The Art of Doing Nothing

Rest days are the best days. Photo: Rachel Slater


Sunday, 14 December 2014

With the advent of winter training again, I’ve been trying to juggle recovery, climbing and training. I’ve written a short piece on ‘doing nothing’ - so often overlooked - and some information about training and recovery below.


Rodellar, northern Spain, is one of my favourite places to take a rest day. After a day’s climbing at this steep limestone paradise, I always felt I had earned the time off.


We sleep in, until the sun is high and baking the dusty ground. Crawling out of the van, I stretch sore forearms and squint in the bright glare. Another perfect sky spans the blue, from pale white on the horizon to inky black above my head. Olive trees throw patches of shade onto the car park - more of a field in a quiet, rural village in the foothills of the Pyrenees.


Eagles ride thermals over the canyon, circling slowly. A tractor chugs past, the driver hunched over the wheel. Dark eyes and weathered face briefly glance in our direction, nodding a greeting. I sit in my camping chair, content to feel the warm rays on my body. Breakfast is a simple luxury: cereal, raisins, nuts, milk; stir into the blue mixing bowl and crunch into the stillness of the day.


In the late morning, we stroll down the middle of the road to the village centre, following lines of cracked tarmac and white paint. We greet our friends and begin to make lunch; an important ritual. Thin, wiry bodies have been subject to strict controls in order to maximise our climbing, under the mantra of ‘light is right’, but today we feast. 


Eyes bulge as we check our supplies, rummaging through random hand-me-down food bags until a prize meal is compiled. White ciabatta bread is bought, fresh this morning from the local bakery, along with fruit and vegetables. The apples are deliciously sweet and crunchy; ripe avocados a rare treat. I have been looking forward to these personal prizes for days. Rest days are where it’s at.


By noon, we have prepared a picnic of delights which we share with friends in the blistering, thick heat of the sun. We begin our lavish meal, passing food round and savouring every bite. Conversation spills easily as we babble about the latest routes, successes and defeats, of projects opened and closed. Laughter echoes around the valley, up into the blue. We take our fill.


Appetites sated, stomachs bursting. We embrace the Spanish siesta, lying in the warm shade of the trees and snooze. Contented lions. The hiss and shake of cicadas vibrates into the mirages, an occasional wisp of breeze rustling the dry yellow grass. Eyelids become heavy, finally closing shut. I am content to simply lounge, waiting for the heat to pass.


Late afternoon, the temperature returns to a comfortable intensity and we begin to stir. The cool, electric-blue waters of the river canyon are calling, a natural ice-bath for the senses. As we hop from giant boulder to boulder into the depths of the canyon, smooth warm rock underfoot, I hear the thunder of water grow louder. The clear mountain river sparkles and shimmers to match the spectrum of sky.


Finally, in the depths of the high-sided canyon, we reach our favourite spot: a deep pool ten metres wide, a waterfall cascading into one side. Although these pools are common knowledge, I have never met anyone else here; thus allowing us to lay claim, unchallenged, to our private area. It adds an air of excitement to a simple rest-day journey: ‘to the secret pools!’


The first plunge is the best; the biggest shock. As I jump from the giant, water-worn boulder positioned above the waterfall, there’s a brief pause: a silence overtakes the senses in free-fall, limbs outstretched. I hit the water and sink into the darkness. The refreshing cold envelopes me and I hover underwater, feeling no need to kick upwards. My muscles instantly contract and I float slowly towards the sunlight dancing on the surface.


Jumping out of the icy water, we spread ourselves over the warm boulders, droplets running onto the rocks. Again, we sprawl in the sunshine, basking like reptiles; we welcome the heat, drying off in minutes. The roar of the waterfall fills the air and I feel muscles begin to loosen, dilating with blood again. Care-free laughter and shouts of delight float in the sunshine. 


The ice-bath has worked its magic and I feel refreshed, rested. Ready.




There is plenty of scientific literature to support ‘resting’ after athletic performance in order to aid the body in its recovery and support the supercompensation of muscles to an improved standard. This can be done in a number of ways, be it planned ‘active rest’ days, playing other sports or simply doing nothing.


The principle aim of training is to temporarily stress the body. In turn, the body will attempt to restore homeostasis (a state of equilibrium) during recovery; thus repairing the relevant muscles to a stronger state. The body will super-compensate and a higher fitness level can be reached. A progressive, well-organised approach over a long period of time will see a gradual increase in the muscles you are training. This is explained well in Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Anderson (published in 2014).


I have been reading the above-mentioned book with great interest, and applying it to my training. I’m looking forward to this winter, hoping to reap the rewards whilst in Scotland, and in turn, the Alps in 2015. Pull ups, long runs in the mountains, dry tooling, weights and stretching have been the order of the season.


However, all this training has got me thinking about the other side of the coin: rest and recovery. How much should I rest before the next session? Do I feel too tired today? Thankfully, the book answers most of these questions but I’m still not certain of when to push on and when to ease off.


Think about the training required to improve your climbing endurance, and then remember that the mental aspect is even more important than the physical. The mind rules, but we often concentrate on improving what we can do, rather than what we think. How hard are the individual moves on pitch two of the Yellow Walls test piece The Cow at Gogarth? I spent ages leading this mentally stressful pitch, and was glad to pull over the top in one piece. This is certainly a case for resting the mind and recovering from a total ‘brain pump!’


Next time you feel worked from training or several days climbing, remember it is better to be undertrained than risk overtraining and burning out. Enjoy the rest day, sit back and make plans for tomorrow.

Tom LivingstoneComment