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Cyclist’s Mental Health Series #2: Ellen Noble

Robyn Davidson
6 Jun 2022

Ellen Noble talks us through her sabbatical, her own mental health journey and wider help she would like to see available

Cyclocross and mountain bike rider Ellen Noble is currently undertaking a sabbatical.

Two years of mystery illness culminated in a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s – an autoimmune disease – as the American also dealt with anxiety, increasing bouts of depression and a broken back.

‘Sometimes I would be riding and start crying mid-pedal stroke. I just burst into tears, and I didn't know why.

‘I think that’s how screwed up my mental health and nervous system was. Everything was just at its breaking point.’

She has struggled with anxiety for as long as she can remember. Depression manifested more recently, a slower approach going unnoticed until she took the time to reflect.

‘My descent into depression was so slow that I didn't notice how I was feeling and what was going on.

‘At a certain point I was like damn, has life always been so grey and glum?

‘Then I thought… no it hasn’t, you just didn’t realise.’

‘If I can do anything at all in our own little microcosm of sport, it would be to destigmatise it for people’

One form of treatment for depression is anti-depressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain and results vary from person to person.

‘I'm not entrenched in the competitive cycling world right now so I can’t say if it’s the same, but for me, there felt like a big stigma around SSRIs and anti-depressants.

‘I've always felt like it was kind of frowned upon and only something people who were really down and out needed.

‘Then I realised: I was really down and out. I was just existing and putting one foot in front of another.’

Two friends mentioned in conversation that they were on anti-depressants; this openness meant Noble immediately made an appointment to talk about it with her doctor.

‘It was so freeing. If I can do anything at all in our own little microcosm of sport, it would be to destigmatise it for people.

‘Societally the last two years have been so hard. I’m sure I'm not the only one who’s had a really hard time. I think a lot of people are struggling.’

She notes the importance of her adaptive routines and how to break out of a cycle when feeling lower than usual.

‘I do all of my morning steps to set myself up for success, like brush my teeth and take a shower.

‘If I’m not feeling quite as good, then maybe I’ll do a little bit less. But I think another big thing for me as well is setting things up that have to be done.

‘I work with a personal trainer twice a week. Sometimes I’ve had to tell them that I would like to focus on mobility because I’m not in the place to focus on strength and lifting, so we’ll do a nervous system reset.

‘It’s about having stuff that helps break you out of your cycle. I’ll go through downtimes, but I know that my depression is managed enough now by my SSRIs that typically I will feel better if I can be broken out of my cycle.’

Taking a sabbatical has opened up more doors for her as she experiences van life with her boyfriend and their new dog, Winnie.

Winnie is a Whippet rescue mix that weighs over 10kg, with a tendency to sleep on laps.

‘[Winnie] is so good for my routine. I have to go outside multiple times a day. Dogs make the world better, I swear.

‘I had been on my sabbatical for several months before I told anyone publicly that wasn’t a part of my team or my sponsors.

‘Now I feel like I'm really starting to make the most out of it. It’s given me a lot of mental peace to know I’m doing something different with this time than I would be if I was racing.’

‘There's so many aspects of our sport that are still just pedal harder and be tough’

When it comes to cycling, she believes not enough is done to counteract a culture that centres on being ‘tough’ and ‘strong’.

‘There are so many aspects of our sport that are just “pedal harder and be tough”.

‘Even on my own page people have said that no one cares or that I’m a baby and need to move on.

‘I think there’s still this kind of old tough men mentality that people are doing a really good job of coming up against.

‘What tells me there’s not enough is that every time I post something about mental health people are like, “Thank you for saying this. It needs to be said. I needed to hear this so desperately.’’



Noble says she would like to see mental health regarded as being as important as physical health too.

If an athlete needs time off for an overuse injury, this same thinking should be applied to someone who is dealing with a mental overuse injury for example.

‘I don’t think that exists right now. I don’t think you can go to your sports director and say, I am severely depressed, and I think I need to fly home.

‘Cycling doesn’t really have that supportive infrastructure. You see teams with six doctors and physios, but there’s no mental health support.’

She recalled how racing on the World Cup circuit every 26th of December meant spending years without her family on Christmas.

‘People would tell me that I was living my dream and surely it was worth it. But both things can coexist.

‘I’m living my dream and I’m grateful for it. But I wish that I could live my dream and not have to go a year without seeing my family.

‘People sacrifice so much and sport isn’t the only profession either.’


Noble at the Tabor World Cup, 2018. Luc Claessen via Getty Images.

For those struggling outside of the professional peloton, she advises, ‘Doing things with intention is so important.

‘If you don’t want to ride today because you’re doing something else that makes you feel nurtured, that’s awesome.

‘If you’re struggling but you know that you’re going to feel better once you get out, try just putting on your clothes.

‘I always feel like that. I’ll say all I’m going to do is wear the clothes I’m wearing, then I’m just going to spin to the coffee shop, or I’m going to ride for five minutes, or whatever... I’m going to go for a walk instead.

‘If you don’t want to do your workout, you don’t have to do the workout.’

When asked what she would like to see from a media perspective, Noble says, ‘Writing real stuff about mental health… you go to the supermarket and pick up a health magazine but they’re not real conversations.

‘That realness is so important. Being able to see something in yourself.

‘It can help make people aware that they’re not destined to suffer and feel this way forever.’

‘I’d be over the moon to see therapy become even more accessible’

Noble at the 68th World Championships Bieles (Lux) 2017. Luc Claessen via Getty Images.

Throughout our conversation, Noble recognises that accessibility to treatment can differ drastically and that this is the area she would like to see improve most in the next few years.

‘I know that you have very different health care in the UK. In the US, it’s really hard to get mental health care. It makes physical health care look easy and that’s a disaster too.

‘There are programmes starting to become available that are helpful, but it’s not enough.

‘I've dedicated a considerable amount of money to therapy because it matters to me and I have the privilege of being able to afford it. I know people who can’t.

‘In a couple of years, I’d be over the moon to see therapy become even more accessible.

‘The biggest thing too is letting it be paid for by our insurance. A lot of insurance does not cover therapy in the US. So that would be such a big step forward.’

In terms of how we can all contribute to make cycling, and society, more accommodating for mental health issues, she says we should continue championing those who are already being supportive, those who can act like a ‘safe space’, and enabling a culture that knows the importance of mental health.

‘I ended up landing on my feet in a way. I still have some sponsors and I accidentally ended up with a trajectory within cycling that isn’t racing, but not a lot of people do.

‘It felt like an eternity where I would question whether this was all that I have to look forward to, whether life was something that I experienced and not engaged with.

‘People say this all the time, but really, you deserve better, and it can get better.

‘How this feels isn’t a life sentence. You deserve that improvement.

‘Even when you feel like, man, this sucks forever. It probably won’t suck forever.'

Helplines

UK and Ireland 

  • Samaritans: 24/7 on 116 123 
  • Mind: 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday on 0300 123 3393

United States

  • Mental Health America: 24/7 on 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Canada

  • Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566

Australia

  • BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636

New Zealand

  • Lifeline 24/7 Helpline: 0800 543 345

India

  • Sneha India: 10am to 10pm on 91 44 24640050

South Africa

  • Lifeline National Counselling: 0861-322-322

Main image: Adin Baird of Ellen Noble via Instagram (ellenlikesbikes)

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