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Having a “Bad” Day at the Crag? You Can Turn That Around If You Want

High-gravity days aren't sourceless malignancies; they have causes, which means they have solutions.

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Years ago my wife and I were out bouldering on the sandstone blocks of Carter Lake, Colorado, with friends. It was a sunny, still winter day, a reprieve from the usual mix of blasting winds and soggy snow that visit Colorado each year between November and April. I wasn’t in the best shape but was happy to be outside, cruising moderates. Kristin, however, was struggling on the problems and becoming ever more frustrated.

Finally, frustrated by her glum outlook, I said, “You know, today is a nice day out in the sun—and we don’t get an infinite number of those.” With that, something clicked and her attitude shifted; for the next few hours, we had fun doing V0s and V1s and V2s on the pastel-hued rock. Nobody “sent big” or nabbed any “epic ticks”—it was just a good day climbing.

As Kristin saw that day and as I’ve learned, it is completely possible to turn a bad day around. In fact, just through observing friends and myself over the years, I’ve noticed that there are almost invariably reasons for bad/high-gravity days. They don’t just come out of the blue; it’s not just random. Which means there are solutions. Here, my top three.

Matt Samet on New Horizon (5.13a), Button Rock Reservoir, Lyons, Colorado. He started out this warm late-summer day grouchy, pumped, and dehydrated, but after drinking some water, chilling out for a bit, and cooling his hands in the stream went on to have a good session. (Photo: Ryan Pecknold)

1. Hydrate

For me, dehydration seems to be the number-one cause of feeling and climbing poorly. Let me lay out a scenario: You coffee up in the morning and then hike 45 minutes to a cliff on a warmish day, but you’re not that thirsty on the way in. Then when you get there, the cliff is shady and cool, so you layer up and start immediately climbing to stay warm, without pausing to refuel with drinks or snacks. An hour or so in, you feel irritable, heavy, slow, dizzy, and uncoordinated, getting way too pumped way too quickly, with your forearms cramping up. And your pee is dark-yellow or brown. Congratulations—you’re dehydrated! Dehydration is insidious that way; it just creeps up.

These days, I’ll drink a big travel mug of herbal tea on the drive to the cliff, stop to drink water a time or two on the hike in, and then consciously rehydrate again before I climb, usually with a watered-down sports drink. If I’m not peeing clear, I’m not sending—it’s that simple.

Learn This: Proper Hydration

2. Take the pressure off

Some days, the burdens of “real life”—work stress or burnout, lack of sleep, family life, home life—simply won’t let you climb your hardest. You’re out of equilibrium, and your head and/or body are not in the game. You need to accept that this is OK, and that today’s not going to be your day. On these days, I step back from try-hard climbing and just “do what I can”—in other words, give up on goals and projects and just climb whatever, however, wherever.

Ironically, this not-giving-a-shit attitude has helped with surprise sends of random routes, even though I felt subjectively horrible. My friends even joke that I send my hardest after nights when I got zero sleep or had an argument with the wife. (Note: Don’t ever argue with my wife; she always wins.)

Ten Simple Ways to Improve Your Mental Game Right Now

3. Hit reset by warming up again.

A year or so back I was watching Adam Ondra’s YouTube channel to glean training ideas. In one video, Training Day of Adam Ondra (below), Ondra in classic beast-mode fashion packs four different training sessions into the same day—campusing, gym bouldering, spray-wall bouldering, and circuit training. OK, I’m no Ondra—I’m not even as strong as his pinky toe—but I realized then that any of us, really, can have multiple sessions in one day, especially if you space them out and build recovery time in between. Applying that same logic, I’ve realized you can also turn a bad day around by staggering it into different “sessions.”

For example, you warm up poorly or get on the project too soon and get wicked flash-pumped, and feel like your day is ruined. It doesn’t have to be that way. Take an hour or two off, eat, drink, belay your partner, use an Armaid to knead and squeegee the tightness and lactic acid out of your forearms, then start the day again, as if you hadn’t already climbed. Warm up—slowly this time—and see how you feel.

If you’re still effed, then belay and support your partner. It’s “belay currency” you can cash in later when you need a catch on that obscure, slabby testpiece 1.5 hours uphill that no one else wants to climb on. What comes around, goes around.

This edition of Matt Samet’s “Crusty Corner” column was originally published in March 2021. Read more Crusty Corner.

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