An Alpha State of Mind

Galibier by Mavic

A ride doesn’t just clear my mind, it fills it with fresh ideas. If I go out for more than an hour then often answers appear and new ideas flash into my mind. This might sound like spurious justification but for me it’s true, issues I might have been weighing up can often get resolved. Some say sleeping on a tricky decision helps, I say go for a ride.

Tour fever might be building but ahead of daily previews, TV, L’Equipe and more, it’s time to go away for a few days riding.

Alpha Waves
One theory is that cycling helps the brain produce “alpha waves”, a relaxed state of mind you might get whilst sitting relaxed with your eyes closed yet still awake, something close to daydreaming. Is this possible when riding given you’re often alert rather than close to sleep? It’s not as strange as it sounds given things like potholes, passing traffic and effort can get managed on autopilot.

Great minds think alike

“My mind only works with my legs”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It’s not unique to cycling. 18th century writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “I can only meditate when I walk… …when I stop, I stop thinking… my mind only works with my legs“. Similarly, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stated “every day I walk myself into a state of well-being… I have walked myself into my best thoughts“. Rousseau and Kierkegaard didn’t live to see the bicycle but there’s every chance they would have enjoyed the simple act of cycling too.

Break away
There are less poetic reasons to explain how a ride can clear the mind. After all, once you are riding you can’t do much else. Even on a group ride you might not talk a lot. There are no distractions from ringing phones or incoming emails. I suppose it’s easier to think when you escape these things.

A healthy mind in a healthy body

Disc thrower
Mens sana in corpore sano

There are the simple benefits of exercise. 2,000 years ago the Romans spoke of “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, today the modern day benefits of exercise are better known. Relaxation and well-being contribute to a sharper mind.

If you’re lucky enough to ride a lot you can get a mild addiction. There’s the comfort of routine but the endorphins too. These brain chemicals aid relaxation but there can be a downside, missing a ride can bring feelings of frustration and cold turkey.

  • This piece is a re-work of an old piece but from when the blog started and so people read it. I’m away for the next few days – riding – so content on here will be light
  • The photo at the top is by Mavic. Visit their site at and you’ll see plenty of inspiring scenery which, if you root around to find the file, make a good desktop background

50 thoughts on “An Alpha State of Mind”

  1. I actually found it could swing both ways. Started cycling nearly two years ago, around the same time I struggled with some personal demons. Some days I could go out and the depression would lift near instantly, other times it would exacerbate it due to the fact that thinking things over isn’t always the best idea! Happy to say that isn’t an issue anymore, and when I go out for a ride I do it for pure love of it. I suffered a DVT a few weeks ago and only got out on my bike for the first time since on Monday night. It was glorious.

  2. Enjoy the riding, contemplation and problem solving INRNG. Don’t forget to enjoy the food, drink and scenery !
    You certainly deserve a break to recharge the batteries, for all that is ahead in the next three weeks.

  3. Enjoy your free time! As an old-fart, I see way too many riders ignoring ideas about thought, riding with “smart” phones and all kinds of electronic gizmos…all seemingly designed to provide distractions so as to avoid anything like thought! Back in the day when I was a competitive runner and always as a cyclist, I thought my best ideas came during solitary physical efforts…the one period in the day when there were no distractions, just me and whatever it was I was doing. This continues today, I’m lucky to say.

    • I often find that the best rides are those where I get lost. If you let go of the feeling that you have to know exactly where you are, just ride along and enjoy the landscape, it can be very refreshing.

  4. I don’t think while training! Instead I go ‘zen’, a meditative-like state of blankness,
    which is a welcome change from the normal state of mental traffic.

    The Latin quote, from the poet Juvenal was from a poem where he was describing the
    essential character required for a warrior, but also applicable to anyone.

    However, in modern times the English translation has developed a distortion, partly thanks to Modern Philosophy where a ‘healthy mind’ is a rational mind, whereas in Contemporary Philosophy ‘mind’ is both rational and emotional, able to feel passion, learn from personal experience, develop insights into Self and the world around us, etc).

    The poem certainly does speak to the nature of cycling as suffering; and the rewards to be gained
    from suffering, in terms of fitness of mind/spirit and body, character development, team spirit,
    ethics/fair play, and so on.

    The applicable excerpt from the poem is in this wikipedia link:

  5. Thanks for this post, it is nice to read something more personal now and then. I have also used cycling to combat depression, its not just the exercise but also the sense of movement, action and will expressed as travel, and the altered mental states described in the post. I have to be careful not to overdo it though, much as i like going deep into a world of physical pain, the resulting fatigue can trigger a depressive episode a few days later. I recognise what Adam W says too, when one has a technique that usually works, it can be really depressing when it doesn’t (damn even going for a bike ride isn’t making me feel good etc…).

  6. Your take on historical conceptions of the mind and body is way off. Many ancients thought that a healthy mind just is a rational mind and many contemporaries think that as well. What “Modern” does not think the mind is able to feel passion, learn from personal experience, develop insights into the self (a Cartesian preoccupation) and the world around us? None that I know of.

    The (some) ancient Greeks had an attractive view of the human being that (some) cyclists might find appealing. The good of the whole person requires that both the mind and body are “healthy” and functioning well, and they must be harmonized to live well as a human being. Broke, corrupt body –> broke, corrupt mind. Broke, corrupt body –> broke, corrupt mind.

    • Maybe I wasn’t too clear, Ronin! I was thinking of how earlier thinkers, both Western and non-Western, saw spirit as an integral aspect, such that there was no Mind-Body Duality question, as the two were bonded together by Spirit (religion: soul), but as time moved on, and especially during the ‘Modern’ period, Spirit was nudged to the wayside. As with many other philosophical discussions over the past few thousand years we have come full circle, and see Spirit is gaining a key place in the picture again, not just in philosophy, but also in psychology, as well as other areas of science; such as genetics, given what has been discovered in our dna/rna the past few decades! Is the ability to feel passion a stimulus of mind or of spirit? What would the ‘Modern’ answer be?

      • Well, the interesting thing about Western views on the mind, body, and relationship between them is that the possibilities for interesting conceptions have not changed much since Antiquity. There were hardcore materialists in Antiquity as there are now, and as there were in the Modern period. There were staunch dualists, who believed that the mind is purely immaterial, or perhaps even “spiritual”, in Antiquity, as there are now, and as there was in the Modern period. This is a 2500 year old issue in which the major positions available were marked out fairly early and have not changed much since then. And, still, there’s just no decisive evidence to carry the day for against any of them.

        To OtherSteve. Yeah, not a fan of Rousseau or Kierkegaard. I don’t find any interesting thinking goes on while I’m riding a bike. I try to escape serious thinking on a bike. So, if Darren and I were to ride together, we should probably talk about concrete things: beer, girls, the TdF.

        • Considering the school-of-thought that all humans are seeking are comfort zones, including inner comfort/peace through religion, one would wonder why are there not more people to be found riding! Even moments of suffering on the bike can afterwards be comforting, in the sense that you did not give, but kept on pus hing until your goal (destination) was reached! As Venus De Mylo said, “Feel the burn!”

          Yeah, Ronin: girls, beer, Milan-San-Remo and some small races (TDF et al)!

  7. Saw this meme that said: Sometimes we need that quiet place. To be. Think. Feel. And to find our way back home. -Vicki Reece. Only then did I realize why I enjoy riding up this mountain road with moderate to minimal motor vehicle traffic almost every weekend.

  8. In my experience, worrying excessively about one’s performance is inimical to achieving the headspace and psychological benefits described in this article.

    Achieving a zen-like state requires limiting my effort to 70-80% of my max. Beyond this, my cycling and ego related neuroses take over.

  9. Hope you enjoy your ride inrng. I experience the same inner peace from a good bike ride. Maybe it’s the circular movement of the wheels and the sense of freedom by just getting away–distance wise–from it all. Keep on bikin’ and let’s meet up at the next coffee stop.

      • I find it quite interesting why people post that kind of thing. It can’t be attention seeking because it’s usually ‘anonymous’. Maybe it’s a sense of disappointment brought about by the general excellence of this blog and the fact that this post didn’t chime (as it clearly has for a number of others). Either way it’s interesting how some readers develop a sense of entitlement to be constantly entertained by what is essentially a personal blog that is free to read.

  10. Might be worth trying the line about the mind only works when the legs do the next time I’m sat in the office and the sun comes out (if there’s still a sun out there somewhere?)!

    Look forward to you hitting the Tour in peak condition.

  11. Thats a great ribbon of road to descend (Gallibier heaing south)

    I have a week of riding from Mont St Michel to Mont Ventoux for Tour De Force and I am in the same opnion, often problems are set free whilst I am on the bike. Just not sure my employers, who are sponosoring me, would have happily agreed to four or five 8 hour days on the bike day dreaming!

  12. Great article – one of my main pleasures from riding the bike comes from all the freedom to think clearly. Free from distractions and let the brain run its course.

    The part I’m never sure about, is whether it’s the physical exercise that de-stresses me, or just the fact that my brain has figured out a bunch of stuff, that makes me more relaxed? Or maybe both? Certainly not worth bothering about….

  13. I think the possibility too regain ure balance trough working out agressions by going hard, or overcome bad emotions due too confrontating yourself with them for a long time without distraction on the bike leads too a relaxd state of mind that can search for solutions free 🙂 at least that what i thankfully expire!

    wish u good rides Inring! always enjoy reading ure blog :)!

  14. Some of my darker days have been made much better by cycling. Cycling for hours in the rain seems to clean my soul.
    I do appreciate the beautiful countryside but alongside this I love pushing myself to the absolute limit, to the point where only survival is important. I find this puts a perspective on all my niggling issues.
    Also, cycling with HeadPhones: “You must be as mad as mad man who has just come first in a ‘Mr Mad Man Competition”

    • +1 for the cycling in the rain and riding beyond your limits, that’s where the interesting answers are always found.

      i would easily trade the headphones to ride on the some of the beautiful mountains across europe, but in the states the scenery isn’t nearly as wonderful depending on your location. a tailored playlist is very important for motivation if your background is typically strip-malls and traffic.

      • I think that’s especially dangerous when your background is typically strip-malls and traffic. You’d need your sense of hearing to detect approaching cars.

  15. I’m not sure you can have a mild addiction. Anecdotally I’ve found cycling to be all consuming since taking it up. It’s a more scenic compulsion than crack but the jury’s still out on a cost analysis!

  16. Someone somewhere said that cycling is a way to get over mid-life crisis. I think it is certainly true.

    Whether it does so through helping you think things through and get perspectives on life or just allowing you to escape realities for a few hours, I’m not quite sure.

  17. Yes, I find cycling very helpful for de-stressing (even bunch rides can focus the mind marvellously).
    Many creators/thinkers/artists to add to the list, including Thoreau, who was an avid walker. But perhaps the pre-eminent example was Wordsworth, who apparently composed poems on his long walks.
    Looking forward to your write-ups of the Tour.

  18. Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of this post, coming back to riding over the last few years from a long break it has done wonders for my sense of well being and I think definitely helped me to cope mentally with a tough few years. Being on a bike every motion and movement you take is controlled by you and is propelling you forward – not many areas of life are like that. Even my commute into work (which is not particularly nice) always makes me feel much better. The only thing that annoys me is the regret of not riding for so many years and now trying to work out how I can fit riding in and go to some of the places you mention to experience them.

  19. Enjoyed this article & the comments so much. Even a respectful debate on early philosophy of the mind/body duality! Makes such a pleasant change from the usual rows you read on bike forums.

    I can contest to the relaxing & calming effect of cycling, not sure about rinding in the rain though! Also have experienced the negative side of getting too caught up in trying to be competitive, control training rides etc. Dumped the bike computer years ago, ride on my own more often now & drop in & out of club-runs as & when I fancy & smile to myself when the other guys bicker amongst themselves. Oh, and try not to forget to sit up occasionally & take in the view!

    Finally, take great comfort from knowing that when/if the oil runs out I’ll be able to get around just fine!

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