I’ve never been a natural climber. Give me a straight dual carriageway and I’m as happy as a pig in the proverbial – but long upward stretches of tarmac with menacing 20 percent signs and I’m on my knees.
In fact, when I first started cycling, about five years ago I went through a stage of experiencing minor panic attacks on the climbs – mostly at points when I was losing the wheel in front, particularly if it belonged to a MAMIL who I was a mortified to be losing contact with [everyone is arrogant aged 21, right?].
A few years later, and I’m over the panics, I climb at my pace and if that’s faster or slower that my ride buddies that’s fine – I climb within myself. However, I’ve always had a tendency to utilise short, sharp, quick breaths to fill my lungs with oxygen in moments of struggle.
I’ve seen breathing mentioned in articles about climbing before, alongside cadence and mental coaching. All those things I was sure could contribute a little bit, but in my head, the true climbing equation was always simple: low weight equals good climbing. I’ve focused on weight a lot, but done little about it [eg I watch what I eat but I’m not about to put myself on a drastic diet because there’s more to life], so recently I decided to just give the other methods a try.
After a winter of Tuesday night yoga classes which started with breathing exercises, and a yogi who just kept on saying how useful they’d be to us on the bike, I decided to actually put aside my preconceptions and give breathing a chance. So, on Coombe lane in Surrey, when I found myself huffing and puffing short sharp inhalations, I swapped them for long, slow, deep breaths. The difference was immediately noticeable.
Breathing more slowly, I felt calmer, the climb felt easier – be that physical or mental, and the guys ahead were suddenly not so far in front. Anecdotal evidence is one thing, but I decided to ask an expert what was going on here.
Josephine Perry has qualifications in psychology, communications, and specifically in sport and exercise psychology. She's also a member of the British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences (BASES) and the Association of Applied Sports Psychologists (AASP). She runs a mental training clinic - Performance In Mind - and had a lot to say to me.
"If we are taking shorter sharper breaths we are signaling to our brain that we are panicking, that we are in difficulty."
It goes without saying that we need to breathe – obviously, it’s something we do all the time and more often than not we’re not thinking about it. However, when it comes to sport, Perry says we need to focus a bit more: “Breathing is really important in all our sporting activities. Everything our body does physiologically feeds back into our brain and gives it signals as to how we are feeling. Our brain then responds to those signals. If we are taking shorter sharper breaths we are signalling to our brain that we are panicking, that we are in difficulty."
- What to work on:
- Focus on breathing
- Breathe deeply
- Be positive
Though a hard effort does require us to get more oxygen to the muscles, the short sharp breathing we sometimes adopt when climbing isn’t always entirely caused by a physical need – often the signals are coming from our brain. Perry tells me: “A specific issue with climbing is that, particularly if you are newer to cycling, hills can seem really daunting and so our brain is already telling us: ‘Oh no. It’s a hill. I can’t do this. I’ll be really slow. I’ll get dropped.’ So your brain is already expecting those signals and you add to that short sharp breathing and you are gasping for air you are simply confirming to yourself that you can’t perform well."
And what effect does this have? It tells our body we need to feel stressed. Perry says: “[Fast breathing] makes us tighten up, puts us on alert and gets our hearts beating much faster. Our brain’s reaction to that will be to slow down the body. This is clearly not what we want to be doing. So teaching our body to react well to situations like a climb coming up can be really beneficial."
Knowing all this is one thing – but what do we do about it? Perry has suggestions for us: “I can suggest three ways you could try to help yourself get over this situation: focus on your breathing, learn to breathe deeply and talk yourself into believing that you like climbing."
Here’s the how and why on each one…
Focus on your breathing
We breathe all day – but when we get to a climb we tend to forget about it and let what’s natural just happen. That’s not the way to do it, Perry says: “When we focus on something intensely we often do that to the detriment of everything else. If you are focused intensely on attacking the hill as quickly as possible your breathing will get fast and frantic, your heart rate will rapidly climb and your brain will tell you that you are working really hard. If you instead focus on your breathing you can go at your own pace much more consistently and you should be able to block out any feeling of effort or pain."
Learn to breathe deeply
Once you’ve worked out how to break up the components of your effort and concentrate on breathing, you need to know how to do it right – Perry says: “We all breathe naturally, all day, every day. Yet few of us learn how to breathe well and few of us learn how to use our breathing to control our body. Learning to control it, rather that it controlling you can be very beneficial. And practising deep breathing has the added benefit that it can be really relaxing. But like everything else, deep breathing needs to be practised in a safe, easy environment until you are used to it and can do it whenever you need to, such as on a climb.
“There are two ways you can practice slow breathing. The first is through an app. Mindfulness apps often talk you through deep slow breathing and a great one you can use for free for a while is the Headspace app. If you would like to try it through relaxation instead there is a worksheet on my website."
Talk yourself into liking hills
Finally, we need to get a bit vocal – ideally internally unless you want all your ride buddies to know what’s helping you overtake them on that next big ascent.
Perry tells me: “We all talk to ourselves in our heads. The way we do this can make a big impact on our thinking and our resulting behaviours. If your thoughts when you see a big climb coming up are negative you will immediately go into a state of fear and stress, which will impact your breathing and tighten up your whole body, making the climb much harder. If you can talk yourself into liking climbing you will find your body reacts much better.
“One way to do this is to very purposefully force yourself to ‘reframe’ every negative thought you have in training about climbing into something positive – maybe from 'I hate climbs' to 'I’m getting better at climbs' or 'every hill is making me stronger.' You could also deliberately aim to make climbs ‘your thing.’ Build them into your training extensively, focus on them, as the more you do them the more you can practice breathing deeply on them and the more confident you get so the less hills become fearful."
On a personal level, I find all of Josephine’s advice incredibly helpful, and I’m looking forward to putting it mindfully into practice. I hope you do too!
To find out more about the coaching and services Josephine can offer, check out her Performance in Mind website.
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