Category Archives: Climbing Training

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.

Maintaining Strength During the Climbing Season

Climbing outside is so much fun that it's easy to ditch training for months on end -- but you might regret it if you do.

Climbing outside is so much fun that it’s easy to ditch training for months on end — but you might regret it if you do.

Do you ditch training entirely during the climbing season, and just climb for months on end as your training?

Let me start by saying that if you just want to climb and you don’t mind a) losing strength gains gradually over the course of the season; and b) potentially incurring some repetitive use injuries or muscle imbalances, you should go right ahead with this plan.

However, if you would like to avoid a) and b) both, you’ll likely want to keep some of the strength training elements from your off-season training plans in play during your on-season. You will just want to severely taper down the volume of each workout as well as the frequency of workouts. You do this to avoid cutting into your actual climbing performance as much as possible.

The question changes from “How much of this type training can I get away with and still make gains?” to “How little of this type of training can I get away with without losing my gains?”

You shift the focus of your lens to performance climbing, but strength work has to stay in the periphery, as does opposition muscle work, for best results in terms of strength maintenance and overall body balance.

The steps I take in my program involve the following:

  1. Examine my list of strength-training exercises I do in the off season, and try to whittle out any that I don’t deem completely necessary. This is hard for me as there’s a reason for each exercise I do!
  2. With that list in hand, I prioritize the exercises, and split them into two or three shorter lists of 3 to 6 exercises that can be done together. Each list represents one short workout. I am free to combine them if I want to stack workouts, though – it’s up to me!
  3. In each workout, I do way fewer sets of each exercise. I still try to lift heavy, though – this is strength maintenance, after all.
  4. I try to not go to failure. I definitely try to leave one rep in the tank, lifting to fatigue rather than failure. I lift the same weight I have been lifting throughout my strength-training cycle. Sometimes I even add weight, as I have consistently gotten stronger during my climbing seasons the past few years, too.
  5. I lift far less frequently. I aim to get a lifting session in at least once a month (working to hit all lifts on my list at least 1x a month), but no more than 2x a month.
  6. I try to lift when it interferes with my outdoor climbing performance the least – when I know I’ll have a bunch of rest after lifting. But at the same time, if that month deadline looms, I bite the bullet and lift anyhow (usually!).
  7. I understand that lifting during my performance season may negatively impact my performance in the short-term, immediate future. Over the long-term, the benefits of keeping my muscles strong and balanced outweighs this short-term drain on performance.

By keeping lifting in play through the climbing season, you may actually end your season stronger in terms of pure strength than you started it. You also will be working more on climbing fitness, movement, tactics, and technique throughout your season(s) outside. This means that by the end of your season, you may be experiencing new peaks in performance that weren’t possible the previous season. And then, you’ll repeat for better results in the future.