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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Importance of a Climbing "Off Season"

If you are like me and many other climbers, you are mildly obsessed (or worse!) with climbing, and you mind and fingertips are never far from the rock. However, over the course of a year, accumulating physical and mental fatigue grows to a point that you can no longer recover fully just by taking a couple of days off. This is true for serious athletes in every sport, which is why all professional sports have an off-season. So let me ask you: When is your off-season?

The problem with us climbers is that there are just too many classic climbs, too little time to do them all! So, the tendency is to never take any time off and, thus, climb year-round. While this might seem like a good plan for maximizing technical gains and adding to your ticklist, the long-term effects of not taking a break from climbing can be injury, a drop in motivation, and a performance plateau. Any of this sound familiar? If so, part of the problem may be that you’ve gone too long without an extended break from climbing. Taking downtime is essential for all living things and it’s not something you can cheat on—if you don’t take some time off, you will eventually be forced to take time off!

Now, I bet you are already setting goals and planning roadtrips for next season—personally I’ve got three major climbing trips locked in over the next seven months. But before you start training for your upcoming trips, why don’t you do as I will do and take a break for a few weeks.

Following is a three-step process for recharging your motivation and refreshing your body during a self-imposed off-season from climbing. Individuals living in northern areas will most likely take this off-season break during the winter, whereas climbers in warm-weather climates may take their break during the peak of the summer heat. Ok, let’s get started.

[The classic Castleton Tower, near Moab, UT. Horst photo.]

Step #1 of the off-season renewal process is to pause and reflect on the past season.
With the year winding down, it's always a good idea to take a mental inventory of accomplishments and experiences of the past year. Take a few days and dwell on all that was good for you in the past year—enjoyable roadtrips, personal-best sends, new friends made, new places seen, and such. For many amped-up climbers it’s tough to stop and smell the rose in this way, because they are so intensely focused on the next climb. Yes, it’s true I’ve been there; and I can tell you firsthand that being so intensely goal-focused and future-oriented is to miss out on some of the joy and experience of climbing. So, take some time to reflect on past climbs and really bathe your mind in the experience. Visualize a kind of “highlight reel” to your year in climbing—doing so will recharge motivation and help you tap deeper into the spirit of climbing. Remember, it’s not all about the send, it’s about the experience! The bottom line: Don’t be so quick to discard recent experiences in favor of future projects.

On a more global level, it’s also important to pause and your count our blessings. Natural disasters and tragedies of many kinds affect millions around the world, and even within the climbing community there’s been great loss this season. Take solace that your daily challenges are likely minor by comparison, and vow to wake each morning with an attitude of gratitude. Possessing this mindset will foster positive energy and a forward-looking vision of "possibility" that will grow personal happiness and help seed future successes.

Step #2 of the off-season renewal process is to rest and recover!
If you are like me, you've developed a few tweaks or pains this season. Yeah, I'm going on age 43 and the pangs seem to appear more frequently every year. Then again, I do hear from dozens—actually hundreds—of young climbers each year who are nursing finger, elbow, and shoulder, maybe age has nothing to do with after all? But I digress.

Again, let’s use pro athletes as an analog—all professional and Olympic athletes take time off each year, and so should you! I suggest you schedule anywhere from a two-week to two-month break from climbing, and shift your focus and energy onto something else. This is a good time to get busy working toward some of your other life goals and to engage in different physical activity unrelated to climbing, such as snowboarding, skiing, or perhaps even playing a team sport for a while. Most important, however, you don’t want to do anything that stresses your body in the way climbing does—so that means no indoor climbing and training for climbing.

Of course, many climbers resist taking time off, saying they will lose strength and slow improvement. The truth is that any loss of fitness during a layoff of just a few weeks will quickly return upon resumption of training. Conversely, by not taking an a few weeks of rest each season you vastly increase your risk of a tendon or muscle injury that will force you out of climbing and set you way back. Clearly, the smart thing is to take a little time off each year and give your body a chance to recover from the accumulated fatigue and traumas of our rigorous sport.

As someone who is very serious about performance, it’s my MO to take few weeks off from climbing each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Such a break from training and climbing allows any tweaks or nagging injuries to heal. This year, I’ve developed some lower back issues as well as some slight pain in a couple fingers, so my self-imposed “off-season” finally gives my body a chance to correct itself. After a few weeks of frequent stretching, some modest antagonist muscle training, and active rest (in my case, playing backyard football with my sons), I should be ready to start a new season of training and climbing with a fully healthy body. You, too, can benefit from an off-season break from climbing—in fact, consider it mandatory if you have any kind of pain in your fingers, elbows, shoulders, or back!

Step #3 of the off-season renewal process is to reinvent your training and climbing.
After the off-season break, it’s essential that you return to climbing with a resolve to mix things up. First, plan a ten-week training cycle that incorporates new exercises and climbing drills. One of the biggest mistakes climbers make is to engage in the same training program year after year—which, of course, means they are limiting themselves and perhaps even locking into a performance plateau. Effective training must be progressive and ever-changing. Check out my book Training for Climbing for some fresh training and practice strategies that will help take your game to the next level.

It’s also important to somewhat reinvent your MO as a climber—that is to climb with some new partners, visit new crags, and possibly even shift your primary climbing preference for a while (that is, to switch from bouldering to sport climbing, or from sport to trad climbing, or whatever). This strategy of changing things up every few months—both your training and climbing focus—is one of the biggest secrets to long-term motivation and improvement