Category Archives: Philosophizing

When You’re “Not Feeling the Love”: Coping With Down Times in Climbing (& Other Sports)

In the spring after the rain stopped falling here, I felt pretty psyched and strong. I felt like I was climbing well. It’s always such a great feeling! I made significant progress, both in training and on routes that challenged me, had a few sends, and the summer seemed very, very promising.

However, the climbing gods had other plans for me this summer – somewhere during the heat, visitors, events, and a buildup of tweaks and twinges in my body, my psych took a hike, and I found myself more than once wondering if I even liked rock climbing any more.

This is not the first time this has happened, and I’m certain it will not be the last.

After all, 2016 marks my 24th year of climbing. Sustaining a passion for two and half decades will inevitably have its ups and downs. I feel like in a way we’re not supposed to admit that this happens, but the reality is that it does happen, to many of us.

So now, as I move from my summer doldrums back into feeling more psyched (and notably this is happening as the summer heat is starting to fade!), I put together some thoughts to share about what I’ve learned about weathering the down times. Hopefully, this will help you get through those unmotivated times that will almost inevitably strike you if you’re involved in climbing (or another sport or recreational activity) as a lifelong passion or endeavor.

  • Unless you’re injured, don’t stop training or climbing or all physical activities entirely. It will make it that much more difficult to get back into shape if and when you do feel stoked again. Oftentimes people have suggested that I “take some time off” completely, but I quickly learned long ago that starting back from being totally out of shape is not that fun. Stay active.
  • On the other hand, don’t force yourself to continue doing exactly what you’ve been doing at the same pace as you have been doing it. Burnout and loss of psych often stem from overdoing it, overtraining or accumulating fatigue. The more you force yourself to do something that is supposed to be fun but isn’t fun for you right now, the less likely you are to rediscover your fire for it anytime soon.
  • No matter what season it is (even if it’s prime climbing season where you live), consider shaking things up and redirecting your climbing focus. For me, diving into a training cycle with less climbing and more training often helps. You can also change the style of climbing you are into, if that’s an option for you (i.e. switch from sport to bouldering, or vice versa). If this doesn’t work, try this:
  • Feel free to pursue some other activities that interest you (physical or not), and spend way, way less time climbing or training for climbing. While you don’t want to “lose everything” (refer back to the first item on this list), you don’t need to continue climbing and training as much. Don’t feel guilty about it. Enjoy the break.
  • As far as climbing goes, aim for maintenance and mitigating any fitness/strength losses. Even one or two sessions a week of efficient, climbing-focused training can be enough for you to not lose much, if anything.
  • Don’t fret about where your psych went or worry that it won’t return. It will, or it won’t. Expending time and energy worrying about it and wondering why you’ve lost it doesn’t usually help. I used to get really freaked out and distressed when I felt my passion for climbing dwindle – but for me, it has always rekindled at some point. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that it won’t, but nowadays I tend to have faith that I’ll always find the love again…and if or when I don’t, then it will be time to move on.
  • Giving your whole being the time and space it needs to recover – physically, mentally and emotionally – is usually quite effective for helping recover the passion for your activity. Don’t put yourself on a timeline in terms of when you must feel ready and stoked to climb or train intensely again. Let your love for climbing guide you through the cycles of your psych and your life. Honor yourself when you need a break without any negative self-judgment.
  • View the time away from climbing as productive and helpful in the big picture. Understand that most sports have an off-season, and that giving your body (and your whole being) a break from intensive training and climbing can be helpful in healing micro-injuries or any aches and pains you might have built up. It’s okay to step away for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months.
  • I believe one of the biggest reasons people fail at exercise programs is because they’re generally not viewed as fun or enjoyable. Rock climbing enables us to stay fit and strong while sharing our love of climbing movement and outdoor living with others. Don’t forget this! You are lucky to have found an activity that makes exercising and staying fit fun for you; handle it with the utmost care so that you don’t lose it – even if that means giving it a rest now and again.

How Being “Disciplined” Can Be Undisciplined

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

When I was a much younger climber, I truly believed that sticking to my rigid seven-days-a-week training schedule and diet meant that I was a supremely disciplined athlete. No matter how I felt on any given day when I awoke, my training and diet plan provided me with structure and control over my reality, and I had supreme faith that by adhering to this severe program, I would at some point in the future prevail, that I would be able to mold (or should I say, “beat?”) my body into the climber I dreamed of being.

All sorts of evidence to the contrary did not shake my unwavering attachment to this type of training protocol. Never mind that many of the stronger climbers I often climbed with did not do what I did in terms of pitches per day, cardio activities, training approach, or diet. Nope. I had that sort of smug superiority that I think is hard to admit fully to oneself exists, but I definitely had it: a sort of sense that even if all these people aren’t doing what I do, at some point my commitment to restricted eating and rigorous training and a regimented climbing schedule will yield phenomenal results.

And now?

Today is my third rest day in a row, and I slept for 10 hours last night. I still feel tired, and it’s a relief not to be climbing. My shoulders still ache today, so another rest day won’t be a bad thing at all. Why climb? Why not rest? Why not explore restorative yoga more deeply? I find myself drawn to this practice now more than ever…comprehending now finally that the tightness and tension in my shoulders and neck probably have something to do with not managing stress in a life that has the potential to be relatively stress-free; I still overreact to nonemergency situations at times (especially when I’m tired) and overwork myself, too. Calming my mind through deliberate but conscious stillness; this practice of restorative yoga encourages me to open and relax areas of the body so tight from climbing, but not with the forceful (hatha) way that I tend to approach so many things, particularly about my own self and body.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

And yet, I want to train physically, too – I want to push through some more strength and conditioning exercises soon, but I still feel that I’ve been imbalanced in my approach to this. More activity on days off from climbing is too often not what my body needs. More rest on days off is what it could use, for sure. Restful, mindful, calming yoga practice, not athletic Vinyasa flow practice. Not more lifting or climbing right now. More rest. What a beautiful thing to realize and be okay with! I’m fitter and stronger right now than I’ve ever been. Still as always, I’m not entirely satisfied with where I am; I want to be stronger and fitter yet again. And yet there is a deeper satisfaction with where I am than I used to be able to grasp; is this the start of being content with self as is, in this present moment, while still working toward improving? Perhaps.

Like so many others, I (still) have a tendency to be drawn to that which my body-being needs less of. Like attracts like; we so often resist what we need the most and will argue until we’re blue in the face as to why we need what we love to do so much, and why we don’t need what we actually would most likely benefit more from. Such is the reason why I avoided steep climbing, weight training, pull-ups, and restful practices/enough rest days for so long. And yet, so predictably it’s almost comical, it turns out that all of the above help me more than my old routine – not just in terms of climbing, but in terms of more graceful, balanced living.

Routines can be helpful but also damaging; conditioning the body to an exact and predictable routine might settle the monkey-mind’s jabbering about “losing fitness” and such, but in actuality, too much routine leads inevitably to stagnation and plateauing, again, in any area of life, not just climbing. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; bodies adapt. That’s what they do! They’re built to adapt and to use less and less energy to perform the same tasks as they adapt. Carry on with the exact same routine for long enough, and you may actually start to lose some fitness, strength, or other type of growth as your being becomes adjusted and capable and efficient, needing to expend less energy and effort to perform what once was a challenge. Stagnation and plateauing ensues, but the comfort of the routine remains, like a security blanket not to be pried from clenching hands, determined to hide under the comforting shroud, even as the comfort slips away more and more.

Climbing 10+ pitches of vertical technical climbing per climbing day, four to five days a week…running six days a week for at least three miles per run with at least two runs of six+ miles…having the same basic personal yoga routine done from age 10 through age 38…bouldering in the gym for 4 to 6 hours per session during the off season in the hopes of developing more power and strength…sleeping six to seven hours a night regularly…stressing out about mundane mistakes…dieting by counting calories and restricting food in the hopes of taking magical pounds away to improve climbing performance and body composition…not resting according to how the body feels but according to a set schedule…

The above are just some of the dysfunctional routines I have engaged in in the past, routines that maybe served me somewhat well on the grand scheme of living life, but definitely warranted a closer look and adjustment to start reaching toward a deeper level of contentment (santosha).

For me, true discipline has come from understanding that it’s only my mind that wants a rigid routine; it’s actually more likely a smarter and more effective approach to have a less linear and predictable approach to training and climbing, as the supremely adaptable body tends to plateau with enough time spent on any given exercise regimen or routine; the more the same it’s kept without variation within the consistency, the more likely a plateau (or even a backslide due to adaptation and more efficient performance of the routine as movements become refined and less energy/effort is expended to perform those movements) is to happen.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still like routines and tend to want structure and to want to cling to routines, for sure. But awareness of this helps me mess with them more readily; knowing that regularly messing with the routine schedule or training plan will probably help push my body in a new direction, whether I change how many days or how intensely I train or where I climb or what I climb. Resting more can be good; there’s not a set number of days per week that a person must climb or train in any given week in order to achieve their optimal potential. Weeks are merely constructs that help us structure and schedule time, but a week is arbitrary in terms of the body. In fact, I strongly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to strike that delicate balance between consistency and variation – making sure things are never too routine and predictable, but that the same pertinent themes are repeated often enough to encourage whatever areas need the most improvement to improve.

Again, I’m not just talking about climbing or training here – I’m talking about the process of making changes for anyone, whether the desired changes are mental, emotional, physical, or a combination of the three. Adaptation takes time and persistence; a flexible, sustainable, and intelligently thought-out approach can help expedite the process more than a rigid structure with no wiggle room and no allowance for changes to goals as you go. As you change, your body-being’s needs will change, too, no matter what you do and where you are in your life’s journey. What serves you well today may not benefit you in the same way tomorrow. What served you well yesterday may not be ideal for you today. True self-discipline does not revolve around blindly following a routine no matter how you feel. Rather, it involves developing an awareness of these often subtle changes and a comprehension of how to manipulate your training or climbing approach (and your life approach) according to what’s ideal for your body-being on any given day.

Studying oneself (swadhisthana) with an open mind can help provide the feedback needed to creatively and adeptly respond to one’s changing needs and growth in any and all areas, as can asking for outside input from others, particularly those who know you best and/or are more informed on whatever topic you’re looking for guidance on than you are. Resting, looking inward, and pausing, or stilling the fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti nirodha), can help you tune into your own inner truth, enabling you to embrace a productive and fulfilling approach for yourself in the present while also shining a spark of light onto your future path that has yet to be illuminated. Step by step, it will light up, shining ever more brightly as you fall into living more fully and embracing your own truth.