Proper Recovery is Key to Rewarding Mountain Adventures

My partner and I recently completed an epic backpacking trip where we hiked over 130 km and tackled 2 remote big mountains, in 8 days.  We had 2 weeks of vacation and planned to spend the second week climbing.  But first, we took a day off to celebrate our achievements and let our bodies recover.

The next day, we did an easy multi pitch climb.  We wanted a relaxing day and some practice placing gear.  However, we didn’t enjoy the route, we found it surprisingly frustrating.  To give ourselves a “break”, we decided the next day should be a casual day at the crag, climbing some fun routes.  We were surprised at how difficult even the warm up routes felt.  We cut the day short, disappointed with our performance.  

Then, we decided to tackle a mountain we’ve wanted to climb since we were turned around last year.  The alpine start had us up at 1:45 am, hiking at 3:00 am.  We walked with headlamps for a few hours, gaining over 700 meters of elevation and covering about 10 km to get to the base of the glacier we would cross.  We took a quick break to put on crampons and rope up, eat a snack and drink some water.

The break lengthened as we slowly pulled the gear out of our backpacks, watching the sun rise.  “Are we up for this?” asked my partner.  

“Sure,” I answered, trying to convince myself.  I looked up the glacier at the route we’d follow to the Bergschrund and then a scramble up a cliff band and finally the summit ridge with a steep rock step.  It seemed like a lot.  The walk to the glacier had involved a lot of stumbling and toe stubbing.  I blamed it on the darkness, the uneven path, but I knew that wasn’t the case.  I was tired,deep bone tired.  Every step to get to the glacier had been forced, a chore.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “As I see it, we have two choices.  Either we continue up the mountain or we go back down, maybe get some brunch.  I’m leaning 70% to going up and 30% to going down.”  It was a lie.  I was 50/50.

“I don’t think we should keep going,” he said.  “We’re both tired and we’ve got some technical ground to cover.  I don’t know if we can do it safely.  I think we should go down.”  He was always the voice of reason.    I felt relieved.

“Ok,” I said.  And after another moment, “You’re right.  That’s the best idea.”  I was already thinking about what I was going to order for brunch.

What went wrong?  I contemplated over eggs benedict.  Why were we so tired, so beaten down?  I realized we were showing some of the classic signs of under-recovery.  We hadn’t given our bodies the rest they needed to return to optimal performance.

Signs of Under Recovery

There are a number of signs that your body has not recovered enough:

  1. Decreased Performance – we struggled on routes we should have been able to climb easily
  2. Workouts Feel Too Hard – the walk up the trail to the glacier was drudgery 
  3. Feeling Tired, Low Energy – despite getting about 10 hours of sleep each night on our backcountry trip, we never felt fully rested
  4. Restless Sleep – by the end of the backcountry trip, I was waking up many times in the night with aching legs and back
  5. Loss of Appetite – even though we were working hard 8 – 12 hours each day, it was a struggle to eat breakfast and snacks during the day
  6. Difficulty Concentrating – this is what ultimately turned us back at the glacier, we felt spaced out and depleted and didn’t want to risk the more technical terrain
  7. Injuries, Illnesses and Infections – we both had nagging aches and pains that lingered throughout the week following our trip
  8. Loss of Enthusiasm, Motivation – we both love rock climbing and climbing mountains but neither of these activities sounded fun

Proper Recovery

So what should we have done?

  1. More rest – instead of diving back into our high energy activities, after only one day of rest, we should have spent at least 3 days recovering from the backpacking trip so our muscles could fully refuel.  We could also have planned a rest day in the middle of our backcountry trip rather than keep going 8 days in a row.
  2. Active Recovery – mild activity such as easy walking or cycling is the best way to recover
  3. Listen to the Body – our bodies know when we need more rest.  The lack of motivation to climb the mountain was our brains telling us that we needed more rest, not more hard mountain climbing.  Our heavy legs, dragging along the path were telling us it was too soon to head out again.

Proper recovery is a cornerstone of every good training program.  Find yours here.

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