We see it much too often: Climbers putting on their climbing shoes with pain written all over their faces, only to take them off as soon as humanly possible with a huge sigh of relief.
Or what about those poor souls who run to the wall on their heels so that they don’t put too much pressure on their forefoot? I know, it’s a dreadful sight when you see a climber with shoes too tight!
But, how tight should climbing shoes be? Are they really supposed to hurt? Can wearing your shoes too tight have negative consequences, or should we all just stop being such wimps and grin and bear it? After all, you’ve got to reach the next level of difficulty, right?
Climbing began with climbers wearing boots studded with cleats and hobnails. Then, a long time ago, climbers realised that they could climb more difficult routes by wearing special climbing shoes. This was not only due to the special soles but also due to the fact that shoes became tighter, which resulted in climbers having more sensitivity in their toes for small footholds.
This, in turn, resulted in a back and forth between increasingly difficult routes and more and more aggressive shoes. What all this meant for climbers’ feet, however, was completely disregarded for a very long time.
There are so many climbers who wear the wrong shoes and even more who wear their shoes too tight! And, the reasons why they do this are manifold.
Creatures of habit
Climbers are used to wearing their shoes tight. After all, even well-fitting climbing shoes tend to be much tighter than your regular casual shoes. Over the years, climbers have just become increasingly desensitised, and now, tight shoes just feel right! Whereas a beginner would moan incredulously, “Are you sure my foot’s supposed to fit in there?”, experienced climbers would simply shove their feet in the shoes in hopes that they would indeed stretch half a size. And, if they didn’t, well, they’d just have to live with it!
This phenomenon is not just limited to climbing shoes. We’ve become so used to wearing tight shoes that we unwittingly buy our casual shoes too tight as well. We simply don’t know any better! After all, we’re used to them being much tighter! And so it continues…
No pain, no gain
“Climbing shoes are supposed to hurt” – this little pearl of wisdom is just as untrue as it is persistent. It simply leads to beginners buying shoes that don’t fit. Which is completely unnecessary! You don’t even need aggressive shoes in the beginning, but rather “simpler” shoes that will allow you to develop your footwork and technique.
Yes, your climbing shoes should be relatively tight at first, especially if you buy a pair that is supposed to stretch after a few hours of climbing. But, the shoes should never make your feet hurt, especially if you’ve had a chance to break them in over a period of several weeks! But, if they do hurt, you should seriously consider exchanging the shoes for a different pair.
How do the shoes expand?
Well, they do it all by themselves! Leather shoes are particularly good at this. So, just keep climbing! And then climb some more! Why? This will allow the shoe to conform to the shape of your foot. If the mere thought of having to stretch out your new climbing shoes with your own two feet makes you break out in sweat, you may just want to buy a half size larger.
But, bear in mind that climbing shoes expand when they get warm. So, don’t be surprised if they feel really comfortable after two hours of climbing and then awfully tight the very next day.
The better you climb, the more aggressive the shoe
This is yet another very popular rumour in the world of climbing. The better you are at climbing, the more aggressive your shoes are. Or vice versa, if you want to show everybody how good of a climber you are, you wear an aggressive climbing shoe.
Have you ever notice what shoe Alex Honnold wears on his free solo ascents? The La Sportiva TC Pro, among others. I mean, it’s a good shoe, but it’s by no means a MACHINE.
When deciding what shoes to wear, professionals and other experienced climbers differentiate between disciplines and routes. Not a single one of them would ever think of climbing in overly tight shoes with a lot of heel tension on a multi-pitch climb. Except when it comes to the crux, and for that they have other shoes.
Performance and embarrassment are often much closer to each other than you think. If you were climbing an alpine route with multiple pitches in a extremely aggressive shoe, it’d be rather embarrassing. Why? Well, because it’s completely unnecessary. On the other hand, if you managed to climb crazy roof routes in a slipper like the Anazasi, you’d surely earn the respect of those around you.
But is it really bad to wear your climbing shoes too tight?
Based on an article written by Volker Schöffel in 1999, here are some of the various “risks” of wearing the wrong climbing shoes:
- Calluses and pressure points: These things don’t have to be bad, but they can be very painful, open up and get infected. Not to mention, they’re ugly!
- Nail bed infection: This occurs because climbers tend to cut their toenails increasingly shorter in order to alleviate the pain caused by their tight shoes. More often than not, they end up cutting into the nail bed. The worst case scenario? If such an infection goes untreated, it may require surgery!
- Subungual hematoma (bleeding under a toenail): It’s not as bad as it sounds, but is painful and common.
- Bunion: According to bergsteigen.com, 54% of climbers have this as opposed to 4% of the “normal population”. Bunions are quite the treacherous little malady. It won’t bother you all that much when you’re young, but as you get older, it’ll you’ll really start to notice it. If it gets bad enough, it will require surgery.
- Hallux rigidus: This describes partial stiffness of the joint in the big toe as a result of overexertion. It can occur in relatively young people as well.
- Dermatomycosis (fungus): This has less to do with the fit of your shoes than it does with hygiene. Unpleasant for you and your climbing buddies.
According to Dr. Volker Schöffel, modern climbing shoes that are worn in the wrong size or too tight are to blame for several of these ailments.
The surprising thing about this is: Climbers worry so much about their fingers, shoulders, arms and neck, applying all sorts of lotions, tape and other methods in order to prevent injury, whilst often completely ignoring their feet! When researching this topic, I came across countless articles on all sorts of extremities but only one serious text (from 2004) on the topic of shoes and foot ailments.
What can be done?
Easy – wear comfortable shoes! Pay attention to both fit and size when choosing a pair of climbing shoes. There are so many models out there now that you’ll surely be able to find the right size and fit for you. By they way, size and fit are particularly important when it comes to picking out climbing shoes for children, as their feet are still developing. So, do make sure that their shoes aren’t too tight.
Some advice on buying the right climbing shoes can be found in our blog post A buyer’s guide to climbing shoes and our climbing shoe sizing guide. This is where you can find some useful information on the right size and different foot shapes.
As always, use common sense. If your feet hurt and get infected, something’s not right! And keep this in mind: If such problems reoccur or just won’t to go away, the consequences could be very serious. Obviously, only with healthy feet will you be able to reach your full potential as a climber!
I used to make fun of them, but now I, too, have two pairs of climbing shoes: a more comfortable one with more room for my toes (Scarpa Vapor for women) and a high-performance shoe that I primarily use for bouldering (La Sportiva Python). But I only wear that one for the tougher boulder problems.
This is what I have been doing for around a year now and I’ve noticed just how easy it is to get accustomed to wearing wider climbing shoes. Now I primarily wear the ones from Scarpa, and my performance hasn’t suffered as a result. Quite on the contrary, learning how to stand on small footholds with a softer shoe has actually improved my footwork and technique.
One last thing
Heel tension or asymmetrical lasts don’t have to be bad for your feet. There are even people who claim that a shoe with a lot of heel tension and an aggressive downturn is the healthiest option. Unfortunately, we were unable to find any medical literature on this, though.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask our experts in customer service. They are available during the week from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. and can be reached by phone at 03 33 33 67058 or via e-mail.
There’s a lot going on in the climbing and outdoor industry. New products are being invented, existing ones are being reworked and improved, and we, too, are learning more every day. And, of course, we would like to share this knowledge with our customers. That’s why we regularly revise the articles at base camp. So don’t be surprised if a few things have changed after a few months. This post was last updated on 30/10/2015.”