Burnout is something I’d heard about happening to climbers before and something I’d experienced myself in other sports, swimming and after that, triathlon, but not in climbing until this year. To begin with my mind still believed that my body could do what it’s used to doing; pulling as hard as is necessary, and, if asked, doing so again and again until the chains are clipped. But the body won’t compute. My will is pretty strong, not as strong as it has been, but strong nonetheless, of that I am sure, but with the greatest will in the world my body can only thrash for so long before the smarter, more logical part of my brain kicks in and tells the other part to listen, to let my body rest.
I’d never experienced burnout in climbing before this summer. Somehow I’d managed to avoid it, perhaps by luck a number of factors or chance events fell into place meaning that my body never fatigued too much and dropped below the quick recovery level, without me deliberately setting aside a period of substantial rest.
Over the last few months, however, I have been on 3 major climbing trips (the third one being the trip I’m on now, Spain) each lasting between 4 and 8 weeks. Between each trip I had about two weeks at home, which, in hindsight, should have been spent mostly resting or doing less strenuous activity. What I actually did was rest for a few days and then either boulder outdoors if the weather allowed, and if not then boulder indoors in an attempt to keep my power reasonably high whilst route climbing. This may sound pretty stupid, indeed, reading it to myself now, I can only vaguely comprehend why it seemed a good idea at the time because now, now that I’m suffering for it, it seems like resting, stretching, and a few sessions at the wall or the crag would have been ideal and would have set me up nicely for the following trip.
These extended periods of climbing and low quality recovery take it out of you. It’s important to rest, everybody knows that, I know that, and yet when you’re on a climbing trip you’re there to climb, so you do and eventually you pay the price for it. I had it in Kalymnos and I’ve got it now, or rather, I haven’t got it, oomph that is. This is burnout, where you’re level of strength and fitness seem to inexplicably drop, your session fitness extends to the warm up and no further, and if you’re interested in trying something near your limit then you’ll be sorely disappointed when you fall off moves that you could previously do 90% of the time.
The feeling has become more apparent recently, and its transformed into one of many dimensions. First, it was barely noticeable, a tiredness which could have been attributed to the previous days climbing, or lack of protein in the previous nights meal, style of climb, skin, and a plethora of other variables which make it tricky to discern the general level of fatigue of your body. This tiredness, I have found, persists and results in many unproductive climbing days and can’t be remedied by just having a rest day and a good evening meal. This unproductiveness has had an effect on my mental state as a climber too, it’s affected my confidence greatly. In the past I could get on any climb below or near my current max with an assured confidence that I would be able to climb it relatively quickly if I decided I wanted to climb it. There was no doubt in my mind that id be able to do it. if i could do the moves then it was only a matter of time, usually a small amount of time. Now, however, I don’t have this confidence, I just don’t know if I’m physically capable in my current state.
Clearly, then, I need to improve at listening to my body and gauging my body’s general level of fatigue. Then there’s the next level, the step which actually counts: doing something about it. This is making the decision to rest and sticking by it. This requires more of a long term look at things and requires the confidence to know that rest now will pay off later. If you don’t rest, you burnout, as I’ve discovered, your climbing suffers and the trip will be less successful than it could have been.
All is not lost though. I’m going to take two full rest days now, it’s raining which makes that easier, climb on the third day whilst carefully paying attention to my tiredness levels and going easy if necessary, one more rest day then two days on, one off for the rest of the trip. That gives me 7 or 8 climbing days depending on the day I have to leave. If used carefully and if things go well, there’s a chance I can achieve something good in that time, something that will help me progress as a climber as well as satisfy my inner expectations and ego.