Climbing shoes: is pain insane?

Posted by Audry Morrison on 19/10/2009
Climbing shoes - how tight is too tight?

Audry Morrison (BSc, UIAA Medcom) takes a look at the culture of tight climbing shoes. Just how tight is too tight - and are we creating problems for the future?

Buying a new pair of rock climbing shoes may be a daunting prospect for some, or not. If you are a novice climber, the choices can be bewildering. Luckily in the UK we have an extensive choice of climbing shoes from which to choose, but which shoes are appropriate for your climbing ability and style, age and foot health?

Foot shape already differs if you are an adult male, female, or young, and there are even greater variations among individuals. One foot is often slightly bigger than the other foot, larger feet are wider, the longest toe is not always the big toe, etc. Rock climbing shoes now exist to match a woman’s foot shape - generally smaller in size than a man’s with a shallower toe box area, narrow heel, and high arch. A more limited shoe range exists to meet the developmental needs of children’s feet.

As the contact area of the foot with the climbing surface is mostly limited to the toes, big toe especially, the ideal climbing shoe should allow the climber to stand on edges with bent toes, and on friction with straight toes. But in practise, many climbers have more than one pair of shoes to cater for particular climbing styles – ie stiff or sensitive soles.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no known scientific studies demonstrating that forcing one’s toes into the crimp position, especially with the big toe angled towards other toes, improves all types of climbing performance for any, or all climbers. Elite climbers wearing such shoes on hard routes often wear them when climbing recreational grades, probably out of habit. At a recreational level, it’s clear that there are a wide variety of climbing shoes worn to successfully climb grades.

The sad truth is that wearing shoes that Chris Sharma wears will not automatically make you climb like Chris Sharma. Less controversial than the heated discussions about the merits of different climbing shoes for anyone’s individual feet and climbing needs is the wealth of scientific evidence to show that regularly wearing excessively tight or irregularly shaped shoes can, and will, lead onto many health problems.

Many climbers unnecessarily accept acute and chronic foot or ankle pain as a consequence of climbing. Pain and deformity are clear evidence of mechanical disturbances of the foot that can be caused by ill-fitting shoes. Ads at climbing walls often feature notices ‘climbing shoes for sale, worn only once’ because they were too painful to wear regularly. ‘Pain is insane’ and similar health warnings and fitting advice are now appearing on climbing shoeboxes of brands such as 5.10. Perhaps its a recognition of the growing body of scientific evidence that lists a multitude of acute and chronic foot problems and deformities associated with wearing unnaturally shaped or very tight climbing shoes, or possibly a way to avoid any future litigation.

High ability climbers are generally more affected by the following reported conditions:

  • Toe deformity – claw or hammer toes
  • Splinter haemorrhage under nails (collection of blood under toe nails)
  • Bruised toes
  • Cuts
  • Corns
  • Mycosis (fungal infections)
  • Nerve compression syndromes
  • Hallux valgus (big toe angled towards other toes)
  • Disorders of the traversal arch structure in foot, but normal longitudinal arch
  • Bunions

Condition such as bunions or Hallux valgus may seem rather trivial conditions, but they will influence your ability to exert force and push off your toes when climbing, walking, or when participating in other sports. For example, consider the impact of Paula Radcliff’s single bunion on her recent string of injuries in world-class marathon running. Specialists believe this bunion was the potential cause of the other injuries she has suffered from in recent years, and it has recently been corrected surgically.

Climbers wearing tight fitting shoes essentially force their feet to become a solid unit that cannot absorb the shock of a significant fall in the normal way. This can stress the ankle’s lateral ligamentous complex. Recent case studies have showed that even if cuts on the foot are tended to, and x-rays exclude any fracture (ie calcaneus fracture it is important for the medical examination to exclude possible ligament damage around the ankle, using local anaesthetic if necessary.

All the above listed conditions occur when regularly wearing any tight or irregularly shaped shoes, not just climbing shoes (ie high heels). Shoeless societies do not have such deformities. Resulting pain and deformity can go on to affect gait and even spinal mechanics.

The history of the rock climbing shoe
Historically, hardcore first ascents were made in normal shoes or hiking boots. These boots were refined by adding hobnails to the sole, just as the Roman soldiers did to their sandals to improve the wear, gripping, and the forces going through the toes. A Vibram® sole was a later advance in design, alongside a shift to wearing plimsoles from ‘Woolies’ at local crags. The first dedicated pair of climbing shoes fitted the foot very tightly, and featured industrial, high friction sticky rubber soles.

Precise contact is needed when rock climbing, requiring the shoe and foot to have precise conformity, so there should be no ‘dead space’ left in the shoe. This possibly led to the belief that a shoe that fits too tight or small was best. Possibly there was no alternative. Standard advice around 20+ years ago was to automatically buy climbing shoes around two sizes smaller than your street wear shoes. Today improved designs in climbing shoes cater for almost any foot shape and climbing style, so it is not necessary to buy shoes two sizes smaller to get a snug fit (ie toes at end of shoes, except in children). Velcro shoes can be easily removed, and laced shoes can be tied tightly to shape of your foot, especially if irregularly shaped through bunions or other foot deformities.

How to buy a rock climbing shoe
Foot size can change during the day or for other reasons. Generally the best time to buy shoes is late afternoon as the feet are slightly swollen after walking and standing all day, and so are slightly larger. Feet can also be slightly swollen in hot weather climates. If you are going to be wearing a heavy rucksack and rack for a climbing trip, this weight will also make your foot bigger. If possible, try to hold a similar weight when purchasing such shoes for an expedition – hiking and even climbing shoes if appropriate. Synthetic upper fabrics on shoes will not normally stretch , leathers will give a bit. Women tend to get more water retention in hands and feet at higher altitudes and possibly during menstrual cycle, so this too can influence shoe size.

Before buying your next pair of any shoes, consider the following.

Young feet
There are no known studies on young climbers and climbing shoes specifically, but there are studies on developmental growth. Very few manufacturers make children’s climbing shoes, so often they climb in trainers. Whatever shoes they wear, its well established that shoes should respect the growth and development of their feet as both the anatomy and function differ from adults.

Check the fit of shoes monthly as a child’s feet can grow up to three sizes in one year, and they may not complain of pain. Shoes that cramp the forefoot and have insufficient growing room encourage malformations that can become permanent and affect gait, etc. Young feet also sweat more than adult feet, so ventilation is more important.

Girls’ feet grow both in length and width in a linear way from ages 3 to 12, and mostly stop growing around age 14. In boys this respective growth is from ages 3 to 15, and stop around age 16. Girls tend to have a more delicate, slender foot with a higher arch, while boys have a much more voluminous midfoot.

By the age of 15, adult strength of the connective tissue and flexibility of the toes is achieved. Wearing excessively rigid shoes or shoes with too much cushioning can limit such development.

A youngster’s shoes should be bought a little too long and narrow, rather than too short. The edges of the shoes should be padded or soft, and not cut into the Achilles tendon or ankle.

Older Feet
Few adults remain the same foot size throughout maturity. The foot generally gets wider, and they may also have conditions such as Hallux valgus with a bunion. The forefoot height may increase from deformed toes. Older skin tends to become inelastic, dry, cool and may become thickened (hyperkeratoses). Moisturise skin to prevent fissures (small cuts) that can become infected. Constricted circulation accounts for hair loss on the outside of leg, coolness, and some loss of sensitivity. Toenails are brittle and thicker, and need regular pedicures. There is often a reduction in joint mobility and muscle-force production. Wearing excessively tight shoes is not recommended.

Diabetic Foot
(And any other vascular health conditions): Wearing excessively tight shoes is absolutely not recommended.

Bouldering
Falling onto one’s feet or body is a normal part of bouldering, and so any bouldering mat/s should be of an appropriate thickness and suitably placed to limit injuries from these falls - a more firm mat when falling straight onto one’s feet, and more soft mat when whole body landings are anticipated. At international bouldering competitions, climbers must be able to fall 3m onto a DIN 7914 standard foam mattress with a minimum thickness of 30cm. All gaps between mattresses must be sealed to prevent the foot twisting and falling into these gaps to avoid sprains and fractures. When possible, train to fall with both feet with knees facing forward, no ‘kissing knees’. In addition to fall training, ankle stabilisation exercises (using a wobble board or similar) are also recommended. Such training is normal for many competitive elite boulderers in Europe.

References:
Edelstein, J.E. 1988. Foot care for the Aging. Physical Therapy 68(12);1882-86.
Hochholzer T, Schöffl V. 2006. One move too many… (2nd edn). Lochner Verlag: Ebenhausen.
Killian RB, et al. 1998. Foot and ankle injuries related to rock climbing. The role of footwear. JAPMA 88(8);265-74.
Morrison AB, Schoffl VR 2007. Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers. Br J Sports Med 41;852-861.
Peters P. 2001. Nerve compression syndromes in sport climbers. Int J Sports Med. 22;611-17.
Schöffl V, Winkelmann HP. 1999. [Footdeformations in sportclimbers] Fußdeformitäten bei Sportkletterern. D Z Sportmed:50;73-6.
van der Putten E.P. and Snijders C.J., 2001. Shoe design for prevention of injuries in sport climbing. Applied Ergonomics 32;379-387.
Walther M, et. al. 2008. Children sport shoes – a systematic review of current literature. Foot and Ankle Surgery 14;180-189.
 


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1) Anonymous User
16/06/2012
Wow, that's a piece of an article, very good one! I think I might have too tight shoes...
2) Anonymous User
31/07/2013
i don't wear tight shoes for increased force through my toe, but I do for a more secure heel, I accept medical issues if I can climb harder
3) Anonymous User
23/07/2014
I've been bouldering for 3 months now and I have bought into three new pairs (ebay = cheap worn once shoes as mentioned above ) depending on what bouldering problems i want to climb (also for DWSing). I have UK 5.5, 4.5, 4.0 sizes. Normal shoes i am a size 4. Although i love the bigger size 5.5 as my feet never hurt, i do however find it more tricky on certain problems where me feet/toes need to be hanging on by an edge. I would suggest buying into a few pairs on the cheap if possible and then you can rotate wear. But, as the beginning said, im only an amatuer so pinch of salt etc..

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