Marginal Gains, as a term, became all the rage around 2010 when a bike racing team from England, with a hipster team leader and a bald-headed boss, co-opted the term and started to over-use it. But marginal gains have been around for a long time, and long before that team’s rise, guys like Josh Poertner were finding every small change imaginable to improve the whole.
Finding these gains isn’t limited to bikes though; all kinds of books and podcasts and YouTube videos can be found on these gains in the business world as well as where I work, in the educational world. But the moment more important than my first pair of aero socks or my first waxed chain was when I had to start finding marginal gains in my fight against Bipolar Disorder.
I know I know, this is like the record player scratching, but seriously, we need to start talking more about Mental Health. Not just nice token posts in May during Mental Health awareness month or during September (Suicide prevention awareness month). And not just “hey I’m down with mental health talk.” We need to be brave enough to talk about our own mental health and empower others to get help if needed. We also need to educate those who are fortunate enough not to struggle so they are able to talk about this topic as well. They are the ones who can straddle the void that exists between those who need help and those who don’t.
I am just a normal guy living in Northern Minnesota with his family; I’m a teacher and a soccer coach and of course, I love to ride bikes. But when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2020 and subsequently started treatment, I learned so much about how our body behaves while depressed, and I learned this mantra: activity is the enemy of depression. This is a mantra that has helped me find a number of marginal gains for my mental health.
For extremely long periods of time from 2010-2020 all I knew was this; the weight of depression squeezing me to death, laying on a bed or on a couch or on a floor for days. Feeling exhausted, heavy limbed and unable to do anything. The weight of my thoughts keeping me there and wondering when this feeling would lift. And because I felt terrible and more importantly, didn’t know any better, I would just keep laying there and feel more depressed because I couldn’t do anything whatsoever to get back to normalcy, to fun things like being on the bike.
Even once diagnosed, this wasn’t going away, it was just going to be more manageable. I have Bipolar, so depression can be an expected tenant in various forms for long stretches of the year. I’m doing fairly well right now, emphasis on “fairly”. But so many people who don’t have Bipolar still struggle with the beast that is Depression.
In the bike riding world, I have to put in the time to follow a plan to get fit. I need good sleep and then I can reap the full benefits of all the aero socks, and skin suits and find every watt in a waxed chain. But if I show up tired and out of shape looking like a fluffy puff marshmallow in my skin suit, those marginal gains become VERY marginal. The same goes in the mental health sphere; I need to take my meds, manage my sleep, and exercise and that gets me most of the way there. But I have found those things work their absolute best when I add in these marginal gains formed around the mantra: activity is the enemy of depression. These gains are built around the idea of getting me out of bed and moving.
1) I make a list every night of the things that I need to do tomorrow so that I have something to move on to if and when I start to feel like laying down. The two things on my list are “wake up” and “get out of bed”. Two simple things to check off and I’m already up and moving.
2) I never sleep past 8:00 a.m., even on the weekends, because the longer I lay in bed, the more difficult it is to get up and get moving.
3) I make sure to exercise every day and I do so in a way that I will be able to exercise again tomorrow. I never want to overdo it, because I need the movement.
4) I make sure that at least a few days a week, I work with my hands in some manner; playing with my kids with legos, sharpening the chainsaw, chopping wood, fixing my bikes, waxing chains, etc.
Yes, I take the meds, yes I see a therapist, and yes I ride my bike, but the meds, the counseling, and the exercise are all part of the plan, but movement goals help make the plan operate at its best. I have learned that I have to do the work. It doesn’t fix the immediate problem, but it moves me forward and on the really hard days, it helps get me closer to tomorrow.
If you are struggling, you can do the work too. Start with something small, like getting out of bed, and then expand from there. If you are really hurting, choose to do things that are easy to check off, like brushing your teeth, and then check it off. “Activity is the enemy of depression.” So take a risk on yourself, and start to move out of the pit, because you are worth that risk. You are valuable and you are loved.
After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2020, I first shared my story in a documentary that was filmed during our soccer season that year and then on some podcasts, including the TrainerRoad Successful Athlete podcast. The responses and DMs were incredible so I have continued to share. I now have YouTube and Instagram platforms called “The Stable Cyclist” where I create Mental Health/Bike related content like this every week (https://youtu.be/DBoW772MoX8).
But truly these topics deserve more than a single serving interaction on social media so this year I’m working with filmmaker Micah Kvidt on a project called “Back to the Start”. It is a look at how to restart life after receiving a serious Mental Health diagnosis. The film also follows me returning to the start line of this year’s Maah Daah Hey 100. The film will be shown at premiere events throughout the midwest and beyond where we will also offer guided discussions with Mental Health professionals and make sure everyone in attendance has resources in hand regarding local options for Mental Health services. We are in the final push of an Indiegogo campaign to get this project over the line.
John Peter is a teacher and coach in Northern Minnesota and an avid bike rider. In 2023, he was a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year and in all places you can find him, he is a vocal mental health advocate. Visit (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/back-to-the-start-documentary-film#/) if you wish to learn more about his upcoming documentary or contribute to the project.