Sometimes life feels like it is spinning out of control. Pet care disappears before a trip. A health diagnosis or injury catches you off guard. Money issues leave you feeling unprepared. Worries pile up. An event ends with a different outcome than you expected. It happens. What if you surrender control, and instead, focus on the habits you need to acquire and skills you need to develop to reach your goals?

New signs on the Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail.
New signs on the Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail.

Last week, Ajax, a hiking friend, and I visited Whittaker Wilderness Peak adding a loop including Shy Bear Pass to Doughty Falls. Our trip started great. We were first on the trail, with beautiful weather, upbeat moods, and time at the summit to grab a snack and sign the summit registry before continuing to explore Cougar Mountain.

But I overestimated how much mileage she could safely handle, leaving her dehydrated, in pain, and overly tired. A little less than a mile from the trailhead, I left her resting to dash back to the car with Ajax and bring her extra water. The word she used at the end of our hike was “miserable.”

A selfie at Doughty Falls, what my daughter called "Doughty Trickle" in July when there is no running water.
A selfie at Doughty Falls, what my daughter called “Doughty Leak” in July when there is no running water.

I shared posts about this particular trail in How to Assess Your Progress (June 2023) and Expect the Unexpected (July 2023). In both, the outcome was far from optimal. Is it me or the trail? Am I trying too hard to control the outcome, choosing what feels easy (to me) to gently push my partners – my dog, my daughter, my friend – into more mileage than they’re ready for?

When you think of control, what comes to mind? The vanilla definition of control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” Many of my clients mention feeling “out of control” around food, or not being able to exercise because of “situations beyond their control.” What makes you lose control?

We have no control over how our hiking partners do, but we can help them develop the right skills such as pacing, fueling, hydration, gear selection, and more, to improve their outcomes.
We have no control over how our hiking partners do, but we can help them develop the right skills such as pacing, fueling, hydration, gear selection, and more, to improve their outcomes.

Now it’s your turn to explore your ideas and feelings about control. Please jot down some notes for the following questions:

Reflect on a moment when you felt completely in control. What elements were actually under your control, and what elements were not? Precision Nutrition has a worksheet called the Spheres of Control that might help you explore what areas of your life you have control over and which you don’t.

Trilliums are starting to bloom in the mountains! A sure sign of spring. We have zero control over the weather, but 100% control over where we choose to live.
Trilliums are starting to bloom in the mountains! A sure sign of spring. We have zero control over the weather, but 100% control over where we choose to live.

Think about a time you had no choice but to surrender control. How did it make you feel, and what was the outcome? Did other people around you seem to have control, and if so, over what? What did you learn from the experience? If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

In February of 2024, I shared a post on process and outcome goals. In physical challenges, an outcome goal might be “summit Mt. Rainier” over which we have little control. A process goal might include “carry a pack with increasing weight over increasing distance and elevation gain weekly” over which we have more control.

When you consider physical challenges like a hike, you can’t control the weather, but you can control the route you choose. You can control who you hike with, but not how they do.

I think I have voice control over Ajax, but that is an illusion. What we have is a bonded trust that comes from 7 years of hiking together. He loves to hike with me; he also loves being off-leash. He knows he will lose that freedom if he goes too far away from me.
I think I have voice control over Ajax, but that is an illusion. What we have is a bonded trust that comes from 7 years of hiking together. He loves to hike with me. But he also loves being off-leash. He knows he will lose that freedom if he goes too far away from me.

Now it’s your turn. Recall a physically challenging experience. This might include facing a goal that pushed you past previous limits. Getting a physical diagnosis that shocked you into changing your actions. Recovering from an injury or illness that required a lot from you both physically and mentally.

Did you listen to your body’s signals, or did your mind push you to ignore them? What might that say about your relationship with control? Use the Sphere of Control exercise if it helps.

I often surrender control over timing Ajax's breaks. Here he supplies himself with a drink of water when he's thirsty.
I often surrender control over timing Ajax’s breaks. Here he supplies himself with a drink of water when he’s thirsty.

Consider how preparation for an event (like training for a mountain climb, hike, or triathlon) differs from adapting in the moment. Which do you lean towards, and how does that affect your sense of control? If you have a physical goal in mind, how much of your preparation relies on gaining skills? on creating consistent habits that will help you get ready?

How much depends on luck and “winging it?” What would it feel like to surrender control over some aspect of preparation for a physical goal?

Ajax and C. cross one of several boardwalks through the Shy Bear Pass loop on Cougar Mountain.
Ajax and C. cross one of several boardwalks through the Shy Bear Pass loop on Cougar Mountain.

The last two aspects of control include supporting others and impact on well-being.

One of the trickiest parts about being a coach rather than a personal trainer is to surrender control to the client. For 25 years as a personal trainer, I got used to asking for two more repetitions or telling clients what exercise they would do next. A good coach, on the other hand, remains client-centered and asks what the client feels they need.

Personal trainers control the environment, the workout, and in that regard, the outcome. Coaches are collaborators, equal partners, and guides. As I grapple with evolving into a 100% coach, that line blurs when I need to hold firm.

Fern-covered boulder, an erratic from the glacier age?
Fern-covered boulder, an erratic from the glacier age?

Reflect on a time when you had to support someone else through a challenge. How did you balance offering support without taking control away from them? What might you do differently to surrender control that isn’t yours in the first place?

This morning I have a medical appointment I’ve been nervous about for a few days. I have no control over the outcome of the tests. But I do have control over two things: my reaction and the actions I take beyond today.

I have overcome every physical challenge I’ve faced in the past fifty years, including natural childbirth, healing broken bones, removing unhealthy addictive behaviors, and coping with unexpected health diagnoses. Whatever new information I learn, I know I will continue to make the best choices possible.

A selfie with my best hiking pal, Ajax, near the junction at Whittaker Wilderness Peak.
A selfie with my best hiking pal, Ajax, near the junction at Whittaker Wilderness Peak.

Your turn. How does your desire for control impact your wellness journey? Does it stress you out? Could you surrender control to lead to greater well-being?

This week I’ve continued to rewrite my control stories. My hiking partner hiked solo this week, reclaiming her power and succeeding on a trail that challenged her a few months ago. By being willing to teach her, I’m also learning from her.

By focusing on controlling the actions we take (our process goals), we can influence our outcomes. We can’t control others’ performance, but we can support them so they have a more comfortable experience. Likewise, we can’t control how our bodies do on a given day, but we can acquire skills around proper hydration, physical training, gear selection, fueling, recovery, and pacing to enhance the outcome.

Skunk Cabbage is blooming on Cougar Mountain.
Skunk Cabbage is blooming on Cougar Mountain.

Feel free to explore your reactions to these prompts in your journaling or reflection practice and share any insights in the comments so that we can all benefit, learn, and grow.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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