My Response to Extreme Weight Loss in Climbing

I went on a rant on the Internet. It happens sometimes. Unlike most of my internet rants, this wasn’t supposed to be a blog post. The guys over at TrainingBeta.com posted an article about climbers resorting to extreme methods to lose weight for performance and posted the article along with a question “what are your thoughts on weight and performance?” I started writing a comment almost immediately, and as often happens with me these days, I wrote far longer than I intended. I moved over to the “message” feature instead to compose my thoughts, and my writing ran longer still. Eventually, I realized it was a post that I needed to write in its own right.

The folks at Crux Crush surveyed over 2,000 climbers asking whether they or someone they knew had ever resorted to “extreme measures” to lose weight for climbing and a vast majority said they knew someone who had, or had done so themselves. You can see their thoughts and results here. What really surprises me is the fact that people are surprised by this.

TrainingBeta

In one sense, I know nothing about this subject because I have never been tempted to lose weight for climbing. Not yet, at least, though I have friends who have done so. It’s all too easy to understand how the temptation forms, though, and that’s the scary part. A brief search on google for Anorexia Nervosa describes it as a “common” condition affecting over 200,000 people per year in the general population. In fact, t is the most common and most lethal psychiatric diagnosis among young women in the US, and that’s without the added pressure of a sport that places strength-to-weight ratio on a pedestal with the gods. It’s no wonder that this has become a major issue in our communities. This topic shouldn’t be controversial; it’s a simple fact about the world around us.

For insights from folks who’ve fought this battle themselves, Savannah blogged about her experiences here, and Celine blogged about her experiences for Climb Healthy.

My body relationship:
To me, training has always been a matter of crafting a body that can do the things I love well. I’ve never thought about my weight, just whether or not I’m capable of doing the things I love, and whether I’ve made progress lately. I have never let weight determine my activities, but periodically when I’m in the same room as a scale, I get curious. Also, I’ve had a lot of injuries. When you visit the doctor, the first they do is stick you on a scale and check your weight, so I’ve been able to watch my weight fluctuate with my performance with mild curiosity.

Once upon a time, I was a competitive swimmer, and my weight fluctuated from 135 to 150lbs depending on how hard we were pushing in practice. Once I quit swimming and picked up climbing, I settled at 150 and packed on a little muscle. I trained heavily and eventually could perform one-arm-pull-ups, and that extra muscle put me up to 155. Once upon a time, I could do three OAP’s on either side, and that muscle pushed me up to 160. I remember thinking “How cool is it that the scale could measure the thing cranking pull-ups!

I became lazy and quit training hard. Back to 150, and zero OAPs. That made sense to me. I had lost functionality, and that function lived in a muscle mass that apparently weighed about 10 lbs. Last winter I was up to 160, still at zero OAPs. That scared me slightly because I knew it was from bad eating habits. A latte every morning, snickers at lunch, and craft beer with dinner were something like 1,000 extra calories a day. Once I cut out the poor health choices, I went back down to 150. During a stint in the hospital for injuries, I dropped to 140 over the space of a week. A week later I was at 150 and dismayed since I knew there was a large amount of underlying muscle atrophy. My return to “normal” weight was due to 10lbs of IHOP pancakes. #NoRagrets!! I ❤ every single one of those double blueberry pancakes!!! Anyhow, recently I got curious and stepped on a scale, 151, and I can crank an OAP. I’m currently the lightest I’ve ever been while still being physically able to crank an OAP, but this is purely accidental. All this is to say, at length, that I can associate weight and performance. I’ve noticed the two are entwined to a certain degree, but I’ve never really used one to tweak the other.

Performance doesn’t matter, the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!


Temptation:
I’m lucky. I don’t climb the hardest grades, and I’m so far from winning any competitions that I don’t bother to compete. So my performance simply is what it is, there’s no mystical grade for me to complete or competition I’m trying to edge-out in a tightly packed field of high competition. I’m also lucky because I know how to train well so that my body builds muscle rapidly. Every time I’ve set a goal, I was able to train to build strength and accomplish it, unless I got distracted. It happens. Fortunately, I enjoy the act of training in and of itself, so I am progressing, for now.

Since performance on the wall is a matter of how well your muscles can carry your weight through a stretch of small holds, I can’t help but wonder… What if I couldn’t build muscle like that? What if I was facing the tight schedule of competition season and couldn’t wait to get stronger? What if I was closing in on the send of my dream project, but the weather window was fading? If I wasn’t able to build strength in time for the competition, or the end of the season, would I be tempted then?

Right now I’m still getting stronger at a pace that makes me happy, so the honest answer is that I can’t possibly know. None of us can unless we’ve been stifled by a lack of progress and looked for a way out.

Imagine being the professional climber on the cusp of sending a new grade that could bring in sponsorship offers, but failing tantalizingly close to the chains over and over for a whole season. Or a climber who is constantly just one slot away from qualifying for the finals. Repeated attempts to be your personal “best” and getting shut down when you’re so incredibly close to success can wear on even the most determined. At what point would I cave and try to shed weight to gain performance? If it happened to me, would it just be for that one time? Or would I be hooked? It worked that once, so why not again? And again? Where would it end?

Extreme weight loss by accident. I lost 10 lbs in 8 days after an accident in Yosemite.


I can understand this place in the mind because I suffer from depression. Now, that’s not to say that I am currently depressed; I’ve held it under control for years now (more on that here). But I know it’s back there in the deep recesses of my mind, this little monster that will tell me I’m worth nothing. All I would have to do is listen to it. The doc described my psychiatric disorder as a “mind virus,” and I likened it to a computer virus for the mind. Once certain stimulus enters the brain, it takes over and hijacks your normal function.

Imagine you cut weight that one time, through normal means, and you believe that was the reason for your enhanced performance. What would you do next time? Repeat the same experiment since it worked? Training often demands that we increase intensity and dedication to the cause; is it possible we would resort to more harsh measures? And once you up the ante, it’s easy to up the frequency, and if you believe that it was responsible for your boost in performance the pattern is set in stone, and it’s tremendously hard to break. Especially since it’s so easy to have a portion of your self-worth tied to climbing. One failed redpoint attempt, and you come away thinking “I’m useless, I didn’t try hard enough! I’ll get it right this time,” and resort to even more drastic measures to satiate the monster in the back of our head. It really could happen to anyone.

Again, I’m lucky. I’m a very lazy climber. I’m too weak to feel the pressures of the elites with sponsorships, and too far from the comp scene to feel the pressure of my peers to perform. I’m the guy who insists on climbing in blue-jeans with untied shoes with no chalk and, often enough I’m too lazy to even bring a rope. If someone as lazy as I could understand this temptation, it’s easy to understand how prevalent these “extreme measures” have become. Given the rise of competition climbing, and the overly intense measures taken to drive kids in youth teams towards peak performance at a time when they are already overly intense to each other and themselves, it’s no surprise that tinkering with weight loss has become an exceedingly prevalent undercurrent within the climbing community.

Who can see the future?
In the end, I don’t think I would take to drastic measures, but then that’s the crux of the issue isn’t it? Nobody ever thinks they would until they check into the hospital and wonder “what the hell happened to me?” Nobody thinks they would, and so they refuse to understand how anyone else could, which drives the problem even further underground so that we turn our head and pretend it’s not even there. That’s the tragedy. I’m here to tell you that I can imagine exactly how I or anyone else could fall into this. I honestly believe that it could have happened to anyone, and I’m sorry you were the one to draw the short straw. And I hope the rest of you never have that poor luck to discover just how easy it is for your mind to take you places you never even knew to fear.

There’s more to life than climbing. There’s more to climbing than sending. Someday I will finally cave to the ravages of biology and plateau at my own personal peak, with my own projects falling just so slightly out of reach. Just… So… Close… and yet so far. I can feel my disappointment because I’ve been there before. With a little luck, instead of choosing to try to eek out that last bit of performance from a dying career, I’ll instead choose to deepen my experience of climbing, dive into the adventure, see more places, and extoll the virtues of 5.6 multipitch climbs with short approaches! And perhaps in doing so, and in writing this article, I can help mentor a few folks who need it, toss them a rack of cams and the sharp end of the rope, spread some good mojo, and show them there’s more to life than just sending.

More to life than sending: like bouldering in flip-flops with lots of crap dangling about. Because why not?


It’s that first sip of Turkish coffee in the backcountry with friends, it’s gifting your stove in exchange for food at the red river gorge, it’s swapping stories about how to “Pile ze Bags” in South Dakota. It’s about sunsets on Devil’s Tower, Sunrise in Linville Gorge, it’s about that one time you tried to see how much 5.6 you could climb in one day without moving the car and then grabbed a beer with your climbing partner in the parking lot (thanks, Evan!) while you waited for everyone else to get back. It’s the days you’re too crushed to crush and learn to play ping-pong at the Hueco Rock Ranch from someone who has seen the world.

I’ve only been climbing for nine years, but already I’ve seen one important truth in climbing: At the end of all days, in twenty years, or ten, or five, or even in a few weeks, It’s never the actual climbing you will remember, it’s the people you shared it with.

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

-Austin Howell-

PS: if you feel the need to experience a life that’s more than just sending, talk to me. I’ve got a rack of cams with your name on it and a 500ft 5.6 that you’ll never forget!! Let’s make some memories!

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One thought on “My Response to Extreme Weight Loss in Climbing”

  1. Hey Austin,
    I was on the hunt for weight loss materials today and found this on your website.
    Thank you for sharing your interesting and inspiring experience. I will use some of its points to complete a new writing on my fitness blog.
    Again, thank you for this article!

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