Sunday, April 13, 2008

Taking Falls

"KITT" and I were discussing the outdoor climbing season a couple of weeks ago when I suggested to him that that he learn how to lead. He had been involved in leading before, but his memory was weak on the fundamentals and I thought that teaching him at the gym would be a good place to start.

So I taught him the following weekend. He learned about back-clipping, Z-clipping, rope management, where not to place his feet (behind the rope), giving soft catches, and falling. I'm not going to go into the other elements, but I did want to talk briefly about learning to fall. To start, I thought this small article by Arno Ilgner, as posted on, was a good read for anyone who wants to understand the fear of falling.

I think the most important piece for me is breathing during the fall. As the Ilgner notes, it is important to breathe throughout the fall, not just at the beginning or at the end. This is very difficult to do because it is counter-intuitive to our natural reactions, and because calm breathing typically only occurs slowly; a fall probably lasts less than a second or two, depending on its length. But I agree that breathing helps for two reasons: 1) it is proof that one is still alive and; 2) physical exertion is better executed when breathing (especially during the exhale). Let me talk a little bit about each of these and how I think they are important.

With regards to my first reason, proving that one is still alive is not a silly, manufactured head game that one plays. Instead, it is a method of realizing awareness. I think when people do something that should naturally instill fear, they tense up, hold their breath and hope for the best, and there is a lot that is wrong with that. For one, tensing up could lead to greater injury (ever wonder why drunk drivers are the ones who survive accidents? Because they're relaxed at impact), and hoping for the best really should be saved for those moments when one really doesn't know the outcome of a particular situation. Sure, when it comes to falling, one never really knows the outcome, but to be honest, falling outcomes are pretty predictable in a normal setting. More often than not, when a fall occurs, the climber falls and nothing happens. Even if the catch isn't great or the fall isn't overly straightforward, I doubt that most falls are harmful. So really, despite fear's presence, there is no good reason to be afraid during a typical fall. If a fall is going to happen, then it is going to happen. Why hope for the best when preparedness will help make the fall safer and less stimulating?

So what does breathing do? By focusing on breathing (i.e. - making sure that one breathes as opposed to simply letting nature take care of the breathing), one has stimulated the brain into focusing on the surrounding environment: where I am in relation to the clip, what environmental dangers do I need to protect against, and what do I need to do in order to prepare for the impact after letting go. This isn't really about saying, "It's OK because I'm going to live." It's more about saying, "OK what do I need to do in order to make this less dramatic and safer," so to speak. The breathing allows the brain to shift from fear to focus. Treat the breathing as a sort of awakening where the brain is all of a sudden aware that its focus is no longer the next crimp above but the horizontal crack below instead.

Now, for the second reason, this is basic stuff that anyone who has done some sort of weight training probably knows, even if they don't realize that they know. When doing bench presses, let's say, one exhales when pushing the weight upward. I'm not sure why this works better (I'm not an expert and I don't pretend to play one here), but it does. In fact, with regards to a lot of physically strenuous events, exhaling makes it easier to accomplish that feat. I first learned that I should do this (again, I was doing it all along in the weight room but never realized it) when I was playing baseball in college. Our coach taught us to exhale when swinging the bat. It took a lot of practice, but once I learned how to do this, and breathe regularly so that I could do this without thinking about it, I started hitting the ball with more authority. I also do this a lot while climbing, even on easy climbs. In fact, I kind of laugh at myself because sometimes my exhaling is so loud that even I notice it.

But here is my question: if one breathes during the fall, when does one actually exhale? Does one exhale upon releasing oneself from the rock? What about during the fall itself, when the likelihood of breathing in and out in one, full cycle before the impact is small? And what about during the impact? My thought is that, if given the chance to breathe calmly before falling (i.e. - you know you're going and you're preparing vs a "real" fall when you don't know beforehand), one generates slow, deep, rhythmic breath cycles and begins to exhale upon releasing from the rock. The exhale should then end just about after the point of impact, when all arms and legs are bent and have absorbed the impact. My belief in this is that the brain is focused on exhaling (when the body is more relaxed - try it, and you'll see it is far easier to tense up when inhaling), and is thus not thinking about the fall (either before or during), thus removing the fear due to the climber being relaxed. The exhale also allows the arms and legs to be relaxed enough to absorb the fall comfortably (again, try to jump up and land just as you inhale. Is it easier to bend your legs on the impact when you inhale or exhale?).

So I tried all of this at the gym the other day. "KITT" had learned to lead the previous week, but he hadn't taken his lead belay test yet. After he took his test, my head starting reminding me that I was taking falls last fall in the gym just to get used to them. As expected, I never did get used to them, but that was because I was just falling and believing that the falls themselves would allow me to get over the fear of falling. As I've noted above, and as Ilgner noted at the beginning of his article, that approach doesn't work. The trick is to get ahead of the fear and prepare to make the fall less dramatic and stimulating. In other words, relax, breathe, and think about landing safely (as opposed to thinking about the fall itself).

The first few falls (and, admittedly, the last few) were heady, but I started to focus more on my breathing and preparedness more than I had before. Each fall that I took became easier as the day went on. I tested myself by telling myself that I was going to fall when I touched a specific hold, and, for the most part, I did that. As soon as I touched the hold, I let go (or pushed off). I got bolder and bolder, and, thankfully, "KITT"'s catches were soft enough to allow me to not focus on landing hard. Ilgner noted that a good belayor was needed, so I was glad that "KITT" had quickly picked up on making soft catches. My breathing was also focused, so that I was exhaling when I released and breathing normally when landing. This was all good.

Now, here is where I went wrong, and will need to work on getting over this. As I noted above, I planned all my falls, so I knew when I was going to let go and could focus my breathing on that particular moment. This does nothing to prepare me for real falls, or when I don't know that I'm about to fall. That is the next step, and I think I know how to get over that, though it will require work, as my baseball example also did. My goal is to work on my breathing throughout the climb. I hope to be able to achieve a calm rhythm of breathing throughout the climb, such that I know that if I get good at it that I can count precisely the amount of breaths that I take in every 10, 15 or 20 seconds or so. It should become a thoughtless pattern of breathing that allows me to understand when I can rest versus when I can make a move. In other words, once I have this down, I should be able to make a move when only exhaling. If I exhale every four seconds, then I either move every four seconds, or eight seconds, or 12 seconds. If I'm ready to move when I'm inhaling, I'll stop and wait until I exhale. That will give me my rest as well, because I'll only move when exhaling and will be resting when inhaling.

So how does this help me with falls? Well, in getting back to Ilgner's point about breathing throughout the fall, if my breathing is in a rhythm, then I should be able to breath naturally when a real fall occurs. In other words, the thinking will have been taken totally out of the equation and my awareness will be such that taking a fall will be second nature. The hard part is controlling my breathing under duress, but with a little work I think I can overcome this. If you get a chance to practice this, please tell me how it goes. I would love to have feedback on whether this works or not.

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