The Mental Side of Climbing: Brain Beta

Lauren Abernathy Wild Iris Climbing

Sometimes you hear people’s dogs barking at the crags. Other times you hear a nervous boyfriend asking if his girlfriend knows where the next clip is. On rare occasion you hear words of wisdom:

“I bet all of our bodies could climb 5.14, but our minds just won’t let us.”

Though 5.14 may be an exaggeration, the fact is that on top of being a skill sport, climbing is dependent on your mindset. There are many ways that our minds can hold us back from climbing our best. Whether it be a fear of falling, a fear of failure, or panic-forgetting well-rehearsed beta on a redpoint go, peak performance is only achievable if your mind allows it.

My Mind Holds Me Back

I know that my mind holds me back when I am trying to climb my hardest. This manifests itself during the redpoint process, making it take longer than it needs to. I notice that I one-hang routes many times before actually sending. I one-hanged Butch Pocket in Wild Iris 6 times before finally sending it. It took five one-hangs before sending Beattyville Pipeline in the Red River Gorge. Then, in Fall of 2019, I one hanged Flesh for Lulu three times before the final redpoint go. Physically I can do these routes, but something in my mind is holding me back.

Lauren abernathy Beattyville pipeline red river gorge
Me on one of my many attempts on Beattyville Pipeline. Photo by Sam Laslie.

My baubles, misplaced feet, lapses in muscle memory, etc. are typically not a result of “pumping” out. Usually, it is some silly misplacement of a hand, or out-of-sequence move that sends me flying down the wall in the midst of a good redpoint attempt.

I made some progress in decoding my brain while working Flesh for Lulu, a technical, beta-heavy, and crimpy route in Rumney NH.

A couple months before my crusade on Flesh, I began reading about flow states. Essentially, your mind goes blank and you black out and your just execute. And you execute perfectly. I’ve been in flow states before. Like when I did my first back flip in powder.

Photo by Tim Spanagel

But back flips are fast. A one hundred foot route with 2 distinct cruxes and a major rest in the middle not. Up until my campaign on Flesh for Lulu, I had only really done routes with a single crux, not two.

I worked on Flesh for two weekends in a row. The first weekend was extremely warm and involved me spending a lot of skin on crux #1. In two days of working on it, I was able to do crux #1 only once.

In the second weekend, temps were down about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I executed crux #1 flawlessly on my first attempt. And the rest of the burn went really well. I felt like I could send that day – next go even.

4 attempts later and I had been playing the “almost there, but…”, getting higher and better each time. It was getting really frustrating.

On day two, I gave it a redpoint go, fell misplacing a foot in somewhere I had never fallen before. However, I proceeded in successfully redpointing on the subsequent attempt.

Throughout the process, spectators were commented that “my beta was dialed”. Frustratingly, the micro-errors were rampant past crux #1 and I was not sending. It was clearly not a physical limitation, it was all in my head.

With that, let’s breakdown how I changed my mindset between Day 1 and Day 2 on my second weekend on the route.

Day 1

  • Lots of visualization of the crux on route, before and during the rest.
  • Rehearsing the route visually in my head at the rests.
  • Focused breathing (square breathing at the rests)
  • Noticing my heart rate at the rests

To clarify, crux #1 Is physically more difficult than crux #2, for me anyways. Both of these cruxes are certainly more difficult than the transition moves I was inexplicably messing up. I felt my focus melting and that’s when I forgot my beta.

Thanks to Michael Cheng for the video!

On Day 2 I resolved to let my mind go blank and executed. Flow state was the goal. I speculated that perhaps my brain can only handle being focused for so much time. So I decided to tell my brain it could do whatever for the first half of the route (which is about 5.10) as long as it could keep its shit together for the second half.

Day 2

Here’s what I was doing on Day 2. Similar to day 1, but a few changes.

  • Feeling my chalk.
  • Letting my mind wander and do whatever it wanted for the first half of the route.
  • Noticing my heart rate.
  • Focusing on pushing down on my feet during rests
  • Square breathing at rests

The results: I sent the route. Additionally, my decision to let my brain go slack for the first half of the route had noticeable implications. My belayer (and boyfriend) told my that I “looked like I had no idea what I was doing” for the first half of the route. Which is obviously not ideal, but I knew that I could climb 5.10 a little poorly and resolve any inefficiencies with the no hands rest before crux #1. Overall, it worked! My brain had the energy and focus to keep me from messing up and I sent the thing!

Training your Mind to Climb

Now, am I telling you to climb like shit except for the crux on your project? No. However, I am telling you that it is important to get in touch with what your mind is doing when you are trying to perform. And I am telling you that being able to self-coach your brain, or even control it at all, can be impactful to your climbing performance.

Lauren Abernathy Flesh for lulu
Me getting ready for the first crux on Flesh for Lulu with some deep breathing.

Figuring out what your brain is doing is objectively difficult. You can take videos of yourself climbing, but you can’t record your train of thought the last time you fell on a route.

Getting in Touch with Your Thoughts

Training your mind for climbing is a lot like training your body, you have to take stock of strengths and weaknesses, try different techniques to make adaptations, and you have to do these things consistently.

Maybe you are really in touch with your thought patterns. Personally, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and my thoughts get absolutely out of hand sometimes. I practice meditation regularly (5-10 mins per day a few times a week) which helps me objectively observe what my mind is doing. This may sounds really esoteric and weird, but I recommend Headspace if you are interested in getting help with this.

However, my ability to objectively observe my mind was really helpful on Flesh for Lulu. That is why I was able to observe that my brain was getting fatigued when I needed to stay in the zone and remember my beta through the crux.

Additionally, I really liked using square breathing to get my heartrate down on route. It also helped me get mentally focused before executing the crux sequence.

Strengthening my mind for climbing is an ongoing process. From being afraid of heights on a top rope to taking lead falls to optimizing my mental patterns to send my hardest, my brain and I have been on interesting journey.

What is something interesting that you’ve noticed about your mind when you climb? Is there anything you do to help get “in the zone”? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com – I would love to hear from you!

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Further Reading and Listening

Power Company Climbing – Flow State and Mental Mastery with Hazel Findlay

How I Trained for Fat Camp by Dan Mirsky

The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner

Please note that this post contains Amazon Affiliate links to products I have used and enjoyed. These links help keep senderellastory.com in existence and free to access.

Nine Tips for Weekend Warriors: How to Climb Outside More

Mondays after a weekend of climbing are uniquely exhausting and blissful. Because when you go back to your job on Monday, you carry the residual joy of spending two full days outside doing what you love the most. But you are also exhausted and your job requirements are probably indifferent to how badly you need a nap.

Since moving to New Jersey in 2018, my boyfriend, Mike, and I have adjusted to many things: living together, East coast traffic, and the haul of a drive to get to the nearest sport climbing crag: Rumney, New Hampshire. Despite the long commute for a short weekend, we make it work. In both 2018 and 2019 we have gotten to Rumney many weekends in a row. It’s tiring, but it’s totally worth it.

Lauren and Mike Rumney, NH
Michael and I in New Hampshire on a chilly weekend in Fall of 2019.

It might be that you don’t have any aspirations of climbing harder or better, but perhaps you might set the goal of climbing outside more and doing a better job of getting more pitches in when you do.

With that here are some tips I have for you to help you with your own weekend warrior adventures. I hope these help you get more days of climbing outside this season and many to come.

Tip 1: Have Your Gear Ready to Go All the Time

This seems simple, but packing all your shit up on Thursday or Friday night when you are tired from work sucks even more if your gear, camping supplies, etc. are all over the place. A strategy that has worked well for Mike and I is to keep a camp box in our car during climbing season. Anything we need for outdoor climbing weekends lives in a box in my car in the Fall. When we need to get ready to head out for the weekend, we pack a cooler, some clothes, shoes, harnesses, chalk bags. Packing is quick, painless, and our stuff is where it needs to be when we are ready to hit the road.

Streamline the process of climbing outdoors. Eliminate hurdles and excuses. Spend one weekend organizing your camp box and be done with it forever.

This is the camp box that Mike and I use: It fits everything pretty well.

Tip 2: Set Expectations on Your Schedule with Family and Friends Ahead of Time

I love my family. I love my friends. I also love rock climbing. So I make sure to find ways to spend time loving and enjoying all three. My recommendation is to communicate to your loved ones way ahead of time that you are “booked” to go climbing for certain weekends. Mike and I have a google calendar that we share with our family/friends and we have reserved the weekends that we will be climbing on the calendar. If you don’t make the time for it, you’ll never get to do it.

Tip 3: Meet New People and Make Outdoor Climbing Opportunities

I know I am fortunate to have a car, a live-in climbing partner, and a job with guaranteed weekends off. With that, when Mike and I decide it’s a climbing weekend, we are set to go. However, if you are car-less or partner-less, or you still don’t really feel confident in climbing outdoors without friends to “show you the ropes”, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind.

If you are new to climbing and someone offers to show you around, take the opportunity. Meet new people. Introduce yourself at the gym. Someone is going climbing outside at your gym. Network your way into an outdoor climbing opportunity if you have to. In college, I had all fall break off from school and none of my friends were going climbing outside. I chatted around the gym until I found some people who were willing to let me tag along. Which was awesome because me and my friend Becca have been buddies ever since!

Me and my pal Becca enjoying a brewery on a climbing/drinking road trip in college.

Tip 4: Good Weather is Hard to Come By

Maybe you live somewhere that has awesome weather all the time. But even if you do, when you are limited to Saturday and Sunday as your days to climb and the weather is good, you had better get your ass outside. And if the weather is just OK, but still manageable, you should go anyway. If you don’t, it will probably snow next weekend.

New River Gorge Hiking
A sunny weekend at the New River Gorge where the forecast said it would rain the whole time. In actuality, it rained for 20 minutes over the course of 4 days. I’m glad I went climbing.

Tip 5: Pay for Convenience Where you Can

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you make some money because you work during the week which is why you are a weekend warrior in the first place. Now let’s talk about paying for convenience.

I love camping. I love cooking while camping. I love both of those things even more when I have plenty of time for them. However, when you have 48 hours to climb and drive, time is of the essence. Here are some of my favorite ways I like to spend an extra buck for significantly increase convenience in my short, outdoor climbing trips:

  • Paying $25 for a night in a hostel instead of setting up camp when I got to Rumney very late one Friday Night. I slept in a bed instead of setting up camp at midnight in the dark. Additional cost of convenience: $13
  • Not packing dinner to make at camp and grabbing dinner it at local restaurant: $25. Again, I love the outdoors, but cooking camp meals when it’s 30 degrees outside sucks. Not to mention that grocery shopping and prepping a decent camp meal can be a bit of a pain if you are pressed for time when packing.
Hop Fork Tacos
Some delicious and affordable fish tacos I had the pleaseure of consuming on a trip to the Red River Gorge.

I am not promoting that anyone waste money on convenience if they don’t want to. However, if dropping an extra $20 or $30 in a weekend can help make the whole trip a little less exhausting, then why not? What is important is that you’re going climbing outside, the rest is details.

Tip 6: Lower Your Climbing Area Standards

I used to live a two hours from the Red River Gorge, a world-renowned climbing area. People travel from Europe to climb there. Currently I do not live so close. However, there are a few scrappy places within 2-3 hours. When I can make a day trip and it makes sense, I go climbing there. If you want to get better at outdoor climbing, you need to climb outside. And if your best opportunity for outdoor climbing in a reasonable distance is a bit of a choss pile, it might behoove you to go enjoy it anyway.

Lauren Birdsboro, PA climbing
Me climbing in the manufactured, but still enjoyable Birdsboro, PA.

Tip 7: Do a Little Planning

Have you ever had a day of climbing where you get out too late, you go to a crag, the thing you want to get on is taken, then you go to another crag and the same thing happens? Then all of a sudden it’s 2:00 and you’ve climbed one route? Yeah. That sucks. It is possible that a little planning would help you avoid that situation.

Though the logistics are a bit different in every place you go, it’s important to have some kind of a plan and some idea of what you want to get on. Even more important is to communicate with your group mates about this. I’ve spent mornings hemming and hawing over where to go in a parking lot, watching other people hiking in. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Make a game plan in the car, have a back-up plan if you think you need it, then execute. No discussion needed once you’re in the lot ready to hike.

rumney NH hiking
This is group of climbers ranging in skill level from 5.8 to 5.12! We planned well and had a good weekend climbing together even with the variety of skill levels.

Tip 8: Find a Food Routine

Deciding what to eat and make on a camping trip is nearly as exhausting as the prepping of food itself. If you are trying to get outside a lot (and you are going on back to back weekends), having a simple grocery list/food routine can really help. When you don’t have to google 6 recipes and make a grocery list, the process of packing food for weekend camping becomes much easier.

Here’s a summary of my own food routine. Mike and I make overnight steel cut oats ahead of time. We have protein Clif bars, apples, and PB&J while we climb, and for dinner we either go out or rotate through a couple of standard camp meals that we’re good at making and that we enjoy.

camp stir fry
Camp stir fry! We made sure to chop up everything ahead of time.

Tip 9: Put your stuff away right when you get home.

Going back to tip #1, it really helps to have a place for everything and usually after a weekend trip, clothes need washed, tents need dried, food needs to be put away. My advice is to make sure you are back home with enough time to do these things, then just get it done. Monday is going to be exhausting enough without having to drag your smelly tent out of the car. So when you get back on Sunday, do future you a solid and start getting your stuff ready for next time. I’m not perfect at this and never will be. But even when I do an 80% clean-up job when I get home, it sure is better than procrastinating about it.

What are your biggest weekend climbing hacks? What motivates you to get outside and climb even when life is crazy? Leave a comment or shoot me an email – I’d love to hear your tips and tricks to getting outside more and making the most of it!

You can follow me on this wild ride by checking me out on on Instagram, or Facebook.

Make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to receive cool training tips, tricks and tidbits delivered straight to your inbox once a month to help you become a better climber.

Please note that this post contains Amazon Affiliate Links to products I use and enjoy. If you purchase the book through my link it helps keep the information and articles on senderellastory.com in existence and free to access.

The Journey to Twelve 5.12s in a Year: An Update

butch pocket and the sundance pump

In the year of 2019, I set out to climb my first 5.12. And I made it a goal to send twelve of them by the end of the year. I wanted them to be in at least four different places to ensure that I wasn’t over-specialized in one rock type or style.

As I write this, it is September of 2019. Over the next few weekends I’ll be spending time in Rumney, NH. After that, I head to Mallorca, Spain for a week long Deep Water Solo Trip, and I’ll be rounding out the fall climbing season with a week in the Red River Gorge for Thanksgiving.

A New Route Pyramid

I am pleased that since fall of 2018, the training I have done over the course of the past year has worked. I am pleased to say that I have not sustained any injuries or really even any significant tweaks. This is something to celebrate in and of itself. As far as the progress to the New Year’s Goal, here are the stats.

Number of 5.12s Redpoints: 4 (all 5.12a)
Locations: New River Gorge, WV; Wild Iris, WY; Rumney, NH; Red River Gorge, KY
Rock Types: Sandstone, schist, and limestone

So I’m 75% through the year and 25% through my goal. Not exactly on-track, but then again I have a majority of my outdoor climbing for the year ahead of me. At minimum I’ve at least tackled four different locations and three types of rock. Here are pictures of the routes, in chronological order.

Starrry New River Gorge 12a
A shot from the bottom of Starry, a 4-star 12a in the New River Gorge.
Lauren Abernathy Wild Iris Climbing
Me getting through the crux on Butch Pocket and the Sundance Pump, 5.12a in Wild Iris, WY.
Photo by Alex McIntyre
lauren abernathy orangahang rumney nh
Me in front of my nemesis route, Orangahang in Rumney, NH. Read more about the epic failure here.
Lauren Abernathy Beattyville Pipeline Red River Gorge
Me in front of Beattyville Pipeline at the Red River Gorge post-send.

What I think Has Helped the Most

If I had to distill my progress into three factors, it would be as follows.

  1. Consistency. If I make a plan for my training, I stick to it for 8-9 weeks at minimum. I don’t get 4 weeks in, decide I hate whatever hangboard protocol I’ve chosen and then switch it out for something else. I stick to what I committed to do and I don’t change it up prematurely.
  2. Practicing Movement. Until I read Movement Drills for Climbers, I really did not know how to practice the skill of climbing. I knew it was important to do, but I didn’t really know how to do it. If you don’t have specific skill practice built into your climbing (especially when you are warming up), you would likely benefit a lot from specific skill practice.
  3. Getting Better at Redpointing. This season I didn’t go full bore into trying to send 5.12 as soon as spring rolled around. I went to Birdsboro, PA and worked on a couple of 5.11cs and 5.11ds. My goal was to build a good base at the beginning of the season. Working on these routes helped me hone my redpointing skills. These were good, manageable projects that didn’t leave me bummed and frustrated. It was a great set-up for my trip to the New River Gorge in May and it set the tone of me improving my ability to learn/rehearse/execute a route for the rest of the year.

A bonus thought: My last two 5.12 ascents occurred when I was wearing a new pair of spearmint-colored leggings. Perhaps colorful, performance spandex is a key component in sending hard routes. It seems to work for that MattClimber guy in South Africa, so perhaps there is something to this.

My Autumn Mantra: “Maintain, Maintain, Maintain”

Going into fall and trying to perform on the weekends means that my focus is shifting. The focus of training is no longer “get better”, it is now “don’t lose what you have”.

My “weekend warrior” training schedule is going to look like this through these next few weeks.

Monday – Rest
Tuesday – Limit Bouldering
Wednesday – Light Hangboard/Strength Session
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Rest
Saturday & Sunday – Outdoor Sport Climbing

This method is inspired by Episode 13 of Eric Horst’s Training for Climbing Podcast on in-season and out of season training.

The idea behind this is that you use your mid-week training sessions to maintain strength and power since, presumably you are working the energy systems associated with endurance and power endurance on the weekends.

For those who are shocked or confused, that is not a typo on the number of rest days before going outdoors: two full rest days. Some of you might think I’m a maniac, but if you’ve never tried resting for a couple of days before going outdoors, it can be very beneficial.

On Shooting for the Moon

I’m about to hit you with a cheesy quote, but it sums up this personal progress report really well.

Image result for shoot for the moon picture

So is it looking good for me to hit my goal of twelve 12s right now? Maybe. Maybe not.

Right now I’m not really afraid of failure, I’m actually more afraid of my sometimes tyrannical desire for success. This desire to succeed could manifest itself as follows: by taking the easy way out. This “easy way out” could look like this:

  1. I never try anything harder than 5.12a
  2. I prioritize routes that are “my style” and don’t work on anything that is out of my comfort zone.
  3. I don’t leave myself any time for “lower tier” routes (5.11c/d) because I’m too focused on racking up more 5.12. (for more on Route Pyramids, see here)

With that, my goal still stands. I have just over 3 months to crank out eight more 5.12s. To combat the aforementioned potential pitfalls, I have a tick list ranging from 5.11c to 5.12c with a variety of styles represented. It is designed to push my limits and my comfort zone. And if it works out and I crank out eight more 5.12s, great! And if I don’t, I will have climbed a lot, tried really hard, and I will “land among the stars”. Or whatever. You get the picture.

On Becoming a Better Climber

The purpose of setting this goal was to become a better climber. The reason I want to be a better climber is so that there are more routes in the world that I am able to climb. If there are more routes in the world that I can climb, then I can climb more rocks! Which is the whole point, because climbing is fun.

How is your year going? Are you on track to complete the goals you set out for? Did you set any goals for this season? Do you like setting goals? Leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

You can follow me on this wild ride by checking me out on on Instagram, or Facebook.

Make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to receive cool training tips, tricks and tidbits delivered straight to your inbox once a month to help you become a better climber.

Please note that this post contains an affiliate link to the Movement Drills ebook by the Power Company Climbing. I use the techniques in this book to this day and I would highly recommend it! If you purchase the book through my link it helps keep the information and articles on senderellastory.com in existence and free to access.

Never Quitting Climbing: People Might be Lame but You Don’t Have to Be

“You’ll quit climbing. You won’t have time with this job.” These words were spoken to me in the first week of my first job coming out of college.

After about a month there, chances were good that I might become depressed and that being an adult was going to be terrible. I was perplexed that I had worked so hard for the past four years earning my engineering degree to end up having no time to do any of the things I actually gave a shit about.

Fortunately, the original prophecy did not come true. I climbed all over the country in my first year out adulthood. I drove an hour to the climbing gym from work twice a week to train. I got up at 4:30 during the week to get on my hangboard before work.

Maybe the baseline for most adults and their hobbies is that they let them slip away as they get older and fatter and they decide that trying to keep pursuing what they love is too much work. But I can’t see myself doing that.

About a year after that, the company moved me to New York. The job had better hours and I picked the closest apartment to the climbing gym. These were well-designed life improvements.

But even after moving from the Midwest to the East Coast, the same sour attitude prevailed. One of my colleague said to me “Well you can’t just go climbing and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every weekend forever. You’ll have to grow up sometime.”

But why? Why is it childish to do what you love? Why is it childish to eat PB&J? Why is it immature to pursue what makes you happy? And why is it your business anyway?

The truth is that I don’t really know. Sometimes the way people let their lives go by without doing anything that makes them happy is really depressing. When I ask people on Monday what they did over the weekend, half the time they don’t even remember.

Climbing is a way to make sure that I’m stoked about something. That I’m going on adventures. That I’m outside laughing my ass off with my friends. That I’m lying in a tent terrified that I’m going to get eaten by a grizzly bear. That I’m hanging 60 feet up on a wall relying on my fingertips. That I don’t become boring, unhealthy, and submissive to a life that I don’t really like that much.

And yeah – life is never going to be perfect. I know that I am privileged to have my limbs intact and to have a job that pays me well and to have great friends and family who support me skipping holidays to screw around on exotic cliff faces. No matter what, I’m never going to squelch my sense of adventure because of the stupid things people say to me. If you’re out there doing something you think is awesome, then keep on doing it. Sometimes it seems like 98% of people don’t even know what they think is awesome anyway – and they certainly aren’t pursuing it.

If you find something that makes you so psyched you can’t stop thinking about it, then latch on to that and never let go. You don’t ever have to quit climbing if you don’t want to.