The mind is a muscle

The mind is a muscle and, if you don’t use it, it atrophies.

I have taken the foot off the gas a little recently in all aspects of my life. I’ve needed to regroup and also just take it easy for a while. I’ve been focussing on fun things like skiing, moderate climbing, and just having fun. The New Year, as with everyone though, was a kick up the butt to get back onto things and start making progress on long-held goals.

But I keep failing, falling off the wagon, and getting angry that I’m not committing to things in ways I have before.

The Power of the Mind

Hard winter climbing on the Frendo-Ravanel

Hard winter climbing on the Frendo-Ravanel

It is not revelatory to say that the power of the mind can pave the way to success and greatness. Everywhere we look people are drumming home how important applying your mind is and believing in yourself.

Without a doubt, my biggest leaps forward in running, climbing, or skiing have been when I’ve just gone for it and believed in myself. Committed to the next step and given it my all. It became second nature to be in that position where I am constantly feeling like I am at my limit, where I am constantly pushing boundaries, always going through – generally positive – changes.

But what happens when you ease off for a bit?

For me, I am seeing what happens first hand and it is challenging, to say the least.

When a muscle isn’t used..

The snatch test - a very mental battle

The snatch test – a very mental battle

If you stop going to the gym, your body maintains its progress for a short amount of time. With muscle mass and strength decreases in ability and performance take approximately 2 weeks to start becoming apparent. With breathing and cardiovascular performance it can be as rapid as 4 or 5 days.

The longer you take off, the greater the loss in performance. Returning to the gym or going out on a run and you are struggling where before you would cruise, you are fighting to lift as much, and you are hitting the wall much earlier than you are used to.

We have all been there and we all know what needs to be done. Take it back a step, realise you are not where you used to be, take stock of where you are now then create a plan to move forward. Simple.

But why is it different with the mind?

My head is not in it

Skiing off piste

Skiing off piste

I have been keeping a pretty steady base of fitness over the last few months. Sure, I’m not as strong as I have been but I’ve also not lost too much. I’ve been skiing a lot and my legs feel in great shape, I’ve been climbing moderately and can still knock out sets of pull ups confidently, and I have been dragged up a number of ski tours where I’ve just about held my own – or at least not performed much worse than could be expected, though I definitely want to make progress here.

My head, however, has been somewhere else.

With everything that has been going on, it has been safer and easier to not be pushing myself to my mental limit. Workouts have been functional yet maybe not challenging enough; skiing has been about technique and drills, less about committing nor scary terrain; and, climbing has been, most definitely, at the easier end of the spectrum, avoiding those moments where mental fortitude is what keeps you not just on the wall but even alive.

I’ve just not been in a place to handle these situations.

But now I feel I am ready but I can’t do it.

I’ve lost the ability, when things get really tough, to keep my focus and commit. Mid-training sessions, when I’m reaching my mental limits, rather than shutting the little voice out of my head and digging deep, I’m indulging him and letting him win. When I’m planning climbs and mountain days, rather than objectively weighing up my abilities with the difficulties, I’m making excuses and hiding behind work and other commitments.

In short, I’ve lost the strength of mind I, for so long, have been not just reliant on but proud of.

This is a pretty tough realisation.

If it’s gone, is it gone for ever? Is this it? Am I now the way I am forever and pushing my limits is a thing of my past, of my youth, and days gone by?

Of course it isn’t. I’m just being melodramatic. Something I excel at when times are tough.

Rebuilding and retraining my mind

The mind is a muscle

The mind is a muscle

As with rebuilding strength after a period of rest, breathing capacity after a time of lethargy, and even skill after a time away, I need to create a progressive and developed plan to not just get back to where I was but smash that place and take it further.

Of course I can’t just jump straight back into my hardest mental challenges after so long kicking back. First order of service is: where am I now? The hardest part is taking an honest and objective assessment of where I am right now: what can I do today? what can’t I do? Once I have square one figured out, I can start to plan how I move forward from there, taking small steps, baby steps that help me progress not just steadily but safely too. It means not jumping on my hardest ice leads just now, nor finding myself standing at the top of a couloir not fully committed or confident in my ability to get down it.

No, right now I just need to know that I will get back there with work, dedication, and believing that it is entirely within my control to achieve.

by Charley Radcliffe

2 Responses to “The mind is a muscle”

  1. Ryan

    Hi mate. Hope you’re doing well. Just read this and your Dan John post. I totally resonate with so much of what you say. It would take too long to pick out all the bits that hit straight home to me, but the general distraction of new, exciting things/projects is a big failing of mine too. Also, the loss of that hardened, determined mindset is, indeed, a tough one to accept and then deal with. There’s a balance between pushing on through and allowing the mind to be ready/up for it. Finding that balance, though, is like finding hen’s teeth! Anyway, good to hear you sounding positive. Writing/reflecting, if harnessed correctly, is a really positive tool and, like I said in a previous comment, we each have our own struggles. I went public with some of mine last week and the catharsis and positivity from friends has already helped immensely. Keep it up and hopefully catch up when we’re next in Cham. Here’s my post from last week:


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