I’ve recently returned to climbing after a long break. For years, I lived in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where I had no end of friends ready to go climbing at the drop of a hat, and all of our belay days took place outdoors on the granite. Now, because I now live in a city and my local friends aren’t climbers, I’m relying on mostly indoor bouldering to get my fix, and in many ways, it’s like a whole new sport.
So far, I’ve found a lot of love about it. Indoor bouldering is super convenient for starters. I don’t need to put on my approach shoes for the five minute cycle ride down to the wall. Once I get there, without having to set an anchor and spend time belaying, I can pull my climbing shoes on and get quite a bit done in just 45 minutes and I frequently do so before work. I love it. But one thing I’ve noticed that’s puzzled me is the number of other people there who are climbing while wearing headphones.
I know, this all makes me sound a bit old and out of touch. After all, anybody who’s anybody walks around with like white buds in their ears these days, and why should the bouldering wall be any different?
I’m also a runner, and while I prefer to listen to the sounds of the birds when I’m out in my trail running shoes, on the rare occasion when I run on tarmac, I often wear headphones myself. Recently, I even tried running with Airpods and I must say, it’s quite convenient – though odd – to have my text messages read out to me by Siri when I’m on the go. I prefer my bone conduction headphones for running, which let me hear if there are other runners or bikers coming up behind me while I listen to my favorite podcast.
But that’s running. And while it does require some focus, I also feel like the rhythmic, uniform movement of that footsport lets me zone out a little in a way that feels pretty safe, particularly when I compare it to clinging to a rock wall. Climbing and bouldering seem like a whole different ball game. Do I really want to be rocking out to Phosphorescent whilst clinging onto that sloper hold for dear life?
Or am I just old and out of touch? I’ve started asking other climbers at the wall about this topic. Well, I’m only able to ask climbers who aren’t listening to music, because the others can’t hear me, but I’ve heard a variety of opinions on the matter and few climbers are willing to throw major shade on others (another bonus of the climbing community). For example, a climber I met recently, named Wren, shared that they have sometimes worn headphones for bouldering, and they do serve a purpose beyond just rocking out.
"The benefits to my mental health that climbing offers is my main reason for striving to do it regularly, and when my mental health isn't so great it can be really useful to plug into the music that I want to listen to and climb in my own little world without the social anxieties that making conversation can bring."
"Not only do headphones offer an indicator that I may not be open to chatter but they also do offer, I feel, a more socially acceptable way out of conversations I do engage with."
So there are some reason why you sometimes might want to wear headphones when you're bouldering, but there are also some arguments against it, which I've laid out in this article, if nothing else for some food for thought.
1. It could distract you
Bouldering really requires intense focus no matter what level you're at and where you’re doing it. In fact, that deep concentration you experience on the wall may be one of the reasons why many people find it meditative, and that might even be part of the reason why rock climbing is good for mental health.
Listening to music while you’re doing it could easily distract you from the mental alertness needed to send the next move, which might hamper your performance or cause you to fall, which could end in injury. Or you might just miss out on that deep thinking Beta brain wave state, which has been shown to increase stamina and endurance, because you’re also humming along to your favorite song lyric.
Wren explains that earlier this year they did get into the habit of wearing headphones while climbing, initially because the music played over the speakers at the climbing center really grated on their nerves – something I can relate to. That said, as time went on they realized that their dependence on headphones was have an unwanted affect.
"I remember finding myself more and more in my own head while at the center to the point that I was becoming frustrated at climbs and feeling increasingly anxious while climbing. At the point where this anxiety was starting pretty much as soon as I entered the centre I took a moment to analyze why I was no longer feeling relaxed by climbing and decided to see if taking my headphones off would help. Within minutes I felt able to smile at strangers again when our eye happen to meet and felt the tension inside of me melt away bit by bit as those smiles were returned."
There aren’t any studies on whether music impacts your focus while bouldering (although a 2020 study indicates music may help with endurance exercise, like running) and it may all depend on the individual and the type of music. But a 2021 article published by Texas A&M cites research that shows listening to music while studying may make studying more enjoyable, but is probably distracting.
Can we translate this to bouldering? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s definitely worth considering that you’ll focus better without it, and that might make you a better climber, even if initially you don’t enjoy it as much as you do with a soundtrack.
2. It might be dangerous
If you’re convinced that the type of music you listen to helps you maintain mental focus when you’re bouldering, you might be right – but that might not necessarily be safe for you or for other climbers.
When you drown out the sounds of what’s going on around you, you could miss out on noises that tell you other climbers are below you, warning you of a hazard or need your help or attention. This risk is elevated if you’re bouldering outdoors because there could be other hazards, ranging from rockfall to approaching bears, that you might want to be able to hear coming.
If you absolutely must climb with headphones, I’d strongly recommend wearing those bone conduction headphones I mentioned earlier so that you’re aware of ambient noise.
3. You might miss out
The day I met Wren, I spent a good ten minutes coveting their climbing technique (strong and agile, a joy to watch) before chatting to them. On a rest break, I approached them and we ended up chatting for half an hour. We made friends, I bought some of their homemade hot sauce, and we agreed we might meet up for some bouldering some time down the line. This social aspect of bouldering is a really important part of the sport, that you could miss out if you're wearing headphones.
"One thing I really love about climbing walls is that it does feel a lot easier (for me and I think a lot of other people) to instigate conversations with people they don't yet know as there is a very obvious shared interest and a strong culture of support – even amongst some of the more competitive contingents! So yeah, this beautiful aspect of climbing does begin to erode when increasing numbers of people wear headphones as a default," muses Wren.
You might go bouldering by yourself and be quite happy with that arrangement, but there’s a lot to be said for being open to meeting other climbers. It’s definitely possible that listening to music helps you with your own performance, but I probably wouldn’t ever approach you to say hi or ask a question if I can tell you’re listening to music, and who knows what we both might miss out on then (good hot sauce, for starters).
It might just be a casual friendly chat that lifts your spirits, but you could also find a lifelong climbing partner, learn something new or help a budding climber with a problem they’ve been too afraid to try. It’s probably the best part of climbing indoors, in my opinion anyway, and feels increasingly important in a world where we live in our own separate boxes more and more.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.