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Learn How to Stave Off Pump with Heart-Rate Monitor Training

Directly linked to mental composure (hence technique) under duress, physical fitness, and your ability to recover, your heart rate is the engine driving your rock climbing. No surprise, then, that training with a heart-rate monitor (HRM) can be hugely beneficial.

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You’re gunning for your project, a pumpy 90-foot route with a crux on hateful crimpers at bolt 11. For the umpteenth time, you enter the crux feeling juiced: your footwork crumbles, your arms chickenwing . . . and then you whip, huffing like the Big Bad Wolf as you hit the end of the rope.

Could be you were “pumped” or just “blew it again,” but what you might not know is the role your heart rate played in the meltdown. Directly linked to mental composure (hence technique) under duress, physical fitness, and your ability to recover, your heart rate is the engine driving the Send Bus to Gnar Town. No surprise, then, that training with a heart-rate monitor (HRM) can be hugely beneficial.

I first strapped on an HRM last December under the tutelage of Justen Sjong, one of America’s foremost big-wall free climbers and climbing trainers. Sjong put me on a treadwall, rattling off my spiking heart rate in beats per minute (BPM): “160, 165, 175, 180. . . . ” As I slapped a jug, he stopped the wall and had me deadhang there. “OK, now get your heart rate down,” he crooned. I breathed deeply and regularly, relaxed my core, and looked down, unfocussing my eyes. My heart slowed, the pump also diminishing. I realized then that this little number could tell me much more about fitness than any V-grades or 5-whatevers.

Sjong himself used HRM training to prepare for Magic Mushroom, the 28-pitch El Cap 5.13d/14a he freed with Tommy Caldwell in 2008. “There are the obvious fitness benefits,” Sjong says, “but also I was able to train my emotional responses to stress, a key component on Magic Mushroom.” Here, three ways an HRM boosts your sending:

1. Train in the Zone

Why: You’ll climb harder, better, and for longer if you train at the optimal intensity. (Undertraining won’t get you fit, while overtraining causes burnout.) Using an HRM helps you find and maintain this level.

How: First, find your max heart rate. Sjong recommends lapping familiar routes near your limit, with no rest in between, until wasted. Doing so will bring your heart to or near its peak rate; the optimal training zone is 10 to 25 beats below this number. Now consistently train in that zone (see “Working in the Zone” below for a basic HRM-training routine) to up your fitness. Your max heart rate should increase over time, as should your ability to feel fresh and recover at higher heart rates.

2. Rest and Recover (R&R)

Why: Resting is crucial, but most climbers focus on the wrong thing, flapping their arms to “de-pump” when they should be reducing their heart rate. Use your HRM to learn how really to relax.

How: Sjong teaches R&R using a five-step process of advancing difficulty, one you progress through over many sessions.

  1. Climb until tired, and then sit and focus on lowering your heart rate.
  2. Start the recovery process at the top of a route, when you’re done climbing but before you lower.
  3. Learn to ID a spiking heart rate, so you can rest before it’s out of control (it’s very hard to de-pump on route after maxing your heart).
  4. Recover on a jug when within 10 beats of your max heart rate.
  5. Grab mini-rests on small holds before a crux section.

To really chill at rests, Sjong recommends “Level 1” breathing: inhale deeply, hold a half-second, exhale, and repeat — all through your mouth.

Breathing is key in climbing — it’s our oxygen-intake and CO2-outlet system, and it can be the difference between sending and falling. When we’re scared, we often hold our breath or breathe less freely, creating tension and adding to our pump. The way we breathe at a rest can be as important as the size of the hold we’re resting on.

The first step to breathing with more control is simply being aware of how we’re doing it. A common misconception is that holding your breath is always bad, or that one should always take slow, deep breaths while climbing. In truth, there are several levels of breathing, each with a different effect on the body and mind, and each with its place in a climber’s toolbox.

Here, Justen Sjong outlines the four primary breathing modes he uses himself — while tackling major free routes on Yosemite or while training students of all levels — explaining when to utilize each and why:

  • Level 1– Belly Breath. This is the level of breathing that allows the mind and body to recover. A Belly Breath is a deep, slow type of breathing that fills the lungs and helps lowers the heart rate. A climber must have a relaxed core to use Belly Breathing, so it can only be achieved on route when at a comfortable, non-strenuous stance. Furthermore, Belly Breathing is the first step — a climber must master it before they can learn to efficiently breathe at Levels 2-4. It’s important to remember that if a climber breathes too long at Levels 2-4, they’ll mentally, technically, and physically begin to fall apart.
  • Level 2– Forced-Air Breath. Also known as “Power-Endurance Breathing,” forced-air breathing is best used when climbing a section that has five to 12 difficult moves. This type of deep but forceful breath, more rapid than Belly Breathing, allows a climber to move between brief periods of tension and relaxation. When tension and relaxation are used properly, a climber can create an efficient rhythm for climbing through difficult sections.
  • Level 3– Power Breath. Also known as the “Scream Breath,” when a climber screams, he or she forces air out of the lungs, which then forces a sudden breath right after. This type of breathing is best used in a short series of hard moves (1-5 moves).
  • Level 4 – No Breath. To be used only when the core needs to be extremely tight, to create the greatest level of body tension, such as a difficult move or hard clip. However, climbers often hold their breath for other reasons, such as fear, which is counterproductive.

3. Keep It Together

Why: Even at heart rates 20 to 30 BPM below your max, motor skills (read: technique and composure) start to fail. “The eyes dart from one hold to another, and you get tunnel vision,” says Sjong. “If your technique goes, you’re done.”

How: As you train, have a buddy monitor you and your HRM readout. He can help you ID the BPM zone at which your moves turn jerky and rushed. Now, as you enter that high-stress zone, focus on relaxing, using the following steps to de-grippify your climbing movement:

  1. Purse your lips and take audible breaths, a reminder to breathe regularly.
  2. Straighten your arms, to conserve energy as you climb.
  3. Steady your eyes and scan methodically for holds, hunting the most efficient sequence.
  4. Place your feet precisely on each hold, watching your toes settle onto the grip.
  5. Generate motion from your legs, not your arms.

Working in the Zone

Following is Justen Sjong’s basic HRM training drill. Do these super-sets twice a week (instead of or after normal workouts), in two- or three-week blocks.

  1. Determine your optimal training rate (see “Train in the Zone,” above).
  2. Warm up with three to five easy routes. Try not to exceed 130 to 150 BPM, depending on your fitness level and how gripped you get.
  3. Push into your optimal training range, climbing routes difficult enough to hit the requisite BPM. Gun for eight routes in the zone. (Sjong recommends super-sets of two to four routes back to back.)
  4. Cool down on a few moderate routes.