Honoring Seasons | Renewal Rundown #4
Wintering, Dormancy in Fitness, and the Fertile Void
Good morning from New England! We’re finally settled into our new home and adjusting to a new place and routine. This is the Renewal Rundown where I share a few updates, ideas, and sources of inspiration on applying self-renewal to ourselves and the world around us.
It’s cold and dark here. The days start more slowly and end more quickly. There is something magical about experiencing a place as winter emerges. The trees are bare, the perennials are dead, and the animals seem to have a sense of urgency. Everything is vulnerable, and the landscape feels stripped to its essential form. Even the sunrises and sunsets have a stark feel to them:
This environment brings to mind Wintering, a beautiful book about “the power of rest and retreat in difficult times”. It reminds us to honor the seasons of our life and embrace periods of darkness, solitude, and rest.
These challenging times can be seasons of renewal when transformation and new life are born:
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
By first recognizing how life is cyclical:
“To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. I would not, of course, seek to deny that we gradually grow older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard.
And, trusting that progress will emerge as we continue this repeating journey:
To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will often come around again. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made.
I’ve come to appreciate how this applies across all areas of my life. I used to think the ideal was often to be the same all the time: same routine, same habits, same diet, etc. Activities like gardening, parenting, and meditating have opened my eyes to how much of life is cycling through repeating patterns. Starting a business and helping other business owners highlighted how these principles apply to organizations as they navigate the seasons of their industry and the economy. The greatest risk arises if we “fight the winter” and don’t adapt to the environment around us.
Dormancy in Fitness
This idea of cycling through seasons is especially relevant to fitness.
Many people imagine an exercise routine where they always do the same workouts, at the same intensity, and see the same results. The expectation is continual progress toward their goals.
The reality is almost always different. Life throws us challenges. Work gets in the way. Family takes priority. Sickness, travel, or something unexpected sets us back.
We try to grind through despite the additional stress. Our enjoyment dips. Our progress stagnates. We might even get hurt or move backward.
We’re fighting nature. We’re being rigid instead of adapting to the season we’re in. We fear dialing back will derail us when it’s pushing through that truly sets us up to fail. The real benefits and gains from exercise accrue slowly over time. Our ability to sustain our effort over many years is far more valuable than our ability to maintain intensity in every season.
The best examples of this are the people training with the highest stakes. Professional athletes take time to rest in the off-season. Elite weightlifters, bodybuilders, and runners embrace periodization:
Periodization is the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) in order to maximize training adaptations and to prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome
This approach has been shown to be the optimal strategy even with elite competitors who structure their lives to minimize stress and maximize recovery.It's even more important for the rest of us who face the oscillating intensity of daily life.
There are periods in our lives when the best thing we can do for our fitness is to enter a season of dormancy. Suspend our normal routine. Dial the effort back. Slow down. Adapt to our current conditions. Conserve our energy. And position ourselves to reemerge in the next season with fresh life.
The Fertile Void
These ideas connect to a theme that I've come to appreciate deeply: The Fertile Void. The term comes from the world of Gestalt Therapy founded by Fritz Perls who believed in a “cycle of the interdependency of organism and environment.”
I’ll write more on this concept as I continue to explore it in my own life, but these visualizations of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience capture the essence:
By honoring the cyclical seasons and withdrawing when necessary, we create a space that is ripe for new life and activity to emerge.
Writing and Community
One of the highlights of this year has been starting to write publicly. It’s been both cathartic and generative, helping me process past experiences and open to new opportunities. I’m incredibly grateful to all of the people who provided encouragement most notablyand . If you're interested in sharing online, I recommend immersing yourself in Paul and Rob's writing.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve loved getting a flurry of emails with the subject line “<Twitter Friend> is writing on substack”. It’s exciting to see more people sharing essays and newsletters. It feels like there is a vibrant writing community emerging. In that spirit, I want to highlight a few people that recently started sharing on Substack:with an amazing essay on Grief and Running.with unique and powerful writing like The Ordinary Boy. with Grandmotherly Wisdom like You Can't Raise a Baby Online. with a powerful piece In Honor of Shaking. with a newsletter with gems like Creating an Anti-fragile Family.
Check these out and subscribe if the writing speaks to you. And, if you’ve started writing or are thinking about publishing something, please share as I’d love to read it.
On the Horizon
It’s tough to believe it’s already December. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reflecting on the past year and building momentum for the new one. If you’re interested in annual reviews or hunting for good reflection questions,has a great guide you can download here.
And if you’re looking for inspiration on how to embrace change in your life, I just published a conversation with Steve on self-unfolding and slow change.
If this theme of honoring seasons, wintering, dormancy, and the fertile void sparked any ideas or brought to mind other books, I’d love to hear about it. Shoot me an email or share in the comments.
I’ve leave you with one final quote from Wintering: “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”
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Wintering by Katherine May. If you prefer audio, here’s a great On Being episode with May and Krista Tippet.
This definition of periodization comes from this journal article on Current Concepts in Periodization of Strength and Condition.
A good overview of the effectiveness of periodization can be seen in The Science and Practice of Periodization
Perls, F. S.(1969) Ego, Hunger and Aggression. Here’s a good introduction to the Gestalt world.
Sam, great thoughts on wintering. Can't remember where I saw this, but as a response to trying to start new things during the winter -- it doesn't make sense; just as cold weather is a signal for a time for pruning in the garden, so too is it for the mind and body.
That being said, winter doesn't necessarily need to lead to dormancy. I've found the "off-season" -- in life and and in sport -- is a chance to stop focusing on the immediate skills you need "in-season" and instead focus on building your base. For me, that's shifting to strength building now, in anticipation of of a heavier endurance focus in the late winter and spring (XC/alpine skiing leading to hiking and trail running).
Plus, beach season is only 180 days away -- it's time to bulk!
The idea of Wintering and adapting to the season of life really resonated with me.
I've been trying to tap into my natural rhythms more this year. This article was a good reminder to throttle back a little during this time to rest, recover, and regroup for greater strength later on.
Thanks for this awesome piece of writing Sam!