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:
- Balls vs. toes. The balls of your feet should almost never be the part of your foot that drives your movement. Using the ball of your foot to push off a hold of is relatively sloppy and imprecise, offering way less maneuverability than your inside and outside edges (the area of your shoe on the inside of your big toe, going around it, and on the outside of the rest of your toes). You can rest on big footholds on the balls of your feet, if need be, and drop your heels (to help counter shaking-leg syndrome especially). But for precision movement and placement, aim to connect the inside or outside edge of your toes with the intended foothold, driving your entire motion from that powerful and precise placement all the way through your leg(s), your core, and into your upper body.
- Quiet feet. Try to make no noise with your feet when you climb. Virtually noiseless foot placements are the mark of solid footwork. Each placement should be deliberate and precise and efficient, so that no energy is wasted. Loud, clunky footwork shouts out that you’re not paying attention to your feet and that you’re not using them to your best advantage. Sure, every once in a while a good climber’s feet will make noise (often when completing a dynamic movement and getting the feet back on the wall), but this is an exception to the norm. Again, there’s a reason for these standards of efficiency – keeping the footwork quiet is a more efficient approach to climbing movement than having a pair of sloppy, slapping feet clunking all over the place behind a climber like a bunch of cans tied to the back of a “Just Married” car.
- Watch your foot connect with the intended hold (as C. is doing in the accompanying photo). It’s very common to get tunnel-vision, to get overly focused on the terrain that’s closer to your brain – your handholds. Look down at least as often (or more often) than you look up. Train your brain to recall handholds and other features that might become future footholds as they pass by your upper body. Climbers often look away at the last second, failing to watch the foot connect with the intended foothold and therefore placing it sloppily or imprecisely, wasting efficiency of movement by doing so.
- Keeping your weight in your feet instead of holding on for dear life with your arms and upper body was a concept that quickly became a revelation for me in climbing – I still remember, more than two decades later, the remarkable comprehension that surged through me the first day that I really understood what the other climbers were talking about when they said, “Keep your weight in your feet!” If you don’t feel like you’re relaxing and taking the weight in your lower body and really trusting your feet, then you likely have this issue right now, too. Practice lowering your body weight while on good handholds so that your arms are straight. Let your weight sink into your feet. Practicing this on good handholds on a bouldering wall near to the ground with only smears for your feet is a great way to build up the trust and understand of how much weight you can and should be able to put in your feet before they pop off the wall.
- Work on being comfortable the whole range of footholds. Don’t get addicted or fixated on only using footholds of one type, size, angle or position. Establish comfort with using footholds in every way possible, whether they’re tiny edges you’re high-stepping to, smeary back-steps, precision pockets you have to front point, or side-pulls that you drop-knee on. Don’t forget heel hooks and toe hooks and bicycles, either. If you have no idea what some or all of the above are, make a list and start learning. The only way to get comfortable will all sizes, styles, angles and positions of footholds is to get accustomed to using all of them with precision – developing an instinctive understanding of which foothold makes the most sense when and why for you, and how to take it and use it efficiently. Again: repetition, repetition, repetition.
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!