How to train the mind – Once in the mountains there is no giving up

Climbing mountains in not a sort of game which can be stopped at any time. Even if you are at the limits of your endurance, if your legs feel like lead, if your head is spinning with exhaustion you cannot say, I’m giving up. It is the hardest rule to accept an at the same time an attraction all fanatic alpinists share. And even when you reach the summit, the challenge is not finished. This makes alpinism different to other sports and therefor self knowledge is one of the most important skills you need to bring with you in your backpack.
A strong mind is also very important for safety and morality. In general, the mountains you climb on expedition are higher and more remote. A larger physical reserve is therefore needed to be successful at all. More remote also means that you will not be saved within fifteen minutes if something goes wrong. A large reserve is therefore an advantage in an emergency situation.

Next year the biggest challenge Jur has to take into account is the lack of recovery time. To accomplish one expedition succelful is one thing, but setting of for another one while not fully recovered is like carrying 5 extra backpacks with you up the mountain. To practice what this feels like and to get better understanding about how his body and mind will respond to this I decided to keep him in a full-on training schedule until the day of departure. I have put him on a second sport fasting program with the result of another 4 kilo weight loss. You could say that he started the expedition on Khan Tengri in an over trained situation. Tricky, but needed. He needed to monitor along the way what his body and mind told him. With this data we hope to learn what to be aware of, what to practice and how to respond in next years expeditions.

But how do you practice this, and are you ever able to know what your mind and body are capable of? The answer to this question is probably; no. But we can at least try, and the only way to do so is to go into the mountains and push yourself to the limits. Jur was in Kirgizië, climbing the 7200 meter Khan Tengri as an attempt to gain more of this so important self knowledge.

How do we train the mind?

We implemented a few ground rules into our training schedule;

1. Drop the emotion and get objective about your training and performances

We might not recognize the sensations we notice during our workout as emotion, thinking that the “pain” is what stops us. Wrong. It’s our response to pain (or any other negative circumstance) that stops us. Emotional responses get in the way of rational decision making, and can prevent us from the best performance possible.
If you are doing an endurance session correctly, at some point the physiological sensations will hurt. That’s not the emotional part. Our response to that pain is the emotional part.
Doubt will creep in. And you start to think things like,
“I don’t think I can hold this pace.”  
“This is so hard,  I’m dying.”
Each of these responses is rooted in doubt, which is tied to fear. Fear of what? Well, that’s what you have to figure out for yourself. Maybe it’s fear of pain itself, maybe it’s fear of failure, maybe it’s fear of expectations. Maybe it’s all the above or something else entirely.
When you are feeling this way: respond with an objective account of how you are feeling. When it hurts or when you want to quit, ask yourself: “What am I really feeling”? Be objective in your observations.  If you are truly honest with yourself, you will realize that you are not dying, and you CAN! continue. Your body is strong, make sure your mind believes that and you will train your self confidence and gain a lot of self knowledge about your physical abilities.

2. Focus on what you are doing in that given moment – not on the outcome. 

When faced with a long or daunting day in the mountains or training session, it’s tempting to focus on the finish line. But, we need to resist that temptation because it takes our focus off of what we are doing in the present moment. When we focus on the end-goals, rather than the process, it can cause performance anxiety. This performance anxiety keeps you from your best performance. When we focus on the process and the present moment, it has been linked to improved performance, and tends to be found among the most elite athletes.

3. Actively visualize the climbing day scenarios

There are so many different things that can happen during a climbing day. Make sure you are mentally prepared for anything what the day might throw at you. When you visualize, think about your ideal climbing day performance. Imagine yourself strong, confident, successful. Think about each aspect of the climbing strategy, and visualize what you will have to do to perform perfectly. Then, throw in some curve balls with the next set of visualizations. Maybe you start to cramp on the climb. Maybe you aren’t hitting the targets you set for yourself. Maybe you are getting beat by the altitude. Maybe it’s windy, raining, cold, etc. What will you do? If you visualize your approach objectively, not emotionally, you can improve your response to these potential climbing day mishaps. Imagine yourself calmly responding to these issues. Should the problem arise on the actual climbing day, you will be mentally prepared to handle it without the emotional freak out. These visualization scenarios will work best when done consistently.

4. You are what you think, so make those thoughts good ones. 

Think negative, get negative results. Think positive, get positive results. Perhaps you’ve thought of one of the following: I don’t climb well in heat, There is no way I can make it to the next camp without taking a rest, I’m never able to sleep at high altitude. Any of these sound familiar? If you tell yourself enough, you will start to believe it. When you start to believe it, you will act in ways that are consistent with that belief, or you will lack the mental fitness to stay strong because you don’t believe that you can. We recommend that every time you catch yourself saying something negative about your ability, you should immediately re-frame it and say 5 positive things about yourself. If you are consistent with this, you begin to focus more on what is possible rather than what is not possible. Furthermore, immerse yourself in things you are not comfortable about, practice this over and over again until you become friends with it.

5. Mantras

A mantra might seem like pyschological gobbledy-gook, but I promise you that a well-framed mantra can help you battle the voices in your head and lead you to a breakthrough performance.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: When done correctly, mental training is hard work. It forces you to acknowledge aspects about yourself that you might not want to acknowledge. An honest assessment of your abilities can be a threat to the identity you’ve created for yourself, and you might want to protect that image as much as possible. Resist that temptation. Make the breakthrough by going for the weaknesses.

The final moments of a long climbing day are hard. Your body is well past the breaking point. The only thing holding it together is your mind. Make yours as strong as it can be. There can be no room for doubt in the last meters of a summit attempt. I assure you, the more effort you put into the mind, the more rewards you receive with the body.

Do it yourself!

Training gives your body greater capabilities, but most importantly it will discipline your mind. You will learn how to self-control, plan your journey well, and most important you will create more and more belief in yourself. Remember that it is your mind that holds the words possible and impossible. Limits do only exist in your imagination that sees them, just as your imagination can see new opportunities. Push yourself. First in your mind, your body will follow. This will teach you the art of self-knowledge.

If you like share your experiences or ask for ideas to set a new personal goal, feel free to ask your questions in the comments below or send me an email to; [email protected]

Related posts

No matter how fit you are – do not under estimate altitude sickness

Judith Huysmans

Training is on! – Shifts in the distribution between strength and endurance

Judith Huysmans

Coming back from Khan Tengri – Sliding straight into the “Specific training period”.

Judith Huysmans

Leave a Comment