Finding it hard to sleep? Imagine being back on your bike…
SINCE I TURNED 40, and started getting up at least once a night to visit the bathroom, I’ve found it increasingly tough to get back to sleep in the small hours.
As well as my glitchy personal plumbing, work and life stresses gradually helped me to perfect the art of waking up at about 4am, and then failing to drop off again.
Typically, I’d spend a couple of hours a night lying awake with my worst, most useless, thoughts – about someone horrible at work, for example, or being mean to an ex-girlfriend 20 years before.
And then, when I finally gave up on the prospect of sleep at around 6.30, I’d get up to start another day – gloomy and totally keyed up, as well as just fucking tired.
Lately, however, I’ve stumbled upon an unexpected solution to my insomnia.
It’s at least as effective, percentage wise, as the Oxford vaccine, in that it works around 75 per cent of the time.
It’s also dead simple: I just replay all the things I saw and heard on my last bike ride in my head.
These days, if I catch myself fretting about showing myself up at a party in the 1990s, or a friend I didn’t keep in touch with, I guide my mind back slowly through the ride again: I see the frost on the first hill; a smoking car exhaust; builders carrying a bath in a big cloth.
It’s at night, when I project the ride again onto the screen at the back of my skull, that cycling’s essential boringness comes into its own”
It’s my urban MAMIL equivalent of counting sheep. And it’s – literally – a knockout.
It doesn’t work because anything particularly interesting usually happens on a ride (although at the time, what I see does seem vivid and interesting, because I’m alertly in the midst of it).
No, it’s at night, when I project the ride again onto the screen at the back of my skull, that cycling’s essential boringness comes into its own.
Remembering everything as minutely as I can has the effect of ejecting more interesting and dramatic – but frequently unhelpful – thoughts from my head.
I suppose it’s a form of mindfulness – in that I suspect all mindfulness is a means of distracting us from unhelpful thoughts. Or, maybe, the remembered detail overwhelms them like a fire blanket smothers a blaze.
And if I can hang on there with my replay, going back to where I was in the ride again if random thoughts ever get through, it’s brilliant.
“There’s much less negative chatter in my head during the day lately – maybe because I don’t beat myself up during the night”
Sometimes, I even feel I’m about to go to sleep just ahead of it happening – a bit like a general anaesthetic creeps up your arm before it conks you out.
And hours later, I wake up, feeling far calmer and rested than I’d thought possible, back when I was struggling to drop off…
It might be something to do with the fact that life is slower because of Covid right now, but I’ve noticed that there’s much less negative chatter in my head during the day lately – and maybe that’s because I don’t beat myself up myself during the night.
The only downside to re-running a ride is that details can fade quickly, so after a couple of days, it’s difficult to recall enough about what I saw to truly fight my thoughts.
But even that’s not a problem: I just need to go out for a spin – or even a run – to lay down fresh memories every couple of days.
My discovery, of course, has made me fall even deeper in love with cycling. Because now riding a bike doesn’t just get you fitter, get you outside in nature, or stave off depression and lockdown weariness: it can also help you with the desperate struggle for some Zs.
And so, every time you go out for a bit of a pedal, it’s a gift to yourself that just keeps on giving.
To paraphrase Nancy Sinatra, You Only Ride Twice, Mr Bond: once in your life, and once just before your dreams.