    The weather as well as the surroundings can, I believe, have an impact but there are so many other variables.

    I can go for a bike ride with all kinds things bothering me and when I return, most of them have melted away. More so with running – that is something else entirely. The best kind of ride is a longish gentle ride with a blast of a finish over the last mile or two.


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