Start slow and taper off: forest bathing on two wheels

By Rob Kristoff


The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly fishing, hunting, or mountain climbing is to affect a spiritual and physical gain. But if the process is compromised, there is no transformation.- Yvon Chouinard

“If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.” It’s an old cliche, but it captures an undeniable truth about today’s world. I don’t have to go through the litany of bad news surrounding us to remind you that we all have good reason to look for a way to escape stress. We have different words for it—decompressing, chilling out, taking downtime—but now, more than ever, everybody wants—needs—it.

As mountain bikers, we’ve got a secret that could save the world. We know a ride can transform us—but why? As someone who fights an ongoing battle with anxiety, depression, and OCD, sometimes to the point of them causing physical symptoms, I’ve felt those things ease nearly the moment I set foot in the woods.  I never came up with a solid answer that explained what was actually going on.

           I don’t remember where I first heard of Shinrin Yoku (“forest bathing”), but it immediately struck a chord with me. And the more I learn about it, the more I think it might be the closest I’ve come to a true answer as to why these places leave us feeling so much better. Proponents of the practice make some big claims, suggesting that deep focus on the forest boosts our immune system, decreases stress, enhances mental performance and creativity, and can even prevent and fight disease. But is this all just new age anecdotes and people’s highly subjective personal experiences, or have scientists tested these claims?

Shinrin Yoku originated in Japan, inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices. And they’re the ones who’ve been the most active in verifying its benefits scientifically. Primary among these researchers is Yoshifumi Miyazaki. He’s well-known for pioneering studies where he took groups of subjects to a city, sent them out for a gentle walk, and measured their blood pressure, pulse, and cortisol—the hormone responsible for stress—then took them to a forest and sent them out for an equal amount of time. After these sylvan rambles, Cortisol levels dropped by 12%. Pulse rate was down by nearly 6%. Blood pressure was 1.4% lower.

Impressive. But what’s going on? One answer is phytoncides. These are “aromatic volatile substances”—smells, essentially—emitted by trees to ward off pests. Scientists in Japan have identified up to 100 of them in the air of the Japanese countryside—and almost none in the air around cities. But they do more than keep pests away. Amazing as it may sound, the scents of trees can supercharge the human immune system by encouraging the growth of Natural Killer”(NK) cells, which fight off cancer and other diseases.

Just how powerful are phytoncides? Qing Li, from Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, once put 12 subjects in hotel rooms. In some of the rooms, he had humidifiers vaporizing the oil from Cypress trees. In others, nothing. The tree smellers saw a 20% increase in these NK cells over the course of a 3-night stay—and also reported feeling less fatigued. The others saw almost no changes.

That’s impressive. But how long do I have to sit and stare at a log? In other words, even when we’re riding the most mellow, flowing singletrack, are we cheating ourselves out of all of these benefits? As far back as I can remember (I first rode my friend Bryan’s Ross mountain bike around 1987), I’ve heard people describe mountain biking with some variation of It’s like hiking, but you can see more and get farther into the woods’. That’s undoubtedly true. But all this time, have we unknowingly been trading massive, even life-saving, improvements for a short-term adrenaline high, or better mileage on our Strava? Do we need to choose between fast mountain biking and slow nature?

Florence Williams is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, but she’s also a cyclist. She told me, “As a biker, I certainly believe there are a lot of benefits [to Shinrin Roku]—and the phytoncides certainly would pertain.” As Li’s study of these aromas shows, just inhaling them—even away from the trees themselves—has amazing benefits. So by breathing hard while riding, we do have that going for us. But there’s no evidence that we gain the stress reduction and heart-health benefits that Miyazaki describes.

But psychologist Steven Kaplan suggests that there’s more to being in nature than that. He and his wife, Rachel, researched the sustained directed attention that the modern world demands from us, to the point that it makes us fatigued and irritable. But how can we recover from this and keep doing our jobs and living our lives?  “Natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences,” he writes. “In fact, people often use ‘getting away’ as a shorthand for going to a restorative place.” Although smartphones didn’t exist in 1995 when he wrote this, I think it’s also safe to assume that Kaplan’s ‘getting away’ doesn’t involve bringing along your telephone. Psychology supports science in suggesting that taking our compulsive urge to focus into the woods isn’t doing us any favors. But I, for one, don’t feel like a ride even counts if I haven’t tracked it with my phone. It’s a bit like a Zen koan—are you still getting away if you bring the object of your directed attention with you?

It’s easy to forget— because marketing works hard to bury the complex truth beneath an easier-to-sell caricature—but the heart of mountain biking has always been about more than speed. I asked MTB Hall of Famer and NORBA co-founder Jacquie Phelan where that “hammering with the bros” mindset first came from. Was it in the original Repack-era DNA of mountain biking? It was a race, after all.  “Not at all. The whole push off for the Marin County bunch…” she said, “ was about advocacy and enjoying nature. One year into creating the logo—which Joe Breeze designed—and having a few meetings, one guy said he wants to have a governing body, so he can have races.” She went on to describe mountain biking’s first identity crisis, between being an organized “sport” and a fun way to explore nature.

That man burned himself out trying to combine racing and advocacy—at least he tried—and sold NORBA to the ABA—a nationwide BMX racing organization—in 1986. Phelan says this was truly when “women got flushed down the toilet and advocacy got flushed down the toilet…and that’s when IMBA was created and WOMBATS—to sort of solve that problem.”

At one time, Jacquie even thought about starting a male version of WOMBATS, and had “already dreamed up the acronym, which is M-A-N-A-T-E-E: the Male Auxiliary Non-Athletic Testosterone-Enhanced Enthusiasts! Just a silly retort, because it’s this giant thing that’s, of course, going extinct, but sort of a pleasant animal—and obviously not up to any seedy tricks.” Ever heard of this branch before? Of course not—because it would be hard to find enough men to join.

But why? When did we become so intense? Mountain bikers used to pride ourselves on being a nature-loving, free-thinking community born of hippies. But is that really the case any more? Did our open minds fade with the colorful anodizing of the 90s? But the issue isn’t about subjective preferences or personal feelings about competition. The question I started with is whether we’re choosing to pass through the forest too fast to receive the benefits available to us through Shinrin Yoku—which really just means ‘in the natural world’. Does one of these two choices—fitness or phytoncides—objectively benefit us more? I feel confident that everything we’ve looked at so far—Miyazaki’s studies, the NK cells, Kaplan’s thoughts about restoration, and Jacquie’s personal experience of competitive riding—shows us that one is. And it’s the slower option.

Grant Petersen, the owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works, would agree. His company is preparing to release the Gus Boots-Willsen—a completely modern, totally rigid steel bike without disk brakes. It seems he’s made his choice between speed and the natural world. As the designer, is he—and anybody who buys one of these bikes—just stubbornly choosing to sacrifice speed? Or is the Gus Boots-Willsen delivering positive benefits of its own that can’t be measured in mph?

Grant puts it this way: “Bumps and rubble haven’t changed since 1977. What’s changed are mountain bikes. Through the ‘80s they were simple: strong frames and forks with big tires, strong brakes, and low gears,” he says. “Each tech advancement leaves mountain biking’s flannel shirt, workboots-and-camaraderie roots further behind. The simple bike has become too boring for the market. That’s the matter-of-fact origin of the Gus Boots-Willsen,” he explains.

“We call Boots a ‘hillybike,’ because technology has redefined what a mountain bike is. (On trails, other riders call it a cruiser.) We want to see this kind of bicycle come back, 40 years after Joe Breeze’s first one. It’s a magical mix of wheels and axles, levers, screws, pulleys, wedges, a saddle—and that’s all. It blends in, looks, and feels at home in nature. It doesn’t matter what you call it—or who makes it. The modern mountain bike is for speed, competition, thrill-seeking, and risk. The hillybike is for travel, exploring, fun. The riding can be fast—but is never competitive.”

“I’m in no position to define what “mountain biking” means to anybody else,” Petersen continues, “but my impression of it—which I get from everything I see and read—is that mountain biking is about turning nature into your personal athletic arena. To psych up for your ‘event,’ you wear your padded, graphic-heavy uniform, ride your combat bike, and go for it.” Overstated? Maybe. But keep in mind, that’s also what people said when he championed 650B/27.5” wheels, flat pedals on road bikes, bike camping, and the use of those metal cargo baskets.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of the slow food movement, once said “We have lost our sense of time. We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have an idea that life is short — and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long.” Petrini’s not a rider, but he sure seems to summarize the situation perfectly.

I’m not saying you should quit racing, delete Strava from your phone and sell your full-suspension bike. But based on what scientists, psychologists and a couple legend-level cyclists have told us, we need to slow down. This approach may not hone your fitness perfectly, but I believe it will benefit your life in ways that can’t be timed, measured in average speeds, or captured in a training log or on the latest “shreddit.”

Mountain biking is a beautiful way of moving through the forest. It’s the most beautiful sport in the world. It deserves to be treated as so much more than a simple contest of who can go the hardest, do the biggest drop, master the most tricks or any other measure. Because in our ultramodern online world, there will always be somebody to surpass you and then tell you all about it. Stop competing with those people and refocus on enjoying what makes our sport great: friends, stories, the smell of pine trees.

If we want to add meaning to life like Petrini, to find the physical and spiritual transformation Chouinard described, I believe it’s time for us to revisit mountain biking’s roots and give some deep thought to what we’re really looking for in the woods. Maybe it’s time to slow down.