Claire Buhrfeind on Her Mental Game and Training for the Olympics

At only 19 years old, Claire Buhrfeind has already become one of the most dominant forces in the world of competition climbing. Many climbers choose to focus on one discipline — lead climbing, speed climbing or bouldering — but Buhrfeind has found a way to be good, really good, at all three.

At the 2017 IFSC Youth World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, the Texas native took first place in the female junior category for both lead and bouldering. Six months later at the 2018 USA Climbing National Championships, she topped the podium for both lead and speed climbing, becoming the first person ever to hold both titles at once. She’s no slouch in the outdoor realm either, sending a 5.14a and two 5.14c’s in two days at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky in November 2017.

In between qualifying rounds during the IFSC World Cup in Chamonix, France, Buhrfeind spoke with Momentous about competing against her friends, staying psyched on training, and fulfilling a lifelong goal of going to the Olympics.

I have always loved the Olympics and wanted to be a part of it, but I never thought I would have the opportunity, especially in a sport like climbing. When I found out climbing would be included, it was like this dream I had was suddenly right in front of me. It’s very exciting — I might have the chance to be an Olympian! I don’t know if I’ll be able to qualify, but if I don’t focus on training and put everything I have into it, I’ll always regret it.  

This year I’m traveling a ton on the competition circuit so I know what it will feel like for next year when it’s all about the Olympics. I want to gain knowledge and experience, and know what I’m getting into, so I can perform at my best. The 2019 competition season will be a more serious learning process on how to be prepared in all three disciplines year-round. You need to be ready for everything, and keep everything on lock at the same time — power, endurance, strength, and speed. It's going to be interesting.  

All the little things matter so much more: the hours in the gym training and preparing, mental preparation, sleep, recovery, nutrition, everything that will give you an extra edge when you’re competing.

I started climbing during summer camps at a local family fitness center where I live in Plano, Texas. They had a rock wall, and my mom had to lie to get me in. You had to be 6 years old, but I was 5. I guess I was good because they asked me to join the recreational team, and my mom had to fess up that she had lied about my age.  

Once you start competing for the adult USA Climbing team, you’re really elevated, and the World Cups are a whole new level. All the little things matter so much more: the hours in the gym training and preparing, mental preparation, sleep, recovery, nutrition, everything that will give you an extra edge when you’re competing. You have to hone in every aspect of your preparation to give yourself the best possible shot to win.

Mental preparation is really important. On the day of a competition, I like to write in my journal about my experience from when I wake up, how I’m feeling, how my warmup went, how I felt when I was competing, how I performed, what I can do next time to improve, how I feel on the wall, little things like that.

I’ve been competing with a lot of these girls for almost a decade, and we’re all really good friends. It’s a really cool shared experience where we all understand how much work we’ve put in to get to the level we’re at. Competitions are a collaborative environment. Even though we’re competing against each other, you want them to have their best day and you want to have your best day, and you just hope that your best day is a little better.

Competitions are all about competing with myself, which is I think what most climbers would say. Speed climbing is really fun and different from other styles of climbing, and it fits my competitive nature. I’ve always focused on the difficulty disciplines of lead and bouldering, and speed was a side thing that I was able to be successful at. I’ve never been really dialed — I don’t time myself when I’m training and I don’t even know my personal record — but I’m trying to do that this year, to perfect every little thing and get more consistent and smooth runs. 

Every time I compete, I’m chasing that feeling when everything goes right and I find that perfect moment when I can execute all of my training. When everything clicks, I’m able to enjoy it and have fun. I love the mental challenge, to quiet my mind under pressure.

I have a balanced diet, and I know my body since I’ve been doing this for so long. I try to have a nice variety, a good amount of veggies and protein, and I’m eating fruit constantly. Especially traveling so much, I always have Momentous with me to make sure I’m getting what my body needs for training and recovery. I don’t stick to anything specific like gluten-free or vegan. For breakfast, I like yogurt with fruit, oats or granola. My lunches are easy and quick: a bed of spinach with sunny-side-up eggs and olive oil, salt and pepper. I’m always leaving my house to go somewhere else, usually the gym, so cut-up fruit, sliced tomatoes with salt, pepper and basil, veggies and hummus, or apples with almond butter. I snack constantly and rarely sit down for lunch. Breakfast, five snacks and dinner, which is a protein like chicken or salmon and a salad. I love to make homemade pasta, too.

The mental game is something I’ve had to work a lot on, but now I feel good about my confidence and mindset going into competitions. I’ve gained a lot of perspective over the years from competing so much and being able to refer back to how much I love it. Even if I don’t feel fully prepared or I have doubts, I tell myself, “You have to do what you can with what you have.”

In the moment, there’s no more training to be done. You’re as prepared as you can be, you have to just do it. You have to learn how to calm down, ground yourself, and go forward as fresh as possible. When I was about 12, and I would worry about how I performed, my coach would ask me, “Is your worrying helping or hurting?” It never helped, so I had to reframe it in my own way and only do things that are helpful. 

—Interview by Julie Ellison

—Photos by Colette McInerney

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