Breathing Power – by Allan Evans
We often hear our fellow climbers reminding us to breathe when we are climbing, and, likewise, it is us shouting it up to the climber.
When we are climbing at our limit it can often be the first thing we forget about. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to breathe while climbing, or for just generally living. But I do want to explore just how important controlled breathing can be while climbing.
Breathing and particular types of breathing can help you manage your fears and anxieties – pre and during climbing. Regardless of what type of climbing we are doing it’s common to have anxious feelings at times, whether it be a fear of falling, of failure, of blowing an Onsight attempt on a route you have been saving for years! The list goes on.
A technique I came across in researching breathing techniques to use with my counselling clients was hacking the Vagus nerve.
What’s the Vagus nerve I hear you ask?
This nerve secretes a fluid which helps regulate our heart rate. As our body can’t distinguish the difference between what our mind is making up or what we are imagining, it responds to whatever story the mind is telling it.
Therefore, if we start getting fearful or anxious before a climb, our body responds. It elevates the heart rate and will produce adrenaline and a whole host of bodily functions are affected.
That explains the sweaty hands…
We can hack this nerve by performing longer exhalations, simply take a deep inbreath and on your outbreath make it slow and controlled and slightly longer than the inbreath. This stimulates the Vagus nerve and therefore slows down our heart rate, putting the body into a calm state.
Breathing deeply also has the added benefit of allowing more carbon dioxide to enter our blood stream, and having more carbon dioxide in our system slows down parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which is where fear is generated. Deep rhythmic breathing can also help us focus, when we get scared it takes our attention from the task at hand, to climb, to place protection well.
Do breathing techniques work?
In my own personal experience yes, they do. I can remember countless times on routes where I have been scared for whatever reason, a little voice in my head tells me to focus on breathing, in doing so I’m able to shift my attention back to climbing and continue.
Unfortunately, that little voice doesn’t always appear, and my fearful mind takes over, I hesitate, get pumped and either down climb or ask my belayer to take. I’m still working on using this powerful tool myself.
These breathing techniques can be used to help you manage your mind and body whilst climbing, including your fears. I am however not suggesting you should not be fearful, fear keeps us alive and stops us from hurting ourselves. Climbing is an inherently dangerous activity and managing your risk is your responsibility.
I have linked a few articles I used as inspiration, they go into greater detail about the techniques used as well as the science behind it all, it’s interesting stuff.
Thanks for checking out the first instalment of my blog, I hope you find using the power of the breath useful not just in climbing, also in your day-to-day life.
If you see me at a crag, say hello and let’s do some breathing together!