If there's one couple who knows what it's like to be coupled-up with a serious athlete, it's world-class rock climber Alex Honnold and his girlfriend Cassandra "Sanni" McCandless.

By By Lauren Matison
October 24, 2018
Photo: Westend61 / Getty Images

If you love to exercise, being in a relationship with an athletic person makes perfect sense. (See: Proof You Can Meet Your Swolemate at the Gym) You keep each other motivated to work out, lots of sweat is sexy (seriously-exercise makes awesome foreplay), and there's a mutual understanding that staying fit is a lifestyle choice. But when one partner becomes all-consumed by competition or takes exercise to the extreme, they might be left choosing between the thing that makes them feel most alive and the person they love the most.

According to one famously fearless climber, you should know what you're getting into before you're pushed to the edge-whether you're the one going to the extremes or the one living with a partner who does.

In the newly released film Free Solo, which documents Alex Honnold's historic ropeless climb up El Capitan (a 3,000-foot wall of granite rock in Yosemite National Park), Honnold and his girlfriend Cassandra "Sanni" McCandless put the fate of their entire relationship on the success of one death-defying climb. As Honnold says in the film, "two tiny points of contact keep you from falling. And when you step up, there's only one." While most people might turn to slightly less stressful forms of stimulation, it's inspiring watching this new couple face the gravest of tests and come out alive-and thriving. (Although, there are so many reasons you should try rock climbing.)

Photo: Tommaso Boddi / Stringer / Getty Images

Even with Sanni and Alex's intimate on-screen moments, exactly how they "on belay, belay on" throughout their challenging journey is still a bit of a mystery when the credits roll. We caught up with Alex for a deeply honest chat about their relationship and how your own fitness-fueled duo can be successful.

Communicate, don't prevaricate.

In an adrenaline-pumping relationship, a high level of communication is crucial. If you understand what someone is going through-be it a physical injury or mental struggle-you'll be better equipped to give the right kind of support. Before resentment builds, talk about what matters.

"Communication is key," says Alex to Shape. That means "being honest, saying 'this is I what I need to do, how I need to train, what I need to perform.' You have to feel comfortable telling this to each other."

There's a gripping moment in the film when Sanni says, "I don't want to be in the way of his goal. It's his dream and he obviously still wants it," but she concedes that she doesn't understand why he needs to free solo El Cap. (FYI, free soloing or soloing means climbing without any ropes, harness, or safety equipment.) While it's true that you or your partner may not always fully grasp the why, the worst thing you can do is leave the other person hanging without any explanation. If they truly care, just letting them know that it's important-whether that's running marathons, crushing triathlons, or climbing El Cap-should be enough. (Related: 10 Fit Celeb Couples Who Make Working Out Together a Priority)

Don't overthink, just get in sync.

It's not easy acclimating to someone else's intense routine, especially when you have your own goals to worry about. But as Alex says in Free Solo, having a partner makes life better in every way-so it's totally worth it.

Instead of getting caught off guard by the realities of a rigorous training regimen, keep a shared calendar and be on the same page. It might seem like overkill, but it works: "We definitely try to sync calendars as best as we can. That's always been the case since we first started dating," says Alex. "I take a utilitarian approach, maximizing all things in life-happiness, the efficiency of the team, how we travel." Indeed, if you both work together on maintaining an organized rhythm and flow, you'll have fewer obstacles to tackle-and fewer arguments about when you're actually hanging out.

Give support, don't master their sport.

Exercising together maximizes "us" time, but that doesn't mean you should force yourself to run long distances because your partner is a marathoner. Truth: It can be incredibly frustrating if your significant other has a demanding training schedule. However, trying to be someone you're not is likely to exacerbate the situation and make you feel inadequate when you can't keep up (or you accidentally let your boyfriend fall off a mountain... see: Free Solo).

"It's vital to be your own person," says Alex. "In the beginning, Sanni was frequently self-conscious about not being a pro climber. She would say, 'oh, you should be with someone who can climb better.' Ultimately, there's always someone who climbs better. I have plenty of middle-aged male climbing partners. I cared about Sanni being a good person; someone who's nice, interesting, happy, smart, fun to be around, engaged, and leading her own life that made her most fulfilled. That's what's most important." (Related: What It's Really Like to Date a Male Fitness Model)

Exercise might be an inextricable part of your relationship, but it shouldn't be something that undermines your self-worth. Let your partner crush their own goals, don't let their goals crush you. And that being said: You should feel free to pursue your own hobbies without feeling like you have to include your partner. By empowering each other to pursue individual passions, you'll not only nurture a sense of independence (an essential component in any relationship) and avoid feeling like you need to apologize for fitness commitments, but you'll also never run out of things to talk about at dinner.

A couple that plays together, stays together.

There's nothing sexy about burning out. It's okay to let go of that ferocious workout ethic now and then to allow your relationship to reboot. Discover new ways to cross-train, have a spontaneous romantic adventure, and come back to your diet and exercise routine feeling reinvigorated.

In Free Solo, Alex and Sanni enjoy climbing together, but that's not what sustains them. "We do everything else, we mountain bike, ski, and hike together a fair amount," says Alex. "We travel together a lot. Last summer, we did a three-month trip around Europe. We went to Morocco. This summer, we were living in the van for two months." (Related: I Met the Love of My Life at SoulCycle)

While we can't all fulfill our #vanlife dreams, we can learn from Alex's winning formula: balancing change and focus with aplomb. "It's been an interesting voyage through life. As you see in the film, it's not just about the climb, but my life surrounding it that makes it possible. My relationship with Sanni makes it possible."

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