Your Brain on Plastic: A Coach Gives Mental Techniques for Transitioning from the Gym to the Great Outdoors
Indoor training has its perks, but jumping from plastic to natural rock may shock the system. Train your brain to adapt.
Whether it’s your first or 50th season on rock, there’s a wall between indoor training and outdoor preparedness. That wall can look like anything from a flimsy chain-link fence to unforgiving bricks, often depending on the ratio of snow to sunshine where you live.
The main challenge has more to do with your brain than body; the physical adaptations that you’ve developed over a hard training cycle are waiting right beneath the surface for you to coax them out. This shoulder season, try these tips on mental resilience and flexibility to complete the equation.
Rely on Routine
Patterns prime the brain and body for what’s to come. Drinking tea and reading a book in dim light every night before bed, for example, tells your mind it’s time to wind down and churn out melatonin so it’s easier to fall asleep.
Routines cue our thoughts, nerves, and muscles to spring into action. They also remind your subconscious that what you’re about to do is business as usual and nothing to be afraid of, even across different settings.
Establishing a regular warmup routine can bring both of these benefits to your outdoor climbing. If you perform the same stretches and exercises before each of your gym days, your brain will make connections between that routine and the comfort of those regular sessions.
Using a similar routine leading into your outdoor sessions will draw even deeper connections back to your training. If your warmup in the gym goes something like…
- A jog on the treadmill
- Light hangboarding
- Spray wall circuits
- Grade progression up to project level
… try treating the approach as your cardio, pulling on a portable board, and traversing the base of the crag before hopping on your two to three progressive climbs. The routines are similar enough to trigger the same physiological responses.
Turn Off the Autopilot Control
Bright colors and clear pathways on gym walls take far less work to decipher than patterns written into real rock. There’s still massive physical effort involved, plus a good amount of beta analysis to figure out what exactly the setter is asking for, but less room for interpretation.
Months of indoor climbing can put our brains to sleep with endless repetitions of obvious lines. Outdoor climbs leave more to the imagination. We might be in the best physical shape of our climbing lives, but success on the rock takes active decoding. We also must combine what we discover about the climb with what we know about our own builds, strengths, and weaknesses—all in the process of making a single move.
To wake up and muster the kind of critical thinking you’ll need on the rock, play tricks on yourself by introducing mental tests in the gym.
- Link up two different routes, switching halfway between one and the next on the same rope line.
- Add progressive difficulty to a familiar climb by eliminating a hold each round.
- Design your own projects on a spray wall without color-coded clues.
- For onsight practice and thinking fast on your feet, give yourself three chances to send each new climb—then onto the next.
Months of indoor climbing can put our brains to sleep with endless repetitions of obvious lines. Outdoor climbs leave more to the imagination. We might be in the best physical shape of our climbing lives, but success on the rock takes active decoding.
Break It Down to Build It Up
But thinking about an entire 100-foot route at once might be asking a little too much of your mental processing power. The complexities add up quickly, and may threaten to overwhelm both your memory and your gumption.
A technique familiar to endurance athletes will come in handy: segmenting. Just like breaking up a 100-mile run into 10-mile chunks makes an ultramarathon more approachable, dividing a long climb into sections puts the send in perspective. Take in one crux at a time and consider each piece on its own before putting the puzzle together.
No need to wait until you’re already outdoors. You can break down climbs clip by clip, crux by crux, or even move by move to think in terms of segments that build up to something larger. Indoor climbs don’t usually make the same demands on mental or physical endurance, but the practice of looking out for natural transitions and taking rests to absorb the next step will carry right over.
You know that you put in the hard work inside while your favorite crags hibernated. Now channel that belief.
The saying “Believe you can, and you will” is cheesy, but true. Visualization is the practice of creating a mental picture in as much detail as possible. You can take it from simply recreating reality all the way to using imagery to fix mistakes or depict future goals. These mental images help summon the full extent of your abilities by giving you the confidence that you actually have them. Vivid visualization also activates the same parts of the brain that light up when you’re physically engaged in the activity that you’re imagining, which builds muscle memory even off the wall.
Start by treating your eyes like a camera and your mind like a database of saved images. As you wrap up your training cycle, take mental pictures of your strongest performances in the gym: the smack of your fingers finally latching the next rung on the campus board, the moment of stemming out for a delicate reach or sticking the desperate sloper finish… When or if you begin to doubt, these images will remind you of how capable you are. Take time in those hesitant moments to recall the clearest memories of your successes, for a boost of confidence and a neurological nudge to the body.
You’ve put in your paces all winter. Make it count by pairing your mind with your movements.
Lucie Hanes of Eagle, Colorado, is a climber, ultrarunner, and sports-psychology consultant with Inside Out Athlete.