Just Breathe: a guide to mental training

In my last post about mental training, I discussed the notion of fear of falling in safe terrain and the ways that phobia can sap performance and lead to poor decisions. Speaking of which, if you need a guide to figuring out your fear of falling that actually works, click here! But let’s not kid ourselves, climbing isn’t always safe. If you genuinely wish to deepen your mental strength, we have to address the full spectrum, not just one particular metric. Mental strength is much more than just conquering your fear of falling. Trusting the system is great, but what do you do when the only thing you can trust is yourself?

I’ve had friends ask me for tips on mental training and how to overcome a fear of falling based on the fact that I am a free-soloist. It seems the climbing community has built a myth that soloists possess superior mental strength. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. For example, soloists are not the people I would think to ask about learning to fall. By definition, falling is the worst thing that can happen to a soloist, so we avoid it at all costs. For a week or two after an extended soloing trip, I turn into a HUGE chicken on a rope. So it got me thinking: If overcoming your fear of falling is a sign of mental strength, and climbers view soloists as mentally deranged strong what is the link we are missing? What more is there to mental fitness?

I covered how to work with fear of falling in the last article, but there’s more to mental strength than learning to fall. How do bold climbers hold it together in hazardous situations?

I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter if he's comfortable falling on a rope.
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter if he’s comfortable falling on a rope.
Just Breathe:
You’re a little farther above that last bolt than you’d like, and you start thinking about the poor condition of it’s rusty hanger. Will that thing even hold a fall? It looked like something you saw on sale at Home Depot over ten years ago. You start thinking about the pump in your forearms and the fact that your footholds don’t inspire confidence. As you think about the consequences, you can’t help but thinking you’re not sure how pretty the fall would be. You’ve stepped just slightly over your head, and you’re starting to come unglued, so what do you do?

Stop. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking, STOP. It’s not helping. Sure, it’s scary, sure you’re pumped, but those thoughts aren’t helping anyone to survive. The difference between a survivor and the first one to be eaten by zombies in the apocalypse comes down to one thing: How well can you accept what is in front of you and focus on the details that matter?

Stop. Breathe. Clear your head. THINK. For the sake of all that’s holy don’t just react, THINK! Okay, you’ve stopped, you’re breathing. Feel the breath enter your lungs, clean air comes in, byproducts of metabolism flow out. Try to calm yourself, focus on the breath and lower your heart rate.

Think of the things that matter, these handholds are good enough (you’ve hung on them this long right?), these footholds are good enough (you’re not slipping off immediately are you?). Breathe. Take it in. You’ve got a set of handholds and a set of footholds you’re using to adhere to the wall. Where do you go next? What’s it take to get to the next bolt? That island of safety is all that matters. Has your heart rate lowered yet?

Surges of adrenaline alter the body’s metabolic state and cause lactic acid to pool in your forearms without any hope of reducing the pump. Desperately you try to rest, but you just can’t recover any energy! Once adrenaline removes your metabolism’s ability to process the byproducts of muscular contraction, it’s only a matter of time before your forearms turn to concrete and you go airborne. Adrenaline prepares the body for short bursts of extremely intense effort, like wrestling a bear. Win or lose, it’ll be over quickly. That’s what adrenaline is for. Adrenaline provides a surge of strength, but the cost of this is sacrificing your endurance.

In addition to it’s beneficial effects, adrenaline stimulates increased phosphorylation, which will lead to increased lactic acid output in your muscles. This is great for moms who need to lift cars off of babies, but your endurance goes to hell. The better you can stave off your adrenaline and keep it together, the longer your endurance will last.

Breathe. Slow that heart rate down and you will curb the flow of adrenaline. Become calm, feel your blood start to circulate in the forearms, get back anything you can. In steadying yourself, you will lower the paralyzing surge of adrenaline and regain your ability to flush the pump out of your forearms.

Where do you go next? Where is that next bolt? Can you make it? Pause and allow yourself to feel the fear if it’s present. Being afraid is okay, but fear of feeling afraid saps energy. Just let it sit there, you don’t have to engage your fear. Managing fear in this way takes practice, and I’ll suggest a specific drill for that later. For now just know it’s okay to be afraid at times; what you have to watch for is our tendency to freak out about the fear. Just notice it and think your way out, don’t let that fear control you.

Which seems more possible, climbing to the next bolt or down-climbing to a safe fall zone? That is what matters. Not your pumped forearms, not your small footholds, not your fear, only that one simple decision. If any other thoughts enter your mind, breathe. Steady yourself, steel your nerves and decide. Which course do you take?

Make a decision and act upon it deliberately.

Acting in the face of fear is of the utmost importance. If you give into gut-level animal-instinct reactions, you’re done for. Thrutching and flailing while pumped and afraid is not a good outcome. Giving into the fear ensures that adrenaline will rule the day and send you straight to the grips of gravity. It’s not that strong climbers are calm but rather that calm climbers become strong. Climbing actually becomes easier when you are not afraid.

Michael Reardon taking life too seriously on "Romantic Warrior"
Michael Reardon reminding us not to take life too seriously in the crux of “Romantic Warrior”
The Training:
You don’t have to risk your life and limb to train your mind for climbing. Training should be performed somewhere safe, and it shouldn’t induce fear. If our goal is to build a mind strong enough to remain at peace on the wall, we need to practice feeling peaceful in the midst of severe situations, but we need to have a layer of safety so we can push our limits without winding up in the ICU.

Today we’re training to feel solid on the wall, and feeling solid can happen no matter what style of climbing you engage in at the moment. Freesolo, runout lead, highball, trad, sport, and toprope climbing all can equally employ that solid feeling. In fact, the majority of my mental training for freesoloing happens on toprope or while sport climbing. Occasionally I’ll practice the techniques while bouldering as well, but never on highballs or dangerous leads. Even while practicing for the increased mental demands of soloing hard lines, I still practice in a safe environment.

Neurons in the brain make connections constantly between each other as the result of stimuli in our environment and the activities going around us. After a few repeated interactions, they grow accustomed to firing the same way and making those same connections. You wear a rut in your mental circuitry, and it can be hard to get out once a habit has formed, but the good news is that we can deliberately create our own paths in the mind with a little bit of directed effort.

Imagine a little kid who was bitten by a dog and grew up afraid of them. Imagine that kid meets the sweetest dog on earth and makes friends with him. Quickly the association between “dog” and “scary” will break down. The same will happen with your associations of “sketchy” in relation to things like “slab” or “sloper” or “overhang” if you practice making friends with them. All it takes is a little bit of breathing.

Once you practice feeling solid on a new type of terrain, your brain forms new connections. As you repeat the experience while maintaining focus, the association between that terrain and feeling solid grows until it becomes a new habit, replacing the old instinct of fear.

One Simple Drill:
Pick a climb that is somewhat strenuous, but not at your limit. Preferably one that puts you a little out of your comfort zone. Personally, I know I feel sketchy on slopers, so I incorporate slopey routes near my onsight grade into my warmups for the purpose of mental training. The key is to notice what sorts of terrain cause you to feel anxious and pick training routes which have those same qualities.

If you’ve ever felt sketched while balancing on thin holds, it would be wise to seek out a moderate slab route to climb. Once you get to the cruxy bits, and you start to question your abilities, stop. Breathe. You know that you’re in a safe position because you made the decision to train on a safe route, so you don’t need to fear for your safety. What do you fear? Is there anything? Or is it only doubt of your ability to execute the moves? Breathe. Feel the hand-holds. Remind yourself that they are good, or at least good enough. Breathe. Your feet aren’t going anywhere, are they? Perhaps they don’t feel solid; adjust them until they do. If you can’t get the feet to feel solid, relax with them to get more comfortable. Sit here, and breathe until you have relaxed a little, and move on. Practice the moves repeatedly until you feel 100% solid.

For every situation where you feel a little anxiety, and feel less than 99.99% sure of your ability, pause and breathe. Just sit there with those holds and that particular move and relax into it as much as you can. Do this at the end of your warm up to prime your mind for the session or the day to come. Do this while projecting to build that sense of calm on your hardest routes. You don’t need to devote special time to this drill since it’s possible to practice it during any part of your existing climbing sessions. Personally, I like to slip it into my warm up so I reap the benefits throughout the rest of my session.

Just breathe
Just breathe
Bonus Benefit: “Quiet Feet” and better breathing
A frequently used technique drill advocates climbing with “quiet feet,” which can be a good indicator of how efficiently you are moving, but I think it’s worth noting that this is more of an end rather than a means. Climbing with quiet feet forces you to focus on your legs and climb smoother, but it doesn’t help you hold it together during the crux sequences when you most need it. Quiet feet are one possible way to notice that you already have smooth technique, but I don’t know that it’s the most efficient way to develop technique. Instead, if you practice climbing with a quiet mind and learn to steady yourself within the severity of hard or “sketchy” moves, you’ll naturally begin to climb smoother across all the board, and you’ll naturally develop quieter feet.

Many climbers and coaches out there who will hound you with reminders to breathe during hard sequences. That’s good advice, but it’s quite separate from what I’m advocating here. In these exercises, the breath is a tool used to steady and calm your mind. Once you achieve that, you won’t need to be reminded to breathe. You’ll automatically climb in a relaxed state where breathing is natural and not forced.

Taking it off the wall:
After you begin to practice relaxing in the stressful parts of a climb, it becomes second nature. The mind is not a fixed entity, and there is a rapidly growing body of research in the field of neuroplasticity that supports this. Not only is it possible to re-program your instincts, but it’s something that Buddhist meditators have been doing for thousands of years, and it’s something that each of us already does without noticing every single day. You don’t necessarily need to practice meditation to benefit from these methods.

Take driving a car for an example: My first time driving a car on the freeway was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t fathom how my parents had managed to drive the car so smoothly down the road while simultaneously threatening my brother and me with punishments as kids while we fought in the back seat. Despite my trepidation, it was only a few short months later that driving become a routine endeavor. This reprogramming of instincts and habits is an experience that we all share. By becoming aware of it, we can learn to climb a little calmer so that we can pull a bit more happiness from our days at the crag!

And once you’ve practiced it for long enough, you can start applying this lesson to any stressful situation that you encounter. This practice on the wall is a way to work with your stress response, steady your mind, and act with greater confidence anywhere you go. Sure, it’ll help you climb harder, but it will also help you live happier if you apply it off the wall as well!

Next time you feel stressed, whether it’s high off the deck on a boulder problem, high above your gear on a dicey lead, in the middle of a bad week at work, or a gnarly visit to the hospital….  Just breathe. And remember, you are a thinking thing. You’ve got this!

Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach


My Response to Extreme Weight Loss in Climbing

I went on a rant on the Internet. It happens sometimes. Unlike most of my internet rants, this wasn’t supposed to be a blog post. The guys over at TrainingBeta.com posted an article about climbers resorting to extreme methods to lose weight for performance and posted the article along with a question “what are your thoughts on weight and performance?” I started writing a comment almost immediately, and as often happens with me these days, I wrote far longer than I intended. I moved over to the “message” feature instead to compose my thoughts, and my writing ran longer still. Eventually, I realized it was a post that I needed to write in its own right.

The folks at Crux Crush surveyed over 2,000 climbers asking whether they or someone they knew had ever resorted to “extreme measures” to lose weight for climbing and a vast majority said they knew someone who had, or had done so themselves. You can see their thoughts and results here. What really surprises me is the fact that people are surprised by this.


In one sense, I know nothing about this subject because I have never been tempted to lose weight for climbing. Not yet, at least, though I have friends who have done so. It’s all too easy to understand how the temptation forms, though, and that’s the scary part. A brief search on google for Anorexia Nervosa describes it as a “common” condition affecting over 200,000 people per year in the general population. In fact, t is the most common and most lethal psychiatric diagnosis among young women in the US, and that’s without the added pressure of a sport that places strength-to-weight ratio on a pedestal with the gods. It’s no wonder that this has become a major issue in our communities. This topic shouldn’t be controversial; it’s a simple fact about the world around us.

For insights from folks who’ve fought this battle themselves, Savannah blogged about her experiences here, and Celine blogged about her experiences for Climb Healthy.

My body relationship:
To me, training has always been a matter of crafting a body that can do the things I love well. I’ve never thought about my weight, just whether or not I’m capable of doing the things I love, and whether I’ve made progress lately. I have never let weight determine my activities, but periodically when I’m in the same room as a scale, I get curious. Also, I’ve had a lot of injuries. When you visit the doctor, the first they do is stick you on a scale and check your weight, so I’ve been able to watch my weight fluctuate with my performance with mild curiosity.

Once upon a time, I was a competitive swimmer, and my weight fluctuated from 135 to 150lbs depending on how hard we were pushing in practice. Once I quit swimming and picked up climbing, I settled at 150 and packed on a little muscle. I trained heavily and eventually could perform one-arm-pull-ups, and that extra muscle put me up to 155. Once upon a time, I could do three OAP’s on either side, and that muscle pushed me up to 160. I remember thinking “How cool is it that the scale could measure the thing cranking pull-ups!

I became lazy and quit training hard. Back to 150, and zero OAPs. That made sense to me. I had lost functionality, and that function lived in a muscle mass that apparently weighed about 10 lbs. Last winter I was up to 160, still at zero OAPs. That scared me slightly because I knew it was from bad eating habits. A latte every morning, snickers at lunch, and craft beer with dinner were something like 1,000 extra calories a day. Once I cut out the poor health choices, I went back down to 150. During a stint in the hospital for injuries, I dropped to 140 over the space of a week. A week later I was at 150 and dismayed since I knew there was a large amount of underlying muscle atrophy. My return to “normal” weight was due to 10lbs of IHOP pancakes. #NoRagrets!! I ❤ every single one of those double blueberry pancakes!!! Anyhow, recently I got curious and stepped on a scale, 151, and I can crank an OAP. I’m currently the lightest I’ve ever been while still being physically able to crank an OAP, but this is purely accidental. All this is to say, at length, that I can associate weight and performance. I’ve noticed the two are entwined to a certain degree, but I’ve never really used one to tweak the other.

Performance doesn’t matter, the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!

I’m lucky. I don’t climb the hardest grades, and I’m so far from winning any competitions that I don’t bother to compete. So my performance simply is what it is, there’s no mystical grade for me to complete or competition I’m trying to edge-out in a tightly packed field of high competition. I’m also lucky because I know how to train well so that my body builds muscle rapidly. Every time I’ve set a goal, I was able to train to build strength and accomplish it, unless I got distracted. It happens. Fortunately, I enjoy the act of training in and of itself, so I am progressing, for now.

Since performance on the wall is a matter of how well your muscles can carry your weight through a stretch of small holds, I can’t help but wonder… What if I couldn’t build muscle like that? What if I was facing the tight schedule of competition season and couldn’t wait to get stronger? What if I was closing in on the send of my dream project, but the weather window was fading? If I wasn’t able to build strength in time for the competition, or the end of the season, would I be tempted then?

Right now I’m still getting stronger at a pace that makes me happy, so the honest answer is that I can’t possibly know. None of us can unless we’ve been stifled by a lack of progress and looked for a way out.

Imagine being the professional climber on the cusp of sending a new grade that could bring in sponsorship offers, but failing tantalizingly close to the chains over and over for a whole season. Or a climber who is constantly just one slot away from qualifying for the finals. Repeated attempts to be your personal “best” and getting shut down when you’re so incredibly close to success can wear on even the most determined. At what point would I cave and try to shed weight to gain performance? If it happened to me, would it just be for that one time? Or would I be hooked? It worked that once, so why not again? And again? Where would it end?

Extreme weight loss by accident. I lost 10 lbs in 8 days after an accident in Yosemite.

I can understand this place in the mind because I suffer from depression. Now, that’s not to say that I am currently depressed; I’ve held it under control for years now (more on that here). But I know it’s back there in the deep recesses of my mind, this little monster that will tell me I’m worth nothing. All I would have to do is listen to it. The doc described my psychiatric disorder as a “mind virus,” and I likened it to a computer virus for the mind. Once certain stimulus enters the brain, it takes over and hijacks your normal function.

Imagine you cut weight that one time, through normal means, and you believe that was the reason for your enhanced performance. What would you do next time? Repeat the same experiment since it worked? Training often demands that we increase intensity and dedication to the cause; is it possible we would resort to more harsh measures? And once you up the ante, it’s easy to up the frequency, and if you believe that it was responsible for your boost in performance the pattern is set in stone, and it’s tremendously hard to break. Especially since it’s so easy to have a portion of your self-worth tied to climbing. One failed redpoint attempt, and you come away thinking “I’m useless, I didn’t try hard enough! I’ll get it right this time,” and resort to even more drastic measures to satiate the monster in the back of our head. It really could happen to anyone.

Again, I’m lucky. I’m a very lazy climber. I’m too weak to feel the pressures of the elites with sponsorships, and too far from the comp scene to feel the pressure of my peers to perform. I’m the guy who insists on climbing in blue-jeans with untied shoes with no chalk and, often enough I’m too lazy to even bring a rope. If someone as lazy as I could understand this temptation, it’s easy to understand how prevalent these “extreme measures” have become. Given the rise of competition climbing, and the overly intense measures taken to drive kids in youth teams towards peak performance at a time when they are already overly intense to each other and themselves, it’s no surprise that tinkering with weight loss has become an exceedingly prevalent undercurrent within the climbing community.

Who can see the future?
In the end, I don’t think I would take to drastic measures, but then that’s the crux of the issue isn’t it? Nobody ever thinks they would until they check into the hospital and wonder “what the hell happened to me?” Nobody thinks they would, and so they refuse to understand how anyone else could, which drives the problem even further underground so that we turn our head and pretend it’s not even there. That’s the tragedy. I’m here to tell you that I can imagine exactly how I or anyone else could fall into this. I honestly believe that it could have happened to anyone, and I’m sorry you were the one to draw the short straw. And I hope the rest of you never have that poor luck to discover just how easy it is for your mind to take you places you never even knew to fear.

There’s more to life than climbing. There’s more to climbing than sending. Someday I will finally cave to the ravages of biology and plateau at my own personal peak, with my own projects falling just so slightly out of reach. Just… So… Close… and yet so far. I can feel my disappointment because I’ve been there before. With a little luck, instead of choosing to try to eek out that last bit of performance from a dying career, I’ll instead choose to deepen my experience of climbing, dive into the adventure, see more places, and extoll the virtues of 5.6 multipitch climbs with short approaches! And perhaps in doing so, and in writing this article, I can help mentor a few folks who need it, toss them a rack of cams and the sharp end of the rope, spread some good mojo, and show them there’s more to life than just sending.

More to life than sending: like bouldering in flip-flops with lots of crap dangling about. Because why not?

It’s that first sip of Turkish coffee in the backcountry with friends, it’s gifting your stove in exchange for food at the red river gorge, it’s swapping stories about how to “Pile ze Bags” in South Dakota. It’s about sunsets on Devil’s Tower, Sunrise in Linville Gorge, it’s about that one time you tried to see how much 5.6 you could climb in one day without moving the car and then grabbed a beer with your climbing partner in the parking lot (thanks, Evan!) while you waited for everyone else to get back. It’s the days you’re too crushed to crush and learn to play ping-pong at the Hueco Rock Ranch from someone who has seen the world.

I’ve only been climbing for nine years, but already I’ve seen one important truth in climbing: At the end of all days, in twenty years, or ten, or five, or even in a few weeks, It’s never the actual climbing you will remember, it’s the people you shared it with.

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

-Austin Howell-

PS: if you feel the need to experience a life that’s more than just sending, talk to me. I’ve got a rack of cams with your name on it and a 500ft 5.6 that you’ll never forget!! Let’s make some memories!