What Happens When You Take Three Months Off From Rock Climbing

Whether intentional or not, I took a break from climbing this summer. Trips to the gym were few and far between in June. I didn't climb at all in July or August. The most recent formal Philadelphia Rock Climbing Meet-up Group event I set up was back in May. Weekends were spent hiking, backpacking, and visiting family. Weeknights were spent training, or recovering from training, for Rainier. And honestly, it was all just fine with me. Now that I've started getting back into it, I'm discovering exactly what happens when you take three months off. 

Those climbing muscles get a little weaker. But they can get stronger again. Rock climbing is, in good part, an anaerobic sport requiring strength and endurance in very specific areas. You need to use those muscles to keep them strong. Even with a day or two a week of upper body lifting, I didn't do a great job of maintaining my back strength. And my forearms? Forget it. The only workout they'd been getting was periodically opening and closing my Nalgene. I was pretty darn sore after my first day back at Go Vertical last week. It was expected, and felt great! It was my body's way of gently reminding me of the muscles I'd been neglecting.

The first few routes feel a bit weird. But muscle memory lasts a long time. I walked in to Go Vertical and noticed one of my projects, a long, balancy face climb requiring a high-step every other move with lots of finger pockets, was still there. Phew! I walked to another wall and I clipped in to warm up on a nice, gentle 5.6. The first half of the route felt strange. I was making rookie mistakes - not keeping the weight on my legs, over-gripping, spending a lot of time "dancing" on holds, etc. After a few more easy-before-the-hiatus routes, I felt normal again. But it'll be a few more weeks before I'm ready for the project!

There may be a step or two, or five, backwards in the fear-conquering department. Climbing, being up high, and falling from up high scares the crap out of me. This is nothing new. As much as I hate to admit it, exposing myself to my fears is the best way to begin accepting them and not letting them get in the way. Exposure and desensitization. The problem with an extended hiatus is time away from the fears. They multiply like bunnies, grow quickly, and before I know it I've got a big ball of bunny terror in the pit of my stomach. At least the ball is smaller than it was before I started the exposure-desensitization routine, right?

Climbing buddies will still invite you to climb, even if you can't. And when you come back, they'll be there, and you'll be ecstatic to see them. I sent way too many "no" replies to outing invitations this summer from the various groups within the Philly climbing community. I missed a lot, without a doubt. But walking in to the gym and seeing familiar faces was wonderful. I'm grateful for their presence and for the fact that they kept inviting me along!

You have a chance to rekindle, renew, even reinvent your relationship with climbing. I promised myself I'd work to develop a healthier relationship with the sport after the Mt. Rainier trip. Climbing and I have our ups and downs, our silent arguments, and our bad days. Such is life. But a lot of things continued to eat away at our relationship, and I want to work on them.

First, I resolved to stop putting so much pressure on myself. No pressure to push my physical and mental limits every day, unless it's fun. Climb because it's fun. Reasonable expectations are key.

Second, I resolved to climb for me. I have trouble separating my expectations from others', and climbing is no different. Do I climb because I want to, or because I feel like I have to? I've been an organizer for the Philadelphia Rock Climbing Meet-up Group for two years. It's been a great way to meet other Philly area climbers, introduce new people to the sport, and to hang out with some incredible folks. Many of them are my go-to friends for local outdoor climbs, and I wouldn't trade the group for anything. But organizing got to be more stressful than it was fun, and I finally admitted I needed to take a step back. Saying that out loud felt so, so good.

Third, I resolved to practice letting go, both literally (exposure and desensitization!) and figuratively. I want to learn to let go of my fear of falling and of failure. There's  no reason to worry about not being good enough when I'm doing something I love because I love doing it. It's a lot easier to go with the flow when the flow looks more like a gently meandering stream than a rushing river full of giant boulders and whirlpools.

If you've ever taken a break from a sport or other endeavor you loved, what did you learn? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


Aleya said…
I only took three weeks off and I still know exactly what you mean. Luckily I came back strong, but my relationship has definitely changed. Less pressure, more fun, and I'm actually doing better than before. :)
Katie said…
Yay, so glad to hear it! It's funny how just a small change in attitude and the way we approach things can have such a positive outcome. P.S. you're my hero, Aleya!
lizzy said…
I actually took a break from climbing this summer too, between south Africa and 3 triathlons. I think I really needed it to reset my enthusiasm and expectations. Tri training has also been teaching me how important it is to be patient with myself, instead of frustrated. I'm pretty hopeful I'll end up with a more balanced relationship with climbing, too. Great post :)
Amy C said…
I love this, Katie. Such wisdom and optimism—especially in the last three paragraphs. The relationships we have with sports can be tough... and learning how to re-connect and re-establish *why* we're doing them (and recalling that we actually do love what we're doing) is so important in keeping us going.

Thank you for posting this. :)
Katie said…
Lizzy - you're my hero too! with everything you've been able to do this summer, it's just amazing to follow. it's comforting to know that as such an experienced and talented climber, you're going through some of the same stuff.

And Amy - I'm pretty sure a good part of these lessons are things I'm learning from you! Being thoughtful, open, taking steps back, standing in the fire, all of that. Thank you :)
Tiffany said…
I, too, can relate to your last bold point. I spent the last four years arguing with myself about who and why and what I was doing this sport for. After making some climbing girlfriends this past year, some personal changes this spring and a step back this summer for Rainier training (giving those climbing muscles a rest b/c mine are apparently screwed up), I am ANXIOUS to get back to the gym! I also think, as women, we have such an emotional connection to things we are passionate about it, sometimes requiring some step-back time to reevaluate.

Great post, as always!!!!

Love, TR
Katie said…
I echo every comment! I felt like I was reading so many words my own heart could say. This was such a great post, Katie. :) I'm proud of and happy for you, and miss you like CRAZY.
Lydia said…
Katie! I love this post! I very much agree with with all of it. It's nice to hear that someone else feels the same way I do!

Unknown said…
Hi Katie, I'm a bit new to your blog (twitter recommended following you) and I love it. I am originally from Lower Merion, just outside of Philly, so I really enjoy hearing stories from a climber so close to home. I moved to Germany 5 months ago for work and haven't climbed since I've been here. It sounds absolutely terrible and it is. I've been allowing a injured pulley to heal in the process, but I'm itching to get back on the rocks now as fall is setting in. This was a very cool article and has got me looking forward to getting reacquainted with climbing while alleviating some of my worries of being away from doing what I love for so many months.
Amy C said…
I love this, Katie. Such wisdom and optimism—especially in the last three paragraphs. The relationships we have with sports can be tough... and learning how to re-connect and re-establish *why* we're doing them (and recalling that we actually do love what we're doing) is so important in keeping us going.

Thank you for posting this. :)