Overcoming the Fear of Falling


Laurie Stricker looking calm and relaxed at Shelf Roach, CO. Stewart Green photo.

I occasionally hear from an experienced climber, with hundreds of ascents under his belt, complaining that he still wrestles with a severe fear of falling even after many years of climbing. I respond by explaining that you don’t learn to expertly manage the fear of falling simply through experience at climbing—you become empowered to challenge the fear of falling through experience at falling!

Consequently, engaging in occasional practice falling is an essential part of becoming an effective fear-manager. Practice falling will benefit you in a couple of important ways. First, it teaches you to trust the belay system and thus dismantles ridiculous fears such as that of the rope breaking or a bolt failing. More important, it teaches you how to fall—learning to relax your body, stay upright, and avoid catching your foot on the rope or rock while falling are all critical skills that will become largely unconscious through practice. Finally, taking practice falls will gradually override the innate fear of falling in safe situations (when the gear is solid and the fall will be clean). In time, these skills will wire into your brain, thus empowering you to make the right choices in climbing upward despite the fear of a fall and enabling you to react instantly in managing a fall when it happens.

Taking practice falls is best done in the controlled setting of a climbing gym, although you can also do it at a sport crag. Practice on a somewhat overhanging sport route that’s void of protruding holds; use a good rope, double-check your knot and buckle, and employ an experienced belayer. Start off by taking a few short falls with a bolt location near your knees—with rope stretch this will result in about a five- or six-foot fall. When you become comfortable taking these short falls, climb a bit higher so the bolt is somewhere near your feet. Depending on the amount of rope between you and the belayer, this will result in a medium-length sport-climbing fall of about ten feet, give or take. Practice taking these short- and medium-length falls at least once per week for a few months and you will gradually come to accept these falls as the “no-big-deal” that they are (when gear is good). Some climbers progress to taking practice falls with the bolt a few feet below their feet—these longer sport-climbing falls can total fifteen to twenty feet depending on the amount of rope stretch and belayer “give.” These longer falls should always be practiced on routes that overhang between 30 and 45 degrees past vertical, so that they are “air falls” with no chance of hitting the rock hard or catching a foot on the rope.

The long-term effect of taking practice falls is that you will be able to detach from the fear of falling in safe situations and climb free with little or no fear load. Still, you will occasionally come upon situations where a fall looks to be completely safe, yet for some reason it’s making you feel a little scared (perhaps the fall will yield a bit of swing or it just looks weird). In such a case, you would benefit greatly by taking a single “test fall” in order to experience what it will be like—this will erase the fear you are feeling, because it’s not knowing what the fall will be like that you fear, not that act of falling itself.

In the end, addressing the fear of falling is a long-term endeavor that will take you months or years, not days or weeks, to come to manage. It’s a step-by-step process that requires both the willingness to take practice falls, as well as the courage to push yourself to the limit and take real falls when climbing for performance.

Copyright 2014 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.


The Truth About Creatine for Climbers

creatineThere are dozens of sports supplements that claim to help build muscle and increase strength. While most are, in fact, worthless, creatine has been shown to produce increases in muscular strength in numerous well-executed studies. Based on this, creatine must be a good supplement for climbers. Right? Not so fast my high-ball sending, flash training friend!

Creatine is by far the most effective sports supplement on the market. Not only has it been show to enhance explosive strength in numerous well-controlled studies (Toler 1997 & Kreider 1998), but when consumed in large doses the user actually sees their muscles get larger and harder, and they gain lean muscle mass (i.e. weight). Consequently, creatine has become the biggest selling sports supplement in the country, and it’s widely used by football and baseball players, weight lifters, bodybuilders, and millions of fitness buffs. But is it a good supplement for climbers? Let’s take a look at how creatine works.

Creatine is a compound that’s natural to our body, and it is used in the muscles to help create ATP (the energy source for brief, explosive movements). Creatine is also present in animal foods such as red meat, however, the amount consumed in a normal diet is quite small (a couple grams per day). Studies have shown that taking 20 grams per day of supplemental creatine for five or six days will enhance performance in short-duration, high-intensity exercise such as sprinting or weight lifting. This “creatine loading” protocal is the method used by most athletes.

Two side effects of creatine loading are weight gain and “cell volumizing.” Both these effects occur because creatine associates with water as it is stored in the muscles. Over the six-day loading phase, more and more creatine is stored and an increasing amount of water is drawn into the muscle cell–this gives muscles a fuller, “pumped” feel and look, just what bodybuilders and fitness buffs want. This loading process, therefore, results in a water weight gain of several pounds (or more) in most individuals. This is a good thing for athletes in sports where increased weight and speed (inertia) can be used to your advantage (e.g. football, swinging a bat, or swinging your fist). However, in a sport that requires a high strength-to-weight ratio, it can have a negative impact on performance.

Some climbers have argued that stronger muscles (due to creatine loading) can easily lift the extra weight gained in the “growing process.” However, the problem is that creatine loads in all muscles of the body, not just the “climbing muscles”, and will load proportionally more in the largest muscles of the body–the legs! Of course, increasing leg strength and weight is a bad thing for climbers since they are never the limiting factor. There’s just no way around it, creatine loading is not a good thing for climbers.

If you are still not convinced, let’s consider the cell volumizing effect of heavy creatine. Bodybuilders love the fact that their muscles pump up more easily when they are loaded with creatine. I quickly noticed this same effect when experimenting with creatine when it first appeared on the market in 1993. It seemed strange at the time, but I pumped out faster when I was “on” creatine, this despite the fact that I felt like I had a little more zip in the muscles. What I quickly concluded was that the cell volumizing partially occluded capillaries that intervene in muscle, thus slowing blood flow and causing the rapid pump. In climbing, the goal is obviously to avoid the dreaded full-on pump as long as possible.

That said, I do believe that well-timed, small-doses of creatine can help climbers recover more quickly and without the nasty side effects of “loading.” The protocol I’ve developed and used for several years now is to add just two to five grams of creatine to a quart of sports drink that I sip throughout the day when climbing. This provides a slow trickle of creatine into the blood and muscles to aid recovery between routes. For training, I wait until the end of the workout; then I initiate the recovery cycle by consuming just two to five grams of creatine mixed into a quality sport drink.

The bottom line: either don’t use creatine at all or limit your use to just a few grams on workout/climbing days–this may slightly enhance your recovery with no noticeable weight gain or other negative side effects.

Copyright 2014 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.