Humans aren’t machines. For better or for worse, we’re chock-full of nuance. We can’t expect to perform the same (or better) from day to day because that’s not how our physiology works. Hormonal waves, circadian rhythms, stress levels, and plenty of other ingrained biological factors that we don’t have much control over create constant ebb and flow. And that’s not to mention the toll that outside stressors—like weather!—can have on the body.
This is the case even if we check all the right boxes: training productively, resting well, eating plenty, hydrating like a champ, and building a meaningful life both on and off the wall. There will still be those mornings when we feel like the second coming of Adam Ondra, and those when we suddenly have skates for feet—it happens.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent decades denying my imperfect and unpredictable humanity. I’ve forced myself to try and keep up with a high level of performance year-round, heading to Rifle every single weekend for eight months straight and then chasing any hint of a weather window in between. Climbing is not my full-time job. But I think I put even more pressure on myself to get out and work hard as much as possible because of that. I don’t have a wide open schedule, so I should want to take advantage of every opportunity to climb… right?
The truth is that you can still burn out on something you love. When the temps dipped below my comfortable threshold this year, I realized that I felt… relieved. I’d just wrapped up my best climbing season to date, and I was still riding the high that comes with breaking through a ceiling. But the exhaustion came close on its heels. I’m talking the kind of tired that settles deep into your bones and permeates all levels—physical, mental, and emotional. I was ready to end on a high note.
Unfortunately the satisfaction with a job well done didn’t stick around for very long. Guilt took over almost immediately. Who was I if I wasn’t chomping at the bit to spend all my free days camped out at the crag from dawn till dusk? How could I be sure that I wasn’t just slacking off and sabotaging my potential? What would listening to the fluctuations of my motivation say about my identity as an athlete?
Truth is, it says a lot. Just not in the way I feared.
No other sport demands consistent performance from its athletes. Take a look at the seasonal schedules of more “traditional” sports like basketball, football, soccer, hockey, track and field, etc. Don’t get me wrong: these athletes work hard all year round. But hard work comes in many different forms.
For a few months out of the year, they’re playing their hearts out in the public eye. After the competition season ends, though, they settle into a period of much-needed R&R and then slowly ease back into pre-season training before things really take off again. These athletes, and their coaches, know that it takes both effort and rest in order to be at their best when it counts. Plenty of internal work goes on during that downtime, too. It’s an athlete’s opportunity to set new goals, strengthen their resolve, and face their weaknesses. No amount of playing time can make up for letting the mental side of things slide.
Even other sports that fall into the same category of “outdoor adventure” as climbing have their own seasonal schedules. Trail runners and ultramarathoners usually put a few key races on their calendars, building up to them over a prescribed period and focus on easy base mileage during the time in between training blocks. Mountain bikers avoid the muddy shoulder months like the plague. Skiers and riders only emerge from their summer cocoons once the snow begins to fall.
But climbers seem to have one hell of a time switching gears. We’ll push the season as long as possible, far past “sending temps” to where the cold is actively hurting our performance. And when the elements finally win in one place, it’s straight off to the next at the soonest opportunity. Every weekend turns into a stressful game of climate hopping, desperate weather app checking, and gas price monitoring to see how far we can afford to go.
We do this because we’re all afraid of something. Some climbers cling to their routines to manage anxiety. Some will do anything to dodge the gym scene. Others—myself included—feel our identities wrapped into it. We feel compelled to keep pushing because that’s who we are.
No matter the reason, we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage when we go all out without reprieve. It takes more than a rest day or two to recover from hard climbing. And by hard climbing, I don’t just mean the actual climbing part. That includes the time spent planning, traveling, belaying, approaching, camping, cooking, huddling around campfires, getting sun weathered and buffeted by the wind, ignoring escalating injuries, and letting a good amount of adulting pile up in our absence.
Climbing outdoors is nothing short of incredible. I’d go so far as to say that it’s life-affirming. But I never want to get to the point again where I start to resent the very thing that makes me feel most alive. We all need breaks in order to keep up and stay psyched.
This year, I’m leaning into the off-season. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop climbing—far from it. I’ll be focusing on an efficient gym routine that forces me to slow down a bit. I won’t be able to fill every minute with a climbing objective that makes me feel worthy. I’ll have to confront my inner demons that tell me I should be on my feet and chasing dreams around the clock.
It’ll probably feel like slacking off at first. Not because I won’t be putting in the work; indoor training can be just as taxing on the body and mind as a long outdoor day if you’re doing it right. It just seems like less because there are more hours left in the day once that training time is up. That kind of empty space makes me squirm. If it does the same for you, maybe it’s time to embrace the changing of the seasons instead of fighting it.
Tips for Taking a Guilt-Free Off-Season
- Take some actual downtime. Let yourself heal after a big trip, send, or jam-packed season. A few days or weeks away from climbing won’t kill you (even if it feels that way). Your aching elbows and weary mind will thank you.
- When you’re ready, draft up a training plan. Gym time is more productive and enjoyable when you go in with an intention. Start by planning around your weaknesses. What did you struggle with this past season? Where could you stand to make gains that will help you out for future projects?
- Try something new. Learn how to ski, lift some weights, take a freaking coding class. Engage your body and brain in different ways. It’s easy to get complacent doing the same thing on repeat. Climbing keeps us guessing more than other activities, but it’s still a lot of similar movement again and again. Throw yourself for a loop. You never know what unexpected skills could transfer over and make your climbing better than ever.