Ways to Improve Your Sport Climbing/Bouldering (3): Breathing (EASY)

Today’s topic: Breathing.

My routine: It’s pretty simple — I start breathing deeply and rhythmically on the ground before I try any problem or climbing route. I work to keep that going throughout the route, and really strive to return to that baseline while resting on the route. I don’t hold my breath. And yeah, I shout sometimes when I’m trying a powerful move, too, and that also has to do with training breathing tactics and using them to your advantage.

I learned this lesson loud and clear (though it was one of those things that I’d “known I should do” for years) a few summers ago – I just needed the push from a partner and to see the results in order to make it a habit. My partner (Kevin) told me to start breathing like a freight train before leaving the ground on a longstanding redpoint project that I was consistently managing to one hang but couldn’t seem to put together; it was right at my power-endurance limit (meaning I could do all the moves by themselves, but putting them together was too much for me – not enough shakes plus too many lengthy, power-draining series of movements for me at the time – a classic sport-climber tale of woe, right?). Anyhow, when I actually DID the freight-train breathing, I was amazed at how much better and stronger I felt, not to mention how many more moves I could do in a row (and this ultimately contributed to me sending, I’m sure).

Lesson learned, correction made – and it’s stuck with me to this day. I breathe consciously before I climb, try to maintain the breathing rhythm during the climb, attempt to bring my breathing back to my established rhythm at the rests on the climb, and I focus on breathing to help me recover after the climb. More importantly, though — I don’t hold my breath when I do hard moves or sequences of moves. Ever.

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As for the shouting, that somehow has worked its way into my repertoire, too. I used to never make noise when I climbed (aside from whining when I fell, of course!), but (curiously enough), the more strength and power I’ve gained and the more dynamic movements I’m able to try or do, the more I yell. It’s unconscious most of the time, but sometimes it’s somewhat or even entirely conscious and a bit angry (truth be told); this happens when the shout is an effort to override my doubting brain that’s trying to get me to NOT try the next move. The vocalization seems to help drown out the internal voices of doubt.

Developing solid rock climbing and bouldering skills includes learning how to harness every element of your being to contribute to your success on a given climb or problem. Beyond sound training of raw physical components such as climbing-relevant strength, power and stamina, climbers and boulderers will often spend hours refining and perfecting technical (not to mention mental and nutritional) aspects of their game. Training climbing technique involves such obvious areas as footwork and body position, along with more subtle components such as using your breathing patterns to support your athletic efforts both on and off the rocks.

Breathing Before You Start Rock Climbing

On the ground before you step onto a rock climb or a boulder problem, begin inhaling and exhaling audibly and deeply. While this may make you feel silly, you will laugh last when your oxygenated muscles can continue to perform at a higher level than they otherwise could as a result. According to The Diet Channel’s “Breathing Techniques During Exercise,” you can get a 1 or 2 percent increase in performance by using deep breathing techniques during exercise. This may not seem like much — but then again, it could be the difference between grabbing the finishing jug or watching your fingers open up before you have the chance to clip the chains or top out the problem. By preemptively starting to breathe more deeply than normal, you help your body avoid the catching up it would otherwise have to engage in if you waited until automatic heavier breathing kicked in.

Starting rhythmic breathing before starting up a climb has an additional benefit as well. By developing a conscious and regular breathing pace prior to beginning the climb, you are more likely to continue with this breathing throughout the climb. The more you make this a habit, the more it will become your normal approach to any rock climb or boulder problem. You will be less likely to hold your breath during difficult sequences, a practice which depletes your body of essential oxygen and reduces your performance potential — possibly increasing your risk of injury as well.

Breathing While You Climb

As you make your way up a rock climb or boulder problem, try to maintain your established rhythm of breathing through each move. At first, this may require conscious attention and feel awkward, but like any climbing technique, you can cultivate it to the point where it feels natural and habitual. Then, if your breathing becomes labored or heavier at a certain point while you’re climbing, you will automatically attempt to revert back to your normal breathing pattern as soon as you can.

Beyond this, when you reach a good resting place on any rock climb, part of the rest and recovery time that you spend before moving on up the route will involve paying close attention to the rhythm of your breath. A good indication that you are ready to continue climbing comes with the return of your breathing to your habitual breathing pattern that you have trained and become accustomed to. Similarly, when you get down from or come off of a boulder problem, wait for your breathing (and preferably, your heart rate) to decrease significantly before you try the moves or problem again.

When and Why to Consider Shouting

Yelling when executing a forceful punch is an age-old practice in many martial arts, such as karate. Similarly, rock climbers often will shout or yell when performing a difficult and powerful movement. When you exhale forcefully, it tightens the core muscles, providing you with more stability in your movement. Exhaling with force can also help you maximize your reach potential instead of abruptly stopping or slowing the intended motion as you hold your breath. Shouting during a hard move can also help drown the voices of internal doubt in a climber’s mind, providing an external stimulus to continue trying. And lastly, shouting (or even just a powerful, conscious breath out) provides a much more effective and potentially performance-enhancing alternative to holding your breath when you try a hard move, as it encourages you to continue breathing through the move and beyond.

Experiment with yelling when you’re attempting a powerful and explosive movement while climbing or bouldering to see if it makes a difference in your successful execution of that move. Try not to feel self-conscious about it. Practice incorporating shouting into your training for climbing, making it one of your climbing exercises. Seek out powerful climbing moves that push you to having to give 100 percent, and add a conscious yell.

Improve Rock Climbing by Breathing and Shouting

Cultivating solid breathing techniques can help you maximize your performance capabilities for your current level in climbing and bouldering. In other words, you might be able to climb or boulder harder without gaining any strength or stamina if you pay more attention to your breathing while you climb and train. Establish a habitual breathing rhythm that you begin on the ground before attempting any rock climb or boulder problem to help ensure continued breathing while climbing. Revert back to your rhythmic breathing during every climbing rest as much as possible. Use shouting during hard moves to help promote their successful execution. And most importantly of all, try not to ever hold your breath while you climb or train.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up. Remember that my designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20 years of climbing along with my observations from climbing coaching throughout the past four years. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change than I do/did. Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing, bouldering and training!

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