How mountain biking helps me regulate my nervous system

“Ready for a tow-in, Anna?” he asked, swatting away a mosquito as he sat on his low-slung bike seat and readied one foot on his pedals.

“Yeah,” I said, “Let’s do it.”

He pedaled forward and, not wanting to get further behind than two or three bike-lengths, I placed the sticky rubber soles of my biking shoes just “so” atop my large, cleated pedals, praying that my feet wouldn’t move too much in the next three minutes. I stood up out of my saddle, pedaled to keep up, and took a long exhale.

Relax, I thought.

All day long, they’d been telling me to relax.

“Once you get in the air, everything needs to relax, Anna.”

“You’ll know it when you feel it – the bike will draw into your body just slightly.”

“Your arms are too stiff; that’s why you’re getting pulled forward.”

Their comments played like a pop song in my head as I rounded that first corner. A few more pedal strokes to work up enough speed, then the first jump was upon me, followed quickly by the second. Compress into the ramp, I thought as the first jump was under foot, then relax. I flew through the air.

Six months earlier, I’d had a conversation with my husband about getting back into mountain biking. Never in a million years did I envision that, a mere four months later, I’d be dropping into black diamond-rated freestyle jump runs at the bike park.

That thought ran through my head as fast as a squirrel across a trail, but then I was back to the jumps. Compress, relax. Compress, relax. Hard, soft. Stiff, loose. 

On the third jump, something magical happened as I felt my knees draw slightly upward in the air, as if to gently “catch” the natural trajectory of the bike. In that instant, my shoulders softened, my neck relaxed. I felt IT. That feeling that they’d been talking about.

Jumps four, five and six in quick succession. A straight-away, followed by a wicked curve. I knew I couldn’t hit the breaks or I wouldn’t have enough speed for the next set of gap jumps. Gap jumps are scary – imagine a simple table top of dirt, except with the table cut out, leaving a take off, a hole, and a landing. That’s what I was jumping. Twelve in total. Each successive jump was set up by its predecessor, so it wasn’t enough to relax on one jump – I had to continuously find a way to regulate my nervous system.

Mountain biking can be a technical sport depending on where and what trails you choose to ride. In my area, trails are built with an emphasis on fast, flowy, fun, technical downhills. In my 20’s, I rode on trails built for hiking, and riding uphill quickly was prized as much or more than the decent. In those areas (Montana and Utah, and the areas I rode regularly), trails with technical decents could be avoided, tricky sections walked through rather quickly.

Where I live now? Not so much.

I’m lucky to live where I do. The Pacific Northwest is practically ground zero for mountain biking innovation. Until this past January, I hadn’t been on a bike in over 10 years. Injury, and then an unfortunate move to San Diego (where mountain biking is hard to come by), took me away from the sport. This year, after having a baby almost two years ago, I said to my husband, “I need a thing that’s just mine, and I’d like that to be mountain biking.”

In less than 25 minutes, I can leave my house and be at the trailhead of Tiger Mountain riding area, Duthie Mountain Bike Park, Tokul or Raging River – all incredible areas with mountain-bike specific trails that focus on fast, flowy, technical downhills. I’m truly lucky to live here.

But if I want to stick to smooth and easy, that drastically limits what’s available to ride. Downhill mountain biking, eduro-style racing, and freestyle all have a stronghold in this area.

Which means I have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Today – as I rode through the set of twelve jumps I mastered last weekend – I asked myself why mountain biking was so interesting to me. What was it that kept me coming back, week after week? And I realized something –

Mountain biking is fantastic at teaching me how to regulate my nervous system.

I know that as a highly sensitive person, I have a more active amygdala than folks who are not highly sensitive. The amygdala is the part of the brain that activates the fight or flight response. This means that my system is more finely-tuned to identify threats and react accordingly. In evolutionary terms, as part of a herd or a tribe, this survival trait is highly praised in keeping everyone safe.

But when doing sports that are scary or even a bit extreme, it’s something that I can learn how to manage.

Like when doing jumps. Consider the ramp to a bike jump. Most of us, when we approach something that is scary, have a small amount of fight or flight response in our body. When we enter “fight,” we tense up our upper body, effectively stiffening our arms. When we find ourselves in the “flight” response, we may lean back while taking off on the ramp, our systems working to pull us away from the threat.

Both of these things are incredibly dangerous things to do while jumping.

A proper trajectory through a jump is a nice, calm arch in the air, created when the front tire of the bike takes off first, followed by the rear. In fact, if there is no rider on the bike, this works well – the bike takes off, then lands on the front tire first, followed by the rear.

If our weight is dropped back as we take off, the bike effectively takes off without us, going through it’s arc and creating a demanding and dangerous scenario as we land -physics of the trajectory yanks us forward (and possibly over our handle bars!). When our arms (or other body parts) are stiff, we also affect the natural arc in ways that can tip our weight forward or back and create dangerous landing scenarios.

I learned to jump one Friday afternoon with my friend, a mountain bike enthusiast and instructor. He thought it would be a good skill for me to learn, so I gave it a shot. That afternoon, I accidentally got huge air at the end of jump trail, simply by telling myself to relax.

The only problem was, I was now hooked.

The next day, I joined a weekend mountain biking fundamentals class with ex-pro rider Simon Lawton of Fluidride, and learned more about cornering, decents and – yes – jumping. In that weekend, I progressed enough to join a small group of students to learn to jump gap jumps. A month later, I joined a jump-specific class, which was where I was now. Where I fell in love. Not even with just the jumping, but with the system of working with my nervous system.

I carved through the curve and let my bike sail through the short straight-away leading to jump number seven. Compress, relax. Perfect. Two more in quick succession. Hard, soft. Drive, absorb. Drop some speed, a quick corner into number ten. Number eleven on a slight corner, then looking at number twelve.

Twelve was big. I hadn’t hit it before. Looking at it as you come down the trail, the landing peeks out from behind the take-off and you’re staring at a log-wall of potential pain if I mess up. Every system in my body wanted to hit the breaks, to slow down, to back away. Fight! it yelled. Flee! it said. I was fighting biology, flying in the face of human evolution.

I forced myself to exhale deeply and pulled my fingers from the breaks. The take off was big, it had a nice feeling underfoot as I compressed into it. Relax. Draw knees up slightly. Absorb. Relax shoulders. Holy fuck I’m in the air for a long time. 

Landing. Friends. High fives and endorphins. Do it again. Again. Again.

Learning how to do this – to work with my system to get calm and relax, in different positions and different scenarios – is a priceless* tool for this highly sensitive person. You don’t have to do extreme sports to work with your nervous system, but something with a slight fear factor can be a great way to do it.



*That’s what I’m telling my husband with the hope that he doesn’t flip after I buy my next bike 😉

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