Improve Your Sport Climbing (12): Technique, Part 6 (EASY-HARD)


Primary Technical Issues (A): Footwork

If I had to pick out the No. 1 technical issue that I observe most often when teaching climbing clinics, I would choose footwork, hands down. Thankfully, it’s also one of the more easily corrected technical problems, at least on a basic level.

One of the biggest reasons why so many climbers struggle with inefficient and sloppy footwork actually has to do with a tactical decision: choice of footwear and more importantly, fit of footwear. Beyond selecting a well-made brand of climbing shoes (like Scarpa, ahem, shameless sponsor plug moment), you’ll want to try on all the shoes in the line to find the ones that fit your feet the best. Ideally, climbing shoes should fit your bare foot like a glove, with as little dead space as possible. Your climbing shoes should fit tightly enough that you shouldn’t be able to walk to the crags in them, and you should want to take them off in between pitches while you belay or rest…but not so tight that your feet go numb or are in agony/distracting while you climb.

Now, I know there are still some climbers out there, and some very good ones at that, who wear board-stiff climbing shoes with socks. That’s fine, and it works for them. But again, as I pointed out already – if most of the best in a sport (and I’m talking sport climbing and bouldering here, not all-day traditional or alpine climbs) make a particular tactical or technical decision more often than not, there’s probably a pretty good reason for it. Tightly fitting (but not excruciatingly painful) climbing shoes with little dead space can increase your precision in foot placements, improving your sensitivity and ability to confidently use even the most unlikely of tiny edges and smears as holds. You can moderate your body weight with more efficiency, lessening the likelihood of feet “popping,” which is almost always a pilot error in imprecisely placing the foot or over or under-weighting the foothold.

Beyond these basics, you can explore the whole beautiful range of shoes available out there, each of which promises different performance parameters depending on its construction. I won’t go into great detail about this, but I will say that one’s choice of shoes can really make a big difference in a person’s ability to climb or not climb a route, especially when that route is near their true physical limits. Picking the right shoes for the job is a smart tactical decision (and yes, tactics is the topic of the next series, but there’s some inevitable overlap in these two areas); it will help you develop solid footwork, a basic climbing technique that should be addressed from day one (remember, it’s harder to unlearn poor techniques than to learn techniques properly right from the start).

I could honestly write an entire book about footwork, but I’m going to distill it here to keep it simple and give you an idea of what to work on if footwork is an issue for you (again, ask your partners if you’re not sure – they probably can tell you right away). Five basic footwork primers:

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