Multi Sport Challenges

Steph,
I hope the universe is treating you well and vice versa. It has been great to watch your talents and passions grow throughout the years despite the obvious stones in the road. You have definitely encountered your fill of dragons. It has been astonishing to witness your pluck and grit the last few seasons. I commend you.

I myself am an avid trad climber and paraglider. I love climbing, and I am looking to transition from paragliding to skydiving once I move closer to a drop zone. I was wondering, do you ever feel that wingsuit BASE jumping hinders your progress in climbing or vice versa? They are both demanding sports.

For me, I only had one love and that was rock climbing. Everything was simple and I could pour all my energy and passion into one place. Life was easy. And now a few years later I found air sports. I am quickly falling in love with flying (read; falling) as well. Now I feel my attention and passion is being jockeyed for between the two sports. How did you deal with this? I understand living in a place where you can do both activities in a day is a key. But even so, I find it a difficult transition from a single sport athlete to a multisport athlete. I just feel that my progress in one is always suffering due to time spent on the other.

Thanks for all your thoughtful insights and inspiration.
Make it an extraordinary day,
Swiss

Hi Swiss,
Wasn’t it easy when there was just one thing? 🙂 🙂 🙂

It is really hard to do multiple sports, especially when you want to do your things well. I struggled hard with this in my early years of climbing because I wanted to free climb well, but I also wanted to climb big walls and alpine routes. I went to Patagonia every winter for 7 years. So every year, in the very best desert climbing season (November) I had to stop rock climbing and go up to the Lasal mountains every day with snowshoes and a backpack of full water bottles and slog up snow slopes for hours. I knew if I didn’t do that, I’d suffer (more) in Patagonia and also not succeed. Then when I got home in February, I had huge legs and tiny arms (T-rex) and had to frantically start trying to get fit for rock climbing again. By the time early summer came and I was finally sort of fit for free climbing again and psyched to climb at Rifle, it was time to start carrying heavy things uphill to get fit to go on an expedition to Asia for another month or two of travel, hiking, load ferrying and a little bit of vertical movement in some form–alpine climbing or big wall aid or free climbing. On paper, I was technically “climbing full time,” but expedition training and climbing was the worst thing I could do for hard free climbing, and vice versa and it was a pretty hard cycle to manage!

This robbing Peter to pay Paul cycle was why I stopped going on expeditions when I wanted to free El Cap in a day and the Salathe–I knew I had to focus completely on free climbing and big wall free climbing for a while if I wanted to be able to take it to the next level. However…all those years spent climbing big walls and carrying heavy things around were what gave me the experience I needed to be able to deal with living on El Cap and climbing hard in the dark and through exhaustion for my one-day free ascent. For the Salathe, I did all the training alone, hiking to the top of El Cap in the morning and climbing on the headwall by myself, and on my free ascent I did most of the hauling, as well as leading every pitch over the multi-day ascent. Again, I absolutely used all my years of alpine and big wall experience to free the Salathe. Since I had those skills in my wheelhouse, when I chose to focus and train on free climbing, I was able to do free climbs that demanded a lot greater skill set than I would have gained simply by focusing only on hard sport climbing or cragging. Ultimately, over the long term, juggling all those seemingly antagonistic activities (and always feeling like I wasn’t progressing quickly in any of them) actually came together to allow me to do some things I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do without having pursued all of them for many years.

Nowadays I’m juggling my most favorite things all the time: free climbing, trail running (though this is more fun/training for the other things), Moab-style BASE jumping and wingsuit flying. And even with rock climbing, I have to decide whether I’m focusing on hard crack climbing, long routes or sport climbing from season to season. Sheer length of time spent in the sport (25 years climbing, 10 years BASE jumping and wingsuiting, 25 years running) allows me to keep them all in the mix. And so it does get easier over time–a long time. But all these activities require their own specific type of training, and they’re not very forgiving of any slacking. I have chosen to live in a place where I can do all these things regularly, which is mandatory, and I do also stay really disciplined with training for all of them.

In recent years, I’m dealing with the fact that training for free climbing is the opposite of training for flying (and hiking up mountains for flying) and vice versa, and I use the same approach I used 15 years ago when dealing with free climbing vs expedition climbing–if I have a particular goal or trip I’d like to do that focuses on just one of these things, I start focusing a lot more specifically on that activity for about a month before, and don’t worry as much about the other stuff. When it’s over, I go back to the busy rotation approach.

There may even be entire years where you focus solely on one of your sports instead of the other(s), and that’s fine! Especially if you’re starting something new, your motivation is going to cause you to focus on it more, and you actually need to give it a lot more attention during the beginner phase of it. You always have to follow what inspires you–we’re not defined by our activities. We all evolve and there are different times for different things.

Pursuing multiple sports or styles within a sport isn’t easy especially because it can be hell on your confidence: you’re always moving between communities of people who are only doing one thing, and you’ll often feel like you’re the person who’s never progressing as fast. And in the short term, you’re not progressing as fast, which can be frustrating. But you have to look at the big picture, in which you’re becoming an expert in multiple disciplines, that actually relate on a bigger scale. The payoff is just as big, perhaps bigger, but it’s much longer term. I do think there is a limit as to how many things you can do if you want to do them all well and stay safe at them. This is why I don’t pursue paragliding, speed flying or hang gliding, though I know I would like them. I feel juggling 3 technique/training intensive sports + running is my absolute max, and I can’t take on any more.

Also on the upside, being a multi-sporter also makes you far less susceptible to burnout or overuse injury, which is very healthy in the long term as well. Many of the people I used to climb with years ago, who solely focused on the hardest sport routes and nothing else, don’t even climb anymore because they got burned out or continuously injured. The thing that will hinder your progress more than anything, in any sport, is injury. So if switching between sports keeps you from overuse injury, burnout, or having an accident, it’s also going to help you progress more in the long run.

If you are passionate about more than one sport (even within climbing, it’s very different to focus on bouldering vs sport climbing vs big walling), then you’ll have to be more motivated and more busy, you’ll have to train more and be more disciplined, and you’ll also have to take a more big picture approach. It may take years to see the kind of returns you have in your head right now–but it’s just like life: it’s a marathon, not a sprint 🙂


  • Megan McGrew

    Wonderful article Steph, thank you.

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