A number of years ago, as I watched a very strong climber working on a 5.14+, I was amazed to hear this person let out a long, obviously held breath after plummeting off the climb. It appeared that the breath-holding had begun at the start of the difficult section, and that this breath had been held throughout about 12 challenging, explosive moves of climbing.
Does this happen to you in your climbing, too?
If it does, consider putting some time and energy into training an improved awareness of your breath. Harnessing and utilizing the breath to your advantage can make a tremendous difference in your climbing performance – and potentially in other areas of your life as well. For an excellent and detailed explanation on exactly how breathing contributes to athletic and general life performance, read Want to Improve Your Performance? Breathe! and also, check out Waiting to Exhale…and then return here for ideas about learning to use breathing to your advantage specifically in your climbing.
I start my rhythmic breathing before I even step off the ground onto a climb. I liken this to yogic Ujjayi breathing (What is Ujjayi?). When I reach a rest, if my breathing pace has sped up, I work to smooth and lengthen my breath back to my original pace, focusing all of my attention on my breathing. I use breath counts at each rest, meaning that on a familiar redpoint project, I will gradually come to decide on the ideal amount of breaths I need to take at each resting spot to prepare for the next section of the climb, and I will count off these inhales and exhales in my mind as I rest and shake out. If I need more breaths to recover on any given day on a familiar climb, this usually indicates that I’m not fully recovered for the climbing day itself.
If you struggle with breath-holding and regulating your breathing in climbing or just in general, consider taking yoga classes that encourage you to become more aware and connected to your breath and movement working together. Learning to coordinate inhales and exhales with specific and often increasingly complex asanas throughout a yoga class may help you become better at doing this in climbing situations. One nice aspect of asana practice is that it’s not generally performance or outcome-based (unlike sport climbing), so you can really take the time to focus on the breathing aspect of the practice if you so choose, and then work to bring this improved connection into your climbing bit by bit as it becomes more normal and natural for your inhales and exhales to flow smoothly while you move through a practice.
As with all relatively new climbing techniques and tactics, it’s easiest to begin working on them and employing them in non-peak situations, meaning that bringing your awareness to your breathing while you warm up or while you’re climbing more familiar, sub-threshold climbing efforts will be easier than immediately trying to breath in an ideal fashion on the most challenging climbs you’re trying at the moment. This is not to say that it’s not worth attempting to employ smarter breathing practices immediately – it is. But it’s always harder to break old habits when you’re trying as hard as you can. As with all training efforts, rewiring your breathing patterns will take time, effort and patience. Stick with it, and you will most likely be pleased with the results – such improved stamina, focus, and ability to recover on the rock, to name a few.