Tag Archives: climbing project

Move of the Month 9: Breathing (Improve Your Climbing)

Image courtesy of dream designs at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of dream designs at freedigitalphotos.net

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.

Reflections on Climbing After More Than 20 Years: Why I (Still) Love Climbing

Photo by Jody Sanborn

Photo by Jody Sanborn, Jay Em Photography

“A life practice, then, is anything that we do over an extended period of time that consistently and reliably deepens the connection to our experience and expression of aliveness. … All such activities, if practiced mindfully and with passionate devotion, can be called a form of Yoga.” (from “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” by Donna Farhi)

Climbing possesses an incredible potential to keep pushing a person to have new and novel experiences of being oneself and of being human, whether that person has been climbing for two days or 20+ years. It provides ceaseless opportunities for complete engagement in each moment, of total presence in the here and now. This is what so captivated me the very first day I climbed: this nonverbal state of total-being absorption plus the creativity involved in solving the puzzle made climbing appealing and engrossing to me immediately.

Now, more than 20 years after I first tied in and stepped off the ground, climbing still consistently encourages me to learn and grow in new directions, to expand my comfort zone. It’s a lifelong practice of self-study and self-examination on so many levels. The combination and coordination of physical gains, technical/tactical gains and mental/emotional gains continue to be immensely satisfying, just as the wonder of animating a body-being that transforms due to my efforts to change it never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

Every time I unravel a new piece of beta or do a move I couldn’t do before – whether it’s fairly singular and route-specific, or multiuse and employable across a number of routes – I feel that sense of excitement and discovery about what I can do with this body I get to animate. I’ll never get to animate a different body in this lifetime, but I can endeavor to push this one to its peak potential with an open mind and heart to all that is possible. In fact, nothing is or has ever been more fun than proving to myself time and time again that I can do things that I was absolutely sure at one point or another that I couldn’t do, things that once felt impossible or perhaps just seemed impossible to me to even try. Climbing gives me this experience repeatedly, reaffirming that many obstacles that seem impossible to surmount are indeed possible given the time and effort. Tackling routes that are difficult for me makes the “impossible” possible, as I work to gradually take that route or maybe even just some of the moves from that route from totally impossible into the realm of possibility. This experience never gets old for me.

Because I like to reach so near the edges of my being’s current ability level, climbing also presents an ongoing and self-created challenge in how much adversity I can take while remaining positively engaged. But when I’m not regularly trying hard, I’m not satisfied. And yet climbing, too, has taught me the worthy lesson of knowing when to say when, and when to let go. When dreams and goals change there’s no point or value to clinging to the past-me and forcing the present-me to try to achieve what past-me wanted, unless it still seems enjoyable and relevant. Climbing is supposed to be enjoyable, and if it stops being enjoyable and starts to feel like a burdensome chore, then I have lost the point. I admit, this still happens sometimes – it’s easy to lose perspective and to start to get too serious, before I reel myself back in and remind myself that it doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is if I’m not having fun, if I’m no longer enjoying the journey. Not enjoying climbing is an affront to the spirit of the sporting process, and yet it can also be a valuable part of the process of learning and maturing and deepening the self, too. We play to have fun and because it is fun, and yet, when we play with a passion, that playing can sometimes lose its lighthearted spirit and the sense of freedom that comes with maintaining this approach.

Regaining perspective for me when I find myself veering off-center involves a conscious letting-go process of surrendering to the place I am now. I do all I can to improve my climbing ability, and if that’s not enough, so be it. I cannot – or rather, I should not – be dissatisfied if I give it my all every day I have to give, be it in training or in climbing or even in understanding that resting is the smartest choice I can make on any given day. It helps to remember that brains are almost always ahead of bodies in terms of where they think one “should be” in the improvement process…and yet those same brains can be frustratingly slow to adapt to coordinating and assimilating the raw bodily gains a person makes through training, being temporarily stuck in patterns of the past and what’s worked in the past without yet realizing what the newly strengthened or otherwise improved body might now be capable of in the present.

If I am dissatisfied after a climbing day, I try to regroup and regain this perspective as quickly as possible, without getting down on myself for having those feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration at the slow pace of the process. I am human, after all, and such feelings will inevitably arise at times. (“I want results, and I want them NOW!”) Not allowing these feelings to dominate my psyche, I free them up to pass by without negative self-judgment that they arose in the first place. This enables me to return to a more positive perspective more rapidly these days. Letting go of the expectation of outcomes happening on any given deadline and just working in the present on doing what I can to push my ability is all I can do, and striving to embrace that process with an open mind, however long it takes, is a key to staying absorbed and enjoying it.

This is not to say that all of the training I do is enjoyable in the exact moment I do it – though even the most tortuous training exercises I do definitely leave me feeling satisfied and pleased as soon as I’m done with them, even if in the moment they just hurt. I do love training…but more because I love the results in my climbing than because I’m masochistic. I don’t enjoy the pain or the recovery time required. But I do love the process of putting in the building blocks through training that are necessary for me to build a stronger, more able version of the physical body I inhabit, and then rewiring this whole being to utilize that body more efficiently and effectively as it adapts to and comes to comprehend what those gains have made accessible and possible.

Learning and growing and being willing to change my training, my approach, my beta, and my preferred style of climbing as I mold my being to adapt and grow stronger and more adept keeps the climbing experience fresh and young to me, even as I inevitably grow older. This is all on the whole pure fun and joy for me – nothing less, nothing more. Whatever happens, happens, and it really doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enjoyable. What does matter is my ever-deepening ability to value each climbing moment as much as possible, wherever I may find myself on any given climbing day, whether it’s clipping the chains after a sublime send, or simply laughing at the circus-like nature of my sport (sport climbing) – in which the result of “failure” involves dangling on the end of a rope suspended in midair, trying to decide if it’s worth it to me do some extravagant maneuvers, such as wild kipping rope pull-ups (“boinking”) or “walking the rope,” to get back on the route, or whether I should just lower down and try again later.

Of course it’s nice to send a route or to make progress, but it’s much less nice overall if this becomes the definition of what makes a climbing day (or just climbing in general or life in general) fun or worthwhile, because then a person might just find themselves stuck in a self-made emotional prison where one’s inner state of being consistently depends on external results. It’s a recipe for an often unpleasant and unceasing emotional roller coaster ride. One of the secrets to living a fulfilling and happy life is learning to truly relish and savor the small marvels that make up one’s everyday living, rather than storing up expectations for the next uplifting great event (for climbers, often a send is that event) that needs to happen to pump oneself up and feel good, before gradually sliding down the deflationary slope back into the boring old humdrum routine of normalcy and starting to seek out and crave that next high point. In that humdrum routine of normalcy lies the potential for true appreciation of life in the present moment, right there within reach whenever we open our minds to such a possibility.

How cool is it to be privileged enough to rock climb at all, to live in a time and a place where I have the freedom and opportunity to regularly pursue such an awesome activity? These days, I strive to be content no matter what the outcome of any climbing day brings – low point or high, send or no send – just to be happy and grateful to be out climbing and to be present on the rock from moment to moment, learning whatever the day has to teach me and being okay with whatever potential my body-being has on any given day. Since I don’t get to inhabit this body forever or to climb forever, it’s a waste of my precious time to not cherish each moment that I spend on (or falling off of!) the rock.

Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (5)

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

“Naturally, there will be times of upward progress and growth, and plateau times when we feel like nothing is moving. During these times of apparent stagnation, patience and perseverance are crucial.” (From The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga; by Nicolai Bachman)

If you are really and truly stuck on a project – you’ve tried everything you possibly can to bust through your plateau, or perhaps your trip/season came to an end without a send but you know you’ll be back next season – one of the most efficient and effective ways to work through that plateau involves identifying what exactly was shutting you down on the project, and then training to improve that during the off season.

While this may seem time-consuming and not really efficient or effective, consider this: whatever emerged to hold you back from sending any one particular project is likely to be holding you back throughout your climbing efforts. In other words, by training it, you are actually more likely to have a globally positive impact on ALL of your future climbing efforts, much more so than you can expect from hammering away at one particular project, generally speaking. This is why it’s so often the case that a person can work their butt off at sending a hard grade, only to jump on the next route with a similar grade – or a bunch of other routes with similar grades – only to discover that they have to work just as hard, if not harder, to try to redpoint the next climb, if it’s possible for them to do it at all.

But if you can distill what holds you back or what you struggle with out of your “failed” redpointing experience, what you have now is the key to improving your climbing overall. Train this effectively during the off season, and you might come out and find that last season’s sticking point no longer exists. The crucial point here, of course, is that you train this area (or these areas, as the case may be) effectively and efficiently. This may involve sacrifices on your part in terms of not having as many fun random gym-climbing or bouldering sessions. Neither of these is likely to have the same impact as a concerted and well-thought out training plan and program that targets your specific areas that need work. Targeting these more specifically in training is likely to yield the greatest improvement.

Since climbing hard relies heavily on your sport-specific climbing strength (and the skills that emerge from strength, such as power, power endurance and endurance, as well as effective technical/tactical execution of sport-specific skills), training the areas of your body that are relatively weak compared to other areas offers most seasoned/experienced climber folks the quickest route to seeing gains in overall climbing ability.

Here, I’ll pause and give a nod to the fact that if you have glaring or significant technical/tactical areas that need work (like treating your feet like paddles flapping at the ends of your legs while you do one-arm pull-ups up the rock – yeah, you know who you are!), working to refine and smooth out those areas can be a faster route to breaking a plateau than strength training. In other words, if you’re a sloppy climber, work to become less sloppy and to utilize the strength you already have more effectively and efficiently. Still, it is good to realize that sometimes, poor technical/tactical execution has to do with not possessing the strength to utilize the same techniques/tactics that stronger climbers do. In other words, if you’re stuck and you’ve done everything you can to work on your technique and tactics, getting stronger might improve your technical and tactical execution. It definitely helped mine.

If you don’t think strength is important, ask yourself why you usually fall off of a climbing route, or why particular moves feel hard for you that are easy (or easier) for other people. Are the other people stronger in key areas? Or do they get less pumped? Maybe both? Realize that even if your answer is that you just get pumped or powered down (i.e. you think you are plenty strong), one of the biggest factors that plays into getting pumped is that you are using too high of a percentage of your body’s maximal strength ability on each move that comes before the critical pump/powered down point where you can move anymore. If you get stronger in the areas that are involved in the pump/powered down feeling, you will have the potential to train to a higher level of power endurance and endurance, since both of these (with the oh-so-blurry line separating them) are directly related to your maximal strength level. Yes, some people are naturally/genetically better at maintaining a higher percentage of that maximal strength output than others, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually and ultimately be limited by their strength, too.

So how do we train strength most effectively? Definitely not by bouldering through the off season. While bouldering can be a sound way to develop more comfort with explosive movements or specific hold types and so forth, it is too random to be the most effective means to develop strength. Remember, strength is not power. Power is strength with speed added. The ability to push your power levels also correlates directly with your maximum strength levels. So while bouldering can be a major part of an off-season training program aimed at strength development, it plays a secondary/supportive role during the primary strength-training cycle – it aims to help the climber integrate and learn how to effectively utilize the developing strength while executing climbing movements. Bouldering can assist a getting-stronger climber by teaching them how to become more and more powerful in their movement execution.

Building significant strength takes time and dedication – it’s not something that most people can expect to see performance-enhancing improvements in after a few weeks. I suggest a three- to four-month cycle (at least) focused on developing specific climbing strength as the primary focus in training/climbing. Training strength effectively and efficiently involves a smart weight-training program that aims to push sport-specific strength levels higher without putting on an inordinate amount of muscle mass. Using a well-designed weight-training program, putting on too much muscle so that it impedes your climbing because of weight gain is an unlikely outcome for most people. Building muscle is hard work for the body. Plus, a small amount of sport-specific muscle gain can actually yield a favorable outcome in body composition and strength-to-weight ratio, even if you have a slight weight gain. If this is accompanied by fat loss, all the better: Now you have more functional tissue available in your body to help you in your climbing efforts and less dead weight dragging you down. You will still continue to maintain/train other significant and relevant areas (power, power endurance, endurance, technical skills, tactical skills, flexibility, etc.), but these aren’t the primary focus of the program during this time period.

Be aware that after months with the primary focus on strength that even while keeping the other areas of concern in play, you are not likely to come out of this training completely fit and ready to smash your project (though this does sometimes happen – the moves are all so much easier than before that you can’t believe this route was ever hard for you!). A more likely outcome is that you’ll come out and discover that the moves feel easier, but now your fitness lags behind. And this is no big deal; you simply have to change your area of training focus from strength to fitness, and work patiently to allow your strength gains to shine through as you build your fitness back up. The same general rule applies when you shift your focus from strength as the primary training area back to fitness building for sending routes as the primary area – you don’t just stop training strength completely for four, six or eight months.

When you climb routes, you will rarely, if ever, push to maximal strength output, and you definitely won’t do this for every relevant muscle group while you’re climbing any particular route. Use it or lose it applies here – our damnably efficient bodies will start to ditch strength gains if they realize that they’re no longer relevant or needed. Muscles are not efficient for the body to keep around if they’re not being used; they take effort to maintain. So your body will gradually start to dump what isn’t being used. Detraining is real, and even if you’re climbing hard every day for eight months, if you don’t add in some strength maintenance work every now and again, you’ll probably find when you return to the gym that you’ve lost some of the strength you once had.

Note that it’s very, very important that your strength-training program really addresses what holds you back as an individual climber, as well as taking into account all sorts of other relevant parameters, such as age, gender, years climbing, experience training, climbing level, lifestyle, work, diet, family, and so forth. If you strength train without addressing the areas that hold you back the most, you won’t make nearly the gains you could potentially make, obviously. If you use someone else’s program with a different background than you, you also run the risk of overuse injuries/too-much-too soon overtraining or conversely, undertraining. This is why using what I do as your training program wouldn’t be the smartest approach to improving your climbing (and it’s why I don’t share the details of my training program, actually). What is the smartest approach is formulating a training plan based on your past experiences and your present circumstances and your future goals.

Engaging in strength-training this way can be a real leap of faith, especially for the “can’t stand the thought of gaining a single pound” climber. I should know, having been such a climber! I resisted this for quite some time; how I wish that I hadn’t at this point. But the past is the past; all I can do now is try to continue on with my personal work in this area, and to help and reassure others that this approach works, and that it’s actually nothing novel or new to the greater athletic training world. Strength is essential for every athlete. If you put a serious effort into getting stronger in areas that are sport-specific and that hold you back, you will probably find yourself able to do moves – and routes – you once thought you would never even try.