At some point in the course of climbing’s history, the idea equating tighter shoes with higher performance became a truth as unassailable as the granite of El Cap.
The culture of tight shoes took hold in the community, persuading generation upon generation to perpetuate this masochistic ritual of binding one’s feet in painfully tight shackles of rubber and leather, pushing through the discomfort, and later raving about how much “fun” climbing is.
My feet have actually shrunk a whole size after nearly 15 years of crunching my little piggies into the tightest-fitting climbing shoes I could stand. I was as deluded as anyone about the gains in performance I’d get from bound feet. Well, I stand here today, hobbit-footed and humbled, to tell you that your shoes are too tight, too stiff and too painful. And they’re not only holding back your climbing, but causing lasting damage to your feet.
Bunions. Corns. Nerve or blood vessel compression (which causes that tingling sensation you feel after edging in a pair of tight, new shoes). Hallux valgus (when the big toe becomes angled in). These are just some of the problems associated with wearing overly tight shoes.
A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medicine Association surveyed 104 rock climbers and discovered that 81% of them suffered acute or chronic pain during or after climbing. “The authors propose that this morbidity has biomechanical [causes] related to the common practice among rock climbers of wearing climbing shoes that are smaller than their street shoes.”
There are other problems with wearing too-tight footwear. When the toes are bonded into one unit—as they are in tight climbing shoes—it makes it very difficult for the foot and ankle to absorb the impact of a fall. This could easily explain all the boulderers you see out there hobbling around on crutches.
When it comes to young climbers, you need to be particularly careful. A study of the German Junior National Team found a correlation between incidences of hallux valgus and time spent climbing indoors. In other words, the longer you wear tight-fitting shoes, the more likely your foot is to become deformed. Climbing footwear for kids should be flexible, not cut into the Achilles tendon, not contain too much cushioning, not be restrictive, and be well ventilated because kids’ feet tend to sweat a lot. And because kids can grow three shoe sizes in a year, shoes should be checked and replaced often.
My theory about the origin of the culture of tight-fitting shoes is that it’s related the fact that early iterations of climbing footwear were so poorly designed, climbers sized their shoes down in order to compensate for what was, essentially, bad fit.
There is actually very little evidence to support the idea that super-tight shoes increase performance. I spend quite a bit of time reviewing new climbing shoes. At this point, I’ve tested more than half of the climbing shoes on the market. After trying on so many models after so many years, my opinion about what makes a great or high-performance climbing shoe has changed in some ways, and stayed the same in others.
If I had to generalize about what I’ve discovered, I could say that the stiffer the climbing shoe, the more likely it is to be uncomfortable, especially when it’s even slightly too snug. Conversely, the softer the climbing shoe, the more likely it is to be comfortable, even if it is quite snug. Obviously, craftsmanship plays a huge role in finding that softness/stiffness balance, not to mention the ability to leave zero dead space in the shoe without making it too painful to wear.
Today, when I’m searching for an ideal high-performance gym or bouldering shoe, I want a super soft slipper that fits close enough that there are no dead spaces in the heel or under the arch of my foot. But when I’m looking for a shoe for all-day trad climbs, I want the support of a slightly stiffer model. Here, I’ll be looking for a shoe that is roomy enough to allow me to wiggle my toes and even wear a lightweight silk sock underneath, but not be so roomy that the shoe rolls over the top of my toes when I’m edging.
Generally, for sport/bouldering/gym shoes, look for a fit where all your toes are touching the front and are slightly curled in your shoes. You need to be able to press with all parts of the foot, not just the big toe. The key is you want it to be snug, not painfully tight. The right shoe allows your toes to gently curl but isn’t painful to wear. If you’re looking for a crack-climbing slipper, your toes need to be flat, but should still be touching the edge of the shoe.
When you’re shopping, also be aware of whether a shoe is lined or unlined. Lined shoes don’t stretch, unlined shoes stretch a lot. Some people automatically assume that their climbing shoes are going to stretch at least a size, and buy too-small shoes as a result. However, there really are only a few unlined shoes actually still made; most shoes on the market have a lining.
In all cases, a great high-performance design and last, coupled with proper fit, will create an ideal situation in which you can climb your best but not at the expense of your feet. With nearly 150 different shoes on the market today, your odds of finding a shoe that fits your foot are pretty good. That said, of all the shoes I’ve tested, there are only a few that I consider to work for me. As you’re looking for the right climbing shoe, just remember that going for tightness to compensate for a poor-fitting design not only won’t help your climbing but will do lasting damage to your foot for no reason whatsoever.
Go for fit. Above brand. Above reviews. Above what others say. Above what famous athletes wear. And make sure that fit is comfortable. If you’re in pain after one pitch, you should either size up or move on to a different model.