Skip to content
Image by Amber Beange

Stress Awareness Month: Trail Therapy with Sarah Rathbone

By Sarah Rathbone on 29th April, 2024

Cairngorm Confidence Outdoors CIC and Tranquil Trails Mountain Biking

As part of our #StressAwarenessMonth campaign, we caught up with Sarah Rathbone of Cairngorm Confidence and Trail Therapy to hear about her work to bring together mindfulness and outdoor activity in the Cairngorms National Park.

Images and video by Amber Beange.

Sarah Rathbone after a Trail Therapy session in the Cairngorms National Park.
Sarah Rathbone after a Trail Therapy session in the Cairngorms National Park.

What is Trail Therapy?

Trail Therapy is a therapeutic mountain bike ride intervention based on Dialectical Behaviour Therapy which was developed by Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland and it centres around the FLOW principle: Focus, Learning, Others and Wellbeing. With funding from Women’s Fund for Scotland and Highland Third Sector Interface’s Highland Communities Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, I was able to become the only trained practitioner in the area.

Trail Therapy is about slowing things down for everyone because your mind is often travelling so fast. The biggest way it differs from other mountain biking is that we take time. Time to sit. Time to listen. Time to be peaceful. Time by water. Time to talk, or not. It’s not really about tearing down trails at top speed and feeling the thrill at the beginning, if at all sometimes. The groups are small, we focus on lots of little skills and achievements and we help each other along. As confidence and skills grow over the weeks, the level of adventure and challenge increases but only when the group is ready, at their pace.

Trail Therapy is about slowing things down for everyone because your mind is often travelling so fast.

How does Trail Therapy benefit you and others?

When you see me and my local group riding around or in photos on social media, there are two people in the group that have recovered from serious injury – those two people are your guides. We both had something that we loved taken away from us, had an injury so severe that we didn’t think we would ever be able to stand up and walk again, endless hours of physio, lots and lots of pain. And then we realised what the process of recovery is all about, that everything is achievable, and everything we have done since has been on a mountain bike. Trail Therapy is about recovery, in many ways.

Whenever I have been out and about doing various active things outdoors, people would come and say to me “I would love to do what you do, but I can’t because…”. I started to make a list in my head of all of the reasons that made people believe they couldn’t do it and most of the things were challenges that I had faced and overcame myself. I found the confidence to get over those things and was able to share that with other people. I started off on a one to one basis with Cairngorm Confidence Outdoors, helping people get over each of those little hurdles so they could be active outdoors. Then came the idea of a legacy where I realised we had come this far working one to one, let’s do more together to get over the anxiety of doing this in groups. And that’s where trail therapy came in. We keep things small, we keep things safe but we are always building up that trust and strength.

Sarah stopping to take in the views
Sarah stopping to take in the views

We keep things small, we keep things safe but we are always building up that trust and strength.

What role can nature play in easing stress?

Every Trail Therapy session we stop and sit by a burn and lots of feedback comes to me about how precious this time is. Some days we come here and the sunlight is just beaming off the little pool by the waterfall. The water bubbles away and everyone just takes five minutes to be on their own, taking some time out of a busy life for some mindfulness. While we sit by the water it’s nice to imagine your troubles flowing away with the water in the burn, listening to the natural sounds around you and letting yourself take deep breaths. When you’re in nature, you can focus on these little things and not think about anything else at all.

What does being out in nature mean to you?

I grew up in a city a long time ago and you used to be able to wipe the dirt and grime off of your face. You would constantly be smelling horrible car fumes and there was always a sense of busyness everywhere you went. I made a conscious plan throughout my adult life to step away from that city life and embrace the healing side of nature. Lately, I have heard birds singing, seen butterflies coming out for spring, even watched the ants working together in their little community. When the stresses of life are getting worse for me, you may find me on a harder, more technical downhill trail, maybe stuck in a bush or falling in a pile of mud. But that’s why nature is the stress reliever because I can just go higher and higher, further and further, faster and faster until my worries are no longer in my mind.

Sarah riding through woodland in the National Park.
Sarah riding through woodland in the National Park.

How can people get involved with trail therapy? What if they are nervous to start?

Trail Therapy is free for anyone aged sixteen and over, living in Badenoch and Strathspey who needs some support for their mental health. We run sessions for eight week blocks at different times and locations. The best way to find out if this is for you is to send me an email or a message on Instagram and I will always meet you for coffee and a chat. You can discuss anything with me, any fears, worries, concerns, any lack of confidence and we will get over it together. Anything is possible on a bike.

To find out more about Trail Therapy or to get in touch with Sarah, visit Cairngorm Confidence Outdoors.

We joined Sarah for Trail Therapy earlier this month

Return to Voices page