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

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