The Best Thing to Do for Your Fitness Is Nothing at All

I've never been good at resting—I've climbed almost every day for the past 16 years. A recent injury, however, forced me to begrudgingly acknowledge that sometimes the best thing you can do for your training is stop it altogether.

The Best Thing to Do for Your Fitness Is Nothing at All

Sometimes your body just needs to take a break from the go-go-go lifestyle to rejuvenate and gain perspective.    Illustration: Erin Wilson

Seven days without climbing makes one weak—that’s been my motto for years. I love climbing. I started on the small indoor wall at my Vermont high school because I wanted to hang with the cool kids. Shortly after graduating, I moved to Yosemite to climb full-time. That was 16 years ago. Today, my life revolves around the sport: I write for a climbing magazine based in Boulder, and I live full-time in my minivan outside the office so I can save money for climbing trips.

There’s just one thing I haven’t been able to do in my climbing career: rest. When it comes to climbing, I’ve always thought if some is good, then more is better. When I try to take time off—which I’ve managed to do for just a few days at a time over the past decade—I become restless, anxious, obsessed with everything I could be doing. Taking time off—giving my body a chance to rest—is something I am very bad at. That is, until I was forced to do it.

Just before a late-summer trip to West Virginia to check out Summersville Lake’s deep-water soloing, I went bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lower Chaos Canyon. Antsy after two days of not climbing because of magazine deadlines, as soon as work ended, at 7 p.m., I drove an hour from Boulder and hiked two miles to the canyon. I flicked on my headlamp as the sun was setting and, upon reaching the boulders, climbed until just before midnight. Tired but excited as ever to be climbing in the alpine night, I decided to try one last problem. I grabbed the holds, made the difficult moves through the beginning, finished, and topped out. But as I rocked forward to stand up on top of the boulder, I slipped and pinballed six feet down into the jagged talus.

I screamed in pain and hobbled up to assess the damage. I had smashed my left foot into the granite and twisted my right foot between the rocks. I packed my single crash pad, which I’d missed in the fall, and limped two miles to my car. An X-ray revealed a fractured second metatarsal in my left foot. My swollen right foot was sprained. The doctor said no climbing for five weeks. My fall plans of climbing on El Capitan were ruined. I realized that I now, unfortunately, had to rest.

“Exercise is only part of the equation to better performance,” says Chris Heilman, a leading sport and exercise psychologist who lives in Driggs, Idaho. Muscle growth occurs when protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown—that is, your muscles are allowed to rebuild faster than they’re being broken down. And this new growth only occurs during rest periods. “When you exercise, you are giving your muscles little microtears. When you rest, you’re repairing those microtears,” say Heilman.

“When you don’t rest, you wear out and dig yourself into a hole,” says Heilman. For climbers, that can mean everything from tendinitis in the elbows to chronic finger and shoulder pain, and even sickness—excess protein breakdown weakens the immune system. But equally important and often overlooked is the mental benefit of rest. “Allowing your mind to rest, to have focused downtime to mentally wander, is really important,” says Heilman. Rest days—or even weeks—give the mind a chance to process the training, to come up with new ideas and betas for climbs, and to simply take a break and return to the activity renewed.

All of this isn’t necessarily news to most of us: athletes have been told a thousand different ways that resting is important—vital, even. But that doesn’t make it any easier. “Resting can be anxiety inducing for two reasons,” says Steve Magness, who coaches professional runners and the University of Houston cross-country team. “When athletes make any type of exercise or sport part of their routine, they are making it part of their identity. So when you say stop exercising, it’s like telling someone to stop doing something that is a part of them.”

This made sense to me—that a loss of climbing could translate to a loss of identity. During my rare bouts of rest, usually taken for work-related reasons, I panic when I feel the hardened skin at the tips of my fingers soften. Soft skin means I’m less of a climber, less of myself.

“The second reason that resting can be anxiety inducing is anything that we care enough about to do repeatedly becomes ingrained as a habit, almost like a compulsion” says Magness. “And like any compulsion, if we don’t get our fix, we have an emotional reaction—like anxiety—to try to force us to get our fix.”

Learning to release that anxiety proved difficult for me. On a climbing trip, 35 days has a way of breezing by. But when you’re hobbling about on crutches, spending all your time in the office or at home, you become hyperaware of all 3,024,000 seconds. Television kept me distracted from work, work from television. I spent most of my time by myself, fixated on my injury.

To keep some semblance of sanity, I decided to go to West Virginia anyway—not to climb, but to cover the deep-water soloing competition taking place there. While my girlfriend, Nina, and other competitors climbed the steep sandstone 40 feet above the water, I sat on my a stand-up paddleboard, soaking my swollen foot in the water and photographing the action. All I wanted to do was climb, but there was something nice, something therapeutic about being surrounded by friends.

In fact, Magness had mentioned that one of the most effective ways to recover is being around friends. “If you hang out with your friends and socialize, your stress hormones will plummet, and you’ll be recovered way quicker than if you did, say, a solo ice bath.” In fact, there’s a growing body of research suggesting that the endocrine system—which contributes to muscle growth, red blood cell count, and energy levels and is depleted after a hard workout—rebounds much faster when you’re surrounded by friends. “The social component is so huge to recovery,” says Magness.

After jumping between two jugs and finishing a steep route, Nina swam over to me. She crawled onto the paddleboard and navigated the huge piece of foam. My other climber friends sat on the boats, resting between attempts, working on their tans, and enjoying the summer weather. For a moment, I relaxed. The tranquility of being in the water, having my girlfriend there, and being surrounded by friends made me feel better. I almost started to smile.

Over the next few weeks, my foot slowly healed. I walked with less of a limp. A few weeks after West Virginia, I was able to put on a big climbing shoe. Nina and I even went to Yosemite, and I followed her on a few longer routes. I learned to relax a bit more, to care less about my performance while climbing. By the time the trip ended, my broken bone felt solid again—just in time for me to return to my cubicle. It wasn’t long until I returned to religiously climbing again. This time, though, my body felt better. I had a more calculated, less manic approach. I stopped climbing with a little left in the tank, letting my body heal before I injured it.

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