scotland trail therapy programme supports mental health with mountain biking lochaber fort william world cup dh track start hut

Recovery: Scotland’s Trail Therapy tackles mental ill-health with MTB

If you’re reading this, it is highly likely you are well aware of the mental health benefits to be gained from a mountain bike ride. A quick shred around the local can lift the mood immeasurably, right? Well, four years ago, a group of researchers at Edinburgh Napier University, along with the help of Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), set out to measure just that.

I had the pleasure of being involved with that Pilot Study, where researchers sought to measure the health benefits of Mountain Biking on individuals suffering with mental ill-health. The aim was to find out how, if at all, mountain biking could actually be used as a form of therapy, and a way of helping individuals recover from depression, anxiety, and other very common mental health issues.

Accompanied by other mountain bike leaders and mental health professionals, I led groups of adults, many of whom were totally new to mountain biking, around Glentress Trail Center. Weekly 2-hour sessions over six weeks saw the participants’ confidence on the bike build tremendously. By the end of the programme they were tackling log skinnies, bridges, and small drops. It was very rewarding to see their progression and to watch their enthusiasm for mountain biking build over the course of the project.

Occupational therapist specializing in mental health, Niamh Allum, was the driving force behind that pilot study. Niamh had been working with the participants in a more traditional clinical setting on self-management skills to improve their physical and mental health, and saw the opportunity within mountain biking to allow patients to practice these self-management skills in a more complex social setting.

The Pilot Study was a major success, and great proof of concept. Now, thanks to the Scottish MTB Health Fund, DMBinS are rolling out the Trail Therapy Programme, documented in the short film made by Joe Norledge and Reuben Bakker-Dyos, supported by Trek Bicycles.

scotalnd trail therapy programme

Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland’s Paul MacFarlane now leads on the Trail Therapy Programme, accompanied here by Amy Fletcher, an Occupational Therapist and Mountain Bike Leader.

From DMBinS:

“Trail Therapy is an innovative intervention programme that seeks to use mountain biking in combination with more traditional therapy techniques to support those with a diagnosed mental health illness.

Trail Therapy is ambitious! We know from an ever-expanding body of research that the benefits of being outdoors in nature in combination with an activity that requires concentration can have profound physical and mental health benefits. We have a growing appreciation too that physical and mental ill health are often intrinsically linked; physical health problems significantly increase the risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa.

Nearly one in three people with a long-term physical health condition also have a mental health problem, most often depression or anxiety. Our bodies and minds are simply not separate so approaching mental ill health from a whole body perspective makes increasing sense and it is this, along with focus and the positive (and managed) risk associated with mountain biking that makes this programme so exciting.

As participants go through the programme, we hope to facilitate folk as they grow in confidence, improve their social interactions in a supportive environment, establish skills of self-regulation and accelerate their road to well-being. 

We want our participants to become more comfortable in open and minimal support environments, with the ultimate aim that cycling becomes part of their active lifestyle. 

For many this will form part of their resilience toolkit to enable them to be discharged from NHS care. The result is a better quality of life, an additional practical tool in their toolkit for managing their own mental health and increased physical health as well as mental health”.

scotland trail therapy programme supports mental health with mountain biking lochaber fort william world cup dh track start hut

Recovery was filmed at Fort William, home to a Downhill World Cup Track. Nevis Range and the greater Lochaber region is home to hundreds of miles of spectacular singletrack for all abilities. You can access the Fort William and Lochaber Ride Guide here on the DMBinS website.

You can learn more about Scotland Trail Therapy Programme here and support it by donating to the Scottish MTB Health Fund here.

Mental health support can be accessed via the Samaritan’s Helpline, the Breathing Space Helpline, or via your local GP.

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