Written by Dave MacLeod
Something that people occasionally ask about in climbing is breathing during difficult climbing – how important is it and how can it help your climbing?
Obviously we need to breath almost constantly and during exercise of any kind its even more important to fulfil it’s most basic function of delivering enough oxygen and removing carbon dioxide so metabolism can keep happening at the desired rate. But breathing is also extremely important psychologically.
Breathing can be used to set or assist the pace and rhythm of movement and even to help control aggression on moves. Climbing movements at your limit require constant changes in speed of movement and delivery of muscular effort. Regulation of breathing can be a sort of link between body and mind for managing this task. The best way I can describe it is to say that the mind expresses the desired type of movement through breathing, which tends to be followed immediately by a similar body movement, tension or force delivery.
Often, A sharp or deep intake of breath happens before a movement is executed, followed by a longer exhalation during or after the movement has been completed. Many climbers find that they hold their breath far too long during climbing until the breathing centres force them to breath and this breaks up the body’s climbing rhythm and they ask how they can break this habit?
The answer is by running some technique drills. Technique drills are nothing scary, so don’t be put off by the jargon – it just means repeated exercises focusing on something in particular that you want to practice. A really good time for any breathing or movement technique drills is when you warm up.
Because the climbing is not hard, you have ‘space’ in your mind to concentrate on something within the movements (like your breathing rhythm) as opposed to having to give your full concentration to just staying on the wall. Practice climbing a route or problem you can do comfortably again and again. Separate the two main stages of climbing movement – preparing to move (where you set your feet and body) and moving (where you execute a hand movement). While preparing to move, focus on making smooth relaxed breaths as you set your lower body in preparation for the next reach. One complete breath cycle for each foot movement is common on lots of moves but not on every one. Take a breath in as you stare and focus on the next hold and exhale as you grab the hold.
Consistent practice during easy climbing will help you find a breathing rhythm that works well for your climbing style and it will become automatic so it happens without you even thinking about it on the hard stuff. It’s most often relative beginners (less than two years regular climbing) that notice breathing as a problem. It’s hard for them because there may be no such thing as easy climbing! Just being on the wall is enough to feel so tense you have to force yourself to breath. If this is you, don’t worry – you will find a rhythm and with patience it will come once you get a change to be more composed on the rock.
Dave MacLeod is a professional climber and coach based in the highlands of Scotland. He has been climbing for 20 years and is recognised as one of the best all-round climbers in the world, climbing 9a sport routes, Font 8B+ boulders, E11 trad routes, grade XI mixed routes and made hundreds of first ascents around Scotland and the greater mountain ranges of the world. He is also a world renowned climbing coach, writing the popular blog The online climbing coach since 2006. His first book, 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes is an international bestselling climbing improvement text. He gained a BSc in Physiology & sports science and an MSc in Medicine and Science in sport and exercise, both from Glasgow University. He has published research on climbing performance in the Journal of Sports Sciences and is a regular contributor to many climbing magazines and websites around the world.
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