The Downside of Tight Climbing Shoes

After you have been climbing for awhile, the next natural step is to start looking for your first pair of climbing shoes, also jokingly called “rubbers”. While the decision is not particularly difficult at face value, there are a lot of factors that must be taken into account before you throw down cash for a pair of shoes: comfort, stretch, climbing style, indoor vs. outdoor use, stink factor, closure system, etc. One important factor that is often overlooked and rarely discussed is current and future foot health–exciting stuff, I know. But it’s better to know before, rather than after, that you are potentially damaging your feet.

A lot of people often relate better performance to tighter shoes. This logic grew out of the function of a climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are made out of a specialized rubber that aids in the wearer’s attempt to “stick” to the wall while relying on less downward pressure put on the wearer’s feet. Climbing shoes allow one to edge (using the edge of the front of the shoe) on small holds and smear (using the friction of the rubber on the bottom of the front of the shoe) on sloppy or flat surfaces, among other uses. Climbing shoes are also created with two design functions in mind: firming the midsole and bringing your foot to a near-single point (similar function to pointe shoes in dance) that turns the foot into a talon of sorts. These two design functions allow climbers to stand on and leverage off their toes without bending the foot so that the climbers can reach a little bit further.

What does the design function of a climbing shoe have to do with foot health? Since climbing shoes bring your foot to a point, typically at the big toe, the shoe causes the foot to sit, stay, and work in an abnormal shape (similar to pointe shoes or high heels). Forcing the foot into tight shoes that alter the natural shape and anatomy of the foot can cause many problems: climber’s toe pain, hallux valgus, nail loss, and other chronic foot pains. There’s also the risk of impact injuries from landing on your feet while they are shoved inside tight climbing shoes. Some of these pains can be so intense that you will be unable to climb, or even walk, and the injuries may require surgery to fix the problem.

How can you avoid or negate some of these issues? While there is not a lot of research about how to avoid these very common foot pains, the best thing to do is to buy climbing shoes that are the proper size (i.e. not super tight) and take them off immediately after climbing (i.e. do not hang out or walk around with your climbing shoes on). These are not foolproof tips, but they can help slow down and prevent some of the issues and pains that come with climbing shoes. Climbing shoes with a firmer midsoles and wider toe boxes also have their advantages, depending on the pain you are trying to avoid.

Now as for the other factors to consider when picking out your first pair of climbing shoes, there are plenty of websites that provide “How tos” to help you determine what type and style of climbing shoes you should buy. There are also a lot of sites that provide climbing shoe reviews. Below you will find links to websites that I have used to learn about how to choose shoes and for reviews of shoes. A quick Google search will provide you with more information and reviews.

REI’s How to Choose the Best Climbing Shoes

Best Men’s Rock Climbing Shoes (last updated in 2017)

Best Climbing Shoes for Women Review (last updated in 2015, but the reviews are still useful and relevant)

Stay bould and go climb something!


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