Have you ever fallen from a route or boulder problem and noticed that you were holding your breath the entire time you were climbing?
We’ve all been there, but I don’t think we realize how detrimental this can be to our climbing performance. Imagine holding your breath while running. Wouldn’t work out so well, would it? Climbing is the same—when we hold our breath, we are doing our bodies a great disservice and dramatically inhibiting our performance.
Besides the whole keeping us alive thing, why is proper breathing so important when we climb? Many climbers overlook the fact that the quality of our breath greatly impacts our physical and mental state.
Here are just a few things that breathing well can offer us:
- Calms the mind: instead of losing your shit the moment you climb above your gear, you can assess the situation and, most likely, realize that you’re fine.
- Improves your concentration: you won’t be as distracted by the crying baby at the bottom of the cliff.
- Increases endurance: yep, breathing well will actually decrease the dreaded forearm pump.
How to breathe
Given that we’ve been breathing since the moment we were born, it seems like we already know how to do this pretty well. But it turns out that a lot of us aren’t breathing properly, and the issues that this can cause are far more detrimental than not sending our project. Poor quality of breath can lead to increased pain and disease, anxiety, depression, and mental sluggishness.
Here is a simple test to know if you’re breathing properly:
- Sit up tall on the floor or a chair and relax your shoulders. Place one hand on your belly, and the other on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose.
Did your hand on your chest move before or more than the hand on your belly? If so, you’re breathing into your chest, and not completely using your diaphragm while breathing. You’re also not using your lungs to their full capacity.
How to breathe correctly
Take a deep inhale again, and this time, take the breath all the way down into the depths of your lungs. Your belly will puff out, your diaphragm will be doing its job, and you’ll be breathing correctly. Notice that it is impossible to breathe in this manner if you have bad posture—just another reason to get rid of that climber slouch!
This is a great way to breathe while doing our day to day activities; however, when we’re rock climbing, we need our core to be tight and engaged. This makes it almost impossible to take deep “belly breaths” as described above. But, with practice, we can still utilize our diaphragm and take good quality breaths while climbing.
- Put your hands on the lowest part of your rib cage.
- Engage your core as if you were climbing an overhang, and take a deep inhale through your nose.
- Your belly may not puff out quite as much as it did in the first exercise, but your lungs should expand equally in all directions (front, back, and both sides). You should also feel the very bottom of your lungs moving as you breathe.
All of this may feel foreign at first, so take your time and practice as often as possible.
Breathing before climbing/while resting
Breathing before you get on a route and while you’re resting is very important yet often overlooked. Try taking deep “belly breaths” as described above. Relax your core and take at least five breaths in this manner before you start climbing. You’ll also be surprised at how beneficial this kind of breathing can be when utilized in between tries on boulder problems/routes. Don’t forget to sit/stand up tall!
Breathing during climbing
To get the full benefits of your breath during climbing, your breathing should be smooth, easy, and calm. That can be easy to find while climbing on easy terrain, but we all know that’s just not how it goes when you’re trying hard moves.
Various breathing techniques
Equal parts breath
This technique can also be used before and after climbing, but it’s one of the best ways to stay in control of your breath while on a route. The goal is to equalize the length of your inhales and exhales—so if you’re inhaling for a count of five, you’re also exhaling for a count of five. Find a number that feels good for your lungs. This is also great technique to use while warming up or climbing on easy terrain.
Adam Ondra does it, and so should you! Inhale deeply through your nose, exhale through your mouth, and as you do so, flutter your lips and relax your cheeks. This is especially helpful right before or after executing a hard sequence. If you feel your breath start to quicken or get choppy, horse lips is a great way to bring it back to normal.
Adam Ondra’s superb breathing while onsighting Il Domani (9a):
Don’t be shy now. Just take an inhale through your nose and exhale out through your mouth. As you do so, push the breath out and make some kind of noise. This is a great breathing technique if you’re feeling scatter brained and need to recollect yourself.
Bumble bee breath
Ethan Pringle used this technique at the no-hands rest on Jumbo Love. This is best used before a hard sequence, but if you’re really into it and don’t embarrass easily, you can use it throughout the entire climb. Here’s how to do it: Inhale normally through your nose, and then as you exhale, keeping your mouth closed, make a humming noise. The vibrations that you’re creating with your vocal chords are soothing to your brain and entire nervous system, and helps improve focus. This is a great breath to use if you’re feeling nervous, anxious, or scared.
This is best used during a hard move on a climb. Make sure the move is actually hard and not just scary, because screaming and grunting revs up the nervous system. If the move is hard, you’ll benefit from the little boost of adrenaline, but if you’re just scared, it’s only going to make things worse. Inhale through your nose deeply, and then as you exhale, let out whatever noise feels right to you.
… Kind of like this:
With oxygen being so important to our climbing performance and overall health, it’s crucial to incorporate proper breathing techniques into our training routines and every day lives. Try it out and tell us about your experience below!
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