Fancy Footwork: Six Foot-Focused Tips to Help You Glide up the Rock With Ease

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Paige Claassen eyes her next foot placement on The Catalyst (5.14a/b), the Fins, Idaho.

Paige Claassen eyes her next foot placement on The Catalyst (5.14a/b), the Fins, Idaho.

If you watch the video of Margo Hayes on La Rambla (5.15a), you’ll see she never readjusts her feet. She stabs her shoes into the limestone with precision, placing them correctly every time. And if you watch Janja Garnbret climbing in a World Cup, you’ll notice that every time her feet swing away from the wall, they return to the volumes effortlessly, without readjustment. Or perhaps your moment of realization will be at the local crag, where a strongwoman will dance up her project without much upper-body effort, weighting her feet the entire way.

When my foot slipped below the first clip at the 2004 Youth Nationals in Sacramento, costing me a spot in finals, I knew I had to devote serious attention to my footwork. In the past 15 years, I’ve worked hard to keep my feet from skittering and skating around the wall in search of the next foothold. It all comes down to the following six fundamental practices.

1. Warm up with quiet feet

Poorly placed feet bang against the wall—you can hear them scraping and knocking, especially at the gym. To climb with quiet feet is to climb with efficiently placed feet. This means you place your feet correctly the first time, rather than needing to readjust. To practice, watch each foot as you slowly place it on a specific point on each foothold. This intentional placement, while slower at first, will become more natural and will ensure you can trust your feet. Your climbing will also become noticeably quieter.

The best time to practice new skills, such as quiet feet, is while warming up, as you’re not physically or mentally fatigued. So next time you’re at the gym, try it: Engage your core to place your foot in a slow, controlled manner, rather than letting gravity pull your foot toward its next placement—i.e., don’t let your foot ooze down the wall. You’ll find your foot has to hover over a foothold for just a moment, to make gentle contact with the hold.

2. Weight your toes

While new climbers often rely on their arms to pull, seasoned climbers use their legs to push. Our legs are the strongest part of our body and are accustomed to supporting our body weight, unlike our weaker and more injury-prone upper body. By weighting our toes while climbing, we recruit our stronger lower half to do the hard work, conserving crucial upper-body energy for the crux and protecting our fingers and shoulders.

As you climb, consciously keep your weight on your feet and your arms relaxed. Loosen your grip in order to force your feet to learn what it feels like to support your body weight. (This is easier to practice on a vertical wall than in a cave.) As you move, push with your legs, as though the pressure created by your toes—and in particular your big toe—might push the foothold into the ground.

3. Plan your moves

Tunnel vision can prevent you from knowing where to move next, and whether your hands or feet need to make the next play. As a result, you may walk your feet all over in search of the optimal body position. While moving your feet before your hands is smart, it’s important to have a plan so you don’t wear yourself out experimenting. If you’re in a stable position, take a moment to look around, observe potential footholds to either side, and formulate a simple plan before making experimental movements.

For example, if your next handhold is up and left, then look for feet out right to push off of, or for a high left foot that you can wrap your left toe around to pull you up and left. Understanding body position will help you plan your next steps in order to transition your weight intentionally and with maximum efficiency.

4. Engage your core

On steep terrain, do you find that once your feet either slip off or swing away, they dangle limply before you lose your grip and fall? Careful foot placements and core engagement will prevent your feet from slipping in the first place. However, some moves require intentional foot cuts, in which your feet must leave a foothold after helping launch your body toward the next handhold. In this latter scenario, use the momentum generated by the launch to swing your feet back in to the wall—it may sound counterintuitive, but the farther back your feet swing, the more momentum you’ll have to swing them back in. As you swing, bend your knees to keep your hips close to the wall while giving your feet maximum airtime to generate momentum. Avoid going “limp noodle” (a slow foot cut with straight legs), as this position fails to generate the needed momentum.

When your feet return to the wall, your toes will ideally latch their target hold on the first try. To ensure this happens, pull your belly button toward your spine in pulses to flex your lower abdominals; you’ll also engage this quick pulse the moment your toes contact the wall. If you fail to make contact on your first swing, kick/generate momentum from your core to keep swinging until you stick the target foot—exactly like crossing the monkey bars when you were a kid.

5. Use all of your foot

The inside edge beneath your big-toe knuckle is the most intuitive part of the foot for new climbers to use, because the “frog leg” position allows us to get the most rubber on a hold. And while standing on your big toe feels secure, if you look at your shoe, it’s covered in rubber! This means almost every part of it is meant to come in contact with the rock.

So educate yourself on the many foot techniques. Toe hooks employ your toe knuckles to hook under a hold. The heel is meant for heel hooks, at many different angles, to help lock you into the wall and suck your hip in to make long reaches. You can even press the top—the lace or Velcro area—into the wall in a toe drag to help keep your hips in when making long reaches.

Take a look at your go-to shoe. Does it have a hard edge surrounding the toe, a soft heel that could slot into a narrow hook, or rubber on the uppers you could use to toe hook? Your shoes can give you clues about how you should be using your feet. Your feet are strong, capable, and can be used creatively beyond basic edging to help relieve strain on your upper body. So experiment with placing different parts of your feet on holds—as with “quiet feet,” a good time is while warming up. Use your heel, hook your toe beneath an undercling, or stand on your shoe’s outer edge (the pinky-toe side) to give your arches a break.

6. Size for Success

When I first transitioned into wearing high-performance, downturned shoes, I took the tight-fit mantra too literally—like, close to foot-
binding torture. I crammed my foot into a European size 35, two sizes down from what I wear now. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a nasty case of bursitis that required intensive stretching and ultimately surgery to alleviate. So avoid my mistake by sizing correctly.

While sending/redpoint shoes should feel tight and slightly constraining, with no air pockets around the shoe and your toes pushed into a powerful (slightly bent) position, there shouldn’t be pain, especially surrounding the Achilles heel. Think of a well-fitting glove, but for your feet. If walking a few steps from your lace-up seat to the climb leaves you wincing, bump up a half size. Remember, pain will distract you from focusing on your footwork—aim for uncomfortable, not torturous. Additionally, overly tight shoes tend to stretch more so the pain may not even be worth it. Crunch the toes but don’t bind them.

Paige Claassen is a Colorado-based professional climber, with 5.14+ redpoints to her name, including a recent tick of Shadowboxing (5.14d) in Rifle.

Take AIM Adventure U's new Precision Footwork course with pro climber Paige Claassen—your feet and rock shoes will thank you.