Whenever someone asks why I love mountain biking, I list all the amazing things about the sport: fresh air and wilderness, great exercise, meeting inspiring women, riding fun and exciting trails and feeling proud and exhilarated after a great ride. All of these and more are reasons why I am passionate about riding.
But there is one part of mountain biking that I don’t love. It’s the fear. The sweaty, shaky hands gripping tighter on the handlebars as I approach a steep descent. The stomach-turning butterflies that race inside me as I ride over a narrow bridge.
Sometimes I get nervous even before the ride begins. The approaching fear makes me angry as I think about that one difficult trail, wishing so badly that I could just ride it with the confidence and skill that I see in other riders.
I know I’m not alone, even though it feels that way sometimes. So how do we rid ourselves of the fear and nerves that encroach our bodies as we move up the mountain bike learning curve?
The answer is: we don’t.
We need fear. It’s important. Fear keeps us safe. It helps us find our boundaries. And if we push those walls just a little bit every now and then, our confidence will grow and so will our skills.
Fear Doesn’t Discriminate
Learning to ride a variety of mountain bike terrain is not always easy and can be discouraging. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding for one week or 20 years, if you’re a pro downhill racer, or a sometimes-weekender. There are times for all of us when we’re tackling something on the trail that is scary.
I’ve been riding for about five years now so I’m not a beginner, but I’m not an expert either. I’m 57 years old and while I know I entered this sport later than most, I still want to get better and ride harder trails. But mountain biking can be scary for many reasons.
Maybe you’re nervous about a new feature, or an unfamiliar trail. I’ve never cleared a gap jump before, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be scared the first time if I decide to try. Perhaps you are trying to master riding through a tight, downhill corner without falling. Or maybe you’re going on your first group ride and you’re worried you’ll be last and hold up the group (don’t worry, we’ve all felt that way before!). All of these situations, and many more, can make us nervous, hesitant or even scared of mountain biking. Thank goodness the smiles out-number the nerves, or we’d probably give up!
So what do we do about it?
The good news is that we’re talking. Not dwelling on it, but sharing with each other that we get nervous. This is a great first step, especially to reduce the “I’m in this alone” thoughts.
Rationally, I know that it’s possible to overcome fear and that it doesn’t last forever. I remember riding over a bridge for the first time, smiling at my own success. First I was scared. Then, all of a sudden, I rode it. I met the challenge. What a great feeling!
So what changed? What was the difference between the first minutes, staring over the edge of the narrow, wooden planks, and when I let go to ride over it with success?
To answer that, I tried to understand what goes on in my body when I feel scared.
The Power of the Brain
Have you ever been told, “Don’t think so much”? I have. I’ll be the first to admit that I think way too much. But not all thinking is bad. What I’m learning is that it’s not so much a matter of not thinking, but rather a change in what I am thinking that can make the difference.
The brain is an incredibly powerful organ. It controls thought, memory, emotions, movements, breathing and so much more. The brain can even create roadblocks where there are none. Because of this, it’s important to ensure that the thoughts in our brain are positive, accurate and help move us in the right direction.
There have been times when I am so focused on the scary sections of the trail, that without even knowing it, my muscles get tense and I’m holding my breath. I forget to do all the basic skills that help me to ride successfully. My anxious thoughts have caused a physical reaction in my body that is not only unhelpful, but could potentially lead to injury.
When I focus on positive messages, and a confident inner voice, I put myself in a much better position to have a good ride. My breath becomes smooth. My hands loosen their grip on the bars and brakes; and my body starts to relax. That’s the power of the brain.
Fear is a Natural and Necessary First Step to Growth and Confidence
Not all fear is bad. Fear tells us where our comfort zone ends. When something is making us nervous, it might be an opportunity for growth – even if we’re not successful right away.
In his 2020 article, “When Is Fear Healthy”, Dr. Raffael Bocanazzo shares how overcoming fear helps build courage. If we gradually move outside our comfort zones, we grow. Fear helps us do that. When we feel nervous or fearful, and we move forward anyway, we gain strength, and feel courageous and confident. Just by taking a step closer to the challenge, we are pushing our limits in a good way. When we do finally ride over, under, or through the obstacle, it feels amazing!
Feelings of accomplishment come from setting and reaching goals that are challenging. We get confident when we build skills and grow, but we have to push through the nerves first.
The Benefits of Fear
Overcoming fear can build our immune system. According to an article by Maria Isabella Neverovich 4 Reasons Why Fear Is Good for Your Health (verv.com) our brain releases chemicals in response to the situations we face.
As I approach an obstacle or situation that challenges me, my heart rate rises and my palms get sweaty. This is my body releasing adrenaline as it responds to the nerves associated with riding difficult features. Once I make it over whatever it was that had me worried, the risk is gone, my brain releases endorphins and I start to feel good. My stress level decreases and my immune system is strengthened for future challenges.
Aside from these physiological reactions that happen to all of us, there are also psychological responses as well. Fear keeps us safe. It acts as a signal to our mind that something needs to change. The goal, of course, is for the nerves to disappear. But while I’m learning something new, and particularly when I’m riding alone, I need to listen to what my body is telling me.
Fear and Confidence: Working Together to Make Change
We’re used to thinking of fear and confidence as opposites. Fear is a negative emotion which brings on hesitation, anxiety, even anger. Confidence is positive, associated with courage and fearlessness. But lately I’ve been feeling like they have more in common than I realized and actually work together to bring about change.
Both are temporary. I know that if I move through the fear, I’ll feel confident and proud of myself for meeting the challenge. As my comfort zone grows, so does the trust I have in my ability to learn and accomplish new things – even later in life! Even though I feel anxious, I know that if I keep trying, I’ll succeed and feel confident again. Both emotions are important parts of me.
The greatest benefit to feeling nervous as I ride is that it makes me want to change how I feel. I take steps I never would have taken had I not been afraid at all.
How you respond to fear is personal. Here are some things I do when I’m having a particularly stressful ride:
Ask questions: I stop and figure out what’s going on. Is the fear warranted? Or is it irrational? Have I ridden the feature successfully before? Are the conditions different and do I need to change my approach? Am I distracted by something else going on in my life? These are some of the questions I ask to figure out if the fear is valid or if I should put it aside for the day.
Take lessons: Feeling scared to ride a specific feature may mean that I’m just not ready for it yet. The best way I know to develop mountain bike skills for difficult terrain is to attend a clinic or take lessons. The more I learn, the more skills I have in my toolkit so that I can ride safely and have fun.
Rest: I take a break and eat something. It’s amazing how a snack can change my whole perspective. I may even need to take a few days off altogether. Riding and learning new skills is tiring. It’s important to let my body and my brain recover. Since fear is temporary, a rested mind and body might bring about the confidence I’m missing in the first place.
Focus on skills: I remind myself to follow the basics of mountain biking that all good riders use. For example: look ahead, stand up when I’m not pedaling, and let go of the brakes. Learning to trust myself, my bike and the skills I’ve learned in clinics and group rides is a huge part of my progress and growing confidence on my bike.
Ride a different trail: Sometimes I ride an easier route, accepting that today is not the day to take on a new challenge. The message here is patience. I’m learning not to get down on myself, knowing that I can always come back another day and try again. Riding familiar trails is a great way to build confidence.
Learn from others: When I really struggle with nerves, I watch videos or read blogs of other riders experiencing the same feeling. I have learned so much from others sharing their strategies and ideas on how to overcome fear when mountain biking. One of my favourites is: 7 TOP TIPS: How I have learnt to Overcome FEAR on an MTB – YouTube
Fear is Here to Stay
None of these steps will get rid of fear forever. They simply help me to calm my mind, listen to my body, and understand the situation. Instead of quitting or beating myself up for being so afraid, I’m learning to be patient.
I know that fear doesn’t last forever. With patience, practice and being aware of my thoughts, fear can take a back seat to confidence any day.
Fear is a part of life and it’s a part of sport. It’s a part of many first steps we take, no matter what the journey.
Most of the time mountain biking brings on all sorts of fun, excitement, whoops and laughter and that’s why I love it. It isn’t scary every time I ride – I wouldn’t do it if it was. I’m pretty sure others wouldn’t either. But when I’m trying something new or learning a hard skill, I know I’ll get nervous. And that’s ok. The fear means I’m testing my limits, and I’ll be stronger and better for it. And that makes me love mountain biking even more.
Soon, I’ll be heading out on my bike again. I’ll bring my confidence and fear with me when I go. They are both a part of me, and I am learning to accept that. Even when I’m challenged, I know that confidence is in me somewhere. I just need to let her out and ride!