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.

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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.

Another concern is how tight-fitting climbing footwear will impact the development of a child’s foot. According to the blog of Tom Bond, a physiotherapist in the U.K., “Any children’s shoes that are too tight or too small will limit the growth of a child’s foot at the key stages of their development. A poorly developed foot will impact a child for the rest of their life.” He cites a study of the German Junior National Team, which 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.  Bond suggests that 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.

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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 recently finished reviewing 21 new climbing shoes for 2014. 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.

 

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  • Thomas Bond

    Thanks for citing me in your article, very well written and good advice!

    Further info on climbing injuries, my blog is: http://thomasbondphysio.blogspot.co.uk/

    Thanks
    Tom

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  • Kent Johnson

    Thanks for the article. I have a question, though. Have shoe makes ever explained to you why their shoes vary so widely is “size”? Size 43 in 5.10 is so not 43 in Evolv, for example. Do they feel any responsibility for endorsing and adhering to standards so that buying $150 shoes isn’t a crapshoot? What do people who live in remote ares do when they need to try on 15 pair of shoes to find the right size, let alone fit?

  • Bella

    Lined shoes may not “stretch” but they break in so you have to account for that as well.

  • hirukaru

    I should have read this before buying my shoes I guess. The guy at the climbing hall said that a little bit of pain was normal in the start of the type of shoe I bought and that it will stretch/break in 1/2 sizes. I just hope it stretches/breaks in at least 1 size, cause then they will be tight but less painful. (They even recommended going even smaller then the one I got, XD good I didnt go for that though)

    Greatly written.

  • Travis

    I appreciate this article. I have a pair of Miuras that I have been trying to “break in” for a couple of years now. I have had a couple of ok sessions in them but for the most part they kill my feet. The guy at the store told me “the smaller the better” So I squeezed into the smallest size I could. They didn’t hurt in the store but killed with climbing. I kept thinking they would break in. They almost hurt more now because they are so crusty stuff from sweat they don’t flex at all. Its good to hear that smaller isn’t better. I wish I would have know this. The bummer is I purchased them at REI thinking I would be able to return them if they didn’t break in properly. Well then they changed there 100% guarantee return policy and will not let me return them for a different size. Kinda sad.

  • Corissa Yow

    Does anyone have any experience with how much Cowdura stretches (or does it?) I have a pair of Anasazi LV’s which may be the “perfect shoe” for me. They are currently super tight but NOT painful. Does this sound promising? I don’t think I could wear them for multi-pitch climbs because they are far from comfortable and yet perhaps for sport climbing they might be an excellent red-point shoe…

  • CapsPsycho

    I tried climbing for the very first time an an indoor facility over the weekend. It seemed ok, but I didn’t have the best time. One of the major reasons was foot pain while wearing the rental shoes. I wear a size 14. I first asked for size 14. Painfully tight. I asked for size 15. Perhaps marginally less tight, but not by much. That was the biggest size they had.

    I have enought problems with my feet as it is – plantar fasciitis, flat feet, mortons toe. The last thing I need is to give myself new foot problems on the weekend for fun.

    Is there a type of climbing shoe that I might have a better time in? Is there a way to shop for a comfortably-fitted shoe in person somewhere? Or am I just going to need to order sizes 16-18 from Zappos and send most of them back?

    • Do you know what brand you tried on?

      • CapsPsycho

        Evolv was the manufacturer. Not sure what model – it’s not showing up on Zappos, and it would stand to reason that it would be an older model since they didn’t look new at all.

        As far as distinguishing features, it was mostly blue and black with some orange highlights. Fastened with two velcro straps.

        • Hmm, the bummer is you have a massive foot! You might want to try Scarpa, which in general is built for wider feet, and that extra width might help with comfort.

          This shoe from Scarpa comes in a size 48 (size 15) https://www.scarpa.com/origin and it’s not that expensive.

          This shoe from Five Ten is quite soft, and might help with pain, and it comes in a size 15 as well http://www.fiveten.com/us/climbing/neutral/rogue-vcs-blue-charcoal

          The Mythos also comes in a size 48 (15) and is a favorite for many beginners: http://www.sportiva.com/products/footwear/climbingapproach/mythos

          You can probably find all three on Backcountry.com, so check that out. It’d be easy to order all three, and return whatever ones you don’t like or don’t fit.

          Do you have any friends who also have big feet–but not quite as big as yours? If so, you can ask them to wear your new climbing shoes for a few hours, and they’ll stretch it out for you and break them in.

          Another tip some people have used, but I’ve never tried, is to wear your shoes in the shower … I’m not sure I can recommend that way to go, though.

          A lot of these shoes will break in, so give them a chance. If you can get them on your feet, after a few sessions, they should break in and feel a bit better … Good luck!

          • Rebekah Miranda Fox

            So i just went through a pair of shoes that stretched out almost immediately, and they were just way too big . So, I bought a pair at the gym that I climb at and I couldn’t come close to fitting my foot into my street size (8.5) shoe so I went up to a 9 street size. They still fit extremely tight but the owner who is an experienced climber insisted that they would stretch. I’ve climbed in them about 4 separate days for about an hour and have even used the heat from a hair dryer with my feet in them to try and stretch them out but nothing will work. I have big purple circles on the knuckles of my big and second toes on each foot every time I wear them and feel like I can’t use ANY part of the front of my foot/ toes when I climb because the pain is almost unbearable which is extremely discouraging to say the least. Suggestions? Will they form to my foot or should I just give up?

          • Sounds like you need to give up those shoes. Perhaps you need a 9.5 or a higher toe box.

            I’ve just bought a pair of Tenaya Masai in 10.5. My street size is 9 and these are still tight. Not sure If i’ll keep them or get an 11. They aren’t leather so aren’t going to stretch.

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  • Joseph Rusyn

    HI, you recommended the scarpa origins. do you have any experience on how much they stretch over time? any info would be appreciated!

  • David Fleury

    I climbed for about 10 years and I am now having major issues with arthritis and weak feet. I am completely convinced that wearing shoes that were to tight is playing a part in my foot issues now,