Walking on water wasn’t built in a day". Jack Kerouac

Some climbers, like Patick Edlinger seem to flow effortlessly up the rock. Like dancers, they have an ability to move, a kinesthetic ability, that is natural and far beyond what most of us can achieve. The majority of climbers are more mechanical in movement or at the other end of the scale, grunt and thrash up the wall. Technique is a challenge and takes effort to learn for most of us.

How do we best learn technique? In many sports, like skiing, the overall movement is broken down into its component parts and the student is given practice exercises that are repeated over and over. Eventually the elements are put together to produce the overall desired movement.

One critical element of climbing technique is footwork. While commonly talked of as a separate part of climbing technique, it must be remembered that body position, body strength and the nature of the movement heavily influence footwork.

When I learned to climb little information and no opportunity for instruction was available in regard to technique. Over the years, I have gotten in the habit of watching climber’s feet when they climb. For the most part, learning technique in climbing happened through a process that combined  watching and modeling better climbers at the crags through trial and error. Even today I am unable to find much useful information on improving footwork.

I believe that learning to climb in gyms has paradoxically served to decrease the quality of footwork technique for many climbers. It is true that gyms allow many of us to do a lot more climbing and as a result practice many more foot placements. However, it is also true that because the holds protrude from the wall, climbers get into the habit of placing their foot about 2 inches above the hold and dropping them down onto the hold. This is not a good habit. This approach works on easier climbs where holds are large but is ineffective on more difficult climbs where more precise footwork is necessary. As a result, gyms allow climbers more opportunity to practice bad technique.

Also the holds indoors are obvious since they are colored and protrude from the wall while outdoors the holds are not as easily seen and combinations are not as easily conceptualized. This cognitive ability, to recognize a useful pattern of holds that will allow vertical progress with the least amount of energy expenditure is a complex skill that can only be partially developed indoors. Outdoor mileage in addition to watching others is essential.

General Foot Placement Procedure
The first step is to scan and visually locate the foothold required. This step is more complex than it seems. The climber must see a pattern here, and take into account subsequent moves and sequences. After much practice, this seems to work on a more intuitive level but for beginning/intermediate climbers it is largely analytical. Through this process a decision is made on where to place the foot.

The leg should be moved as quickly as possible from the previous foothold toward the next hold but not so fast that balance is thrown off. Some climbers exaggerate slow movement throughout their climbing. This has the positive effect of maintaining balance but results in wasted energy and is not ideal.

At all times the climber should keep their eyes focused on the exact point where the foot is to be placed. This is extremely important but is a common problem. Climbers in the middle of a foot placement often look toward the next handhold. As a result they miss the foot placement, often having to spend time and energy readjusting the foot or continuing with a poor placement.

When the foot is a few inches from the desired hold place the foot slowly, softly and accurately onto the hold. Add pressure gradually. Ideally the big toe is placed. However, other parts of the foot can be placed such as the heel, outside edge etc. Curl your toes into the shoe to increase pressure on the hold. Push on the hold. The amount of pressure to apply is dependent on many factors. This feel is developed over many years of trial and error. Too little pressure or too much and you may be off the wall or operating inefficiently. Adjust to nature of hold. Holds are three-dimensional and as a result the foot must make adjustments to maximize contact on all planes of the hold. The foot position is established through ankle, knee and hip positioning. The body position also adjusts accordingly. Such movements as knee drops require articulation of many body parts. Breathing must also be regular to ensure fluid movement. These are not discrete steps but happen in the context of the overall movement.

If it doesn’t feel right decide whether it is energy efficient to continue or is it better to reset the foot position.

Once the position is established the climber commits to the foothold. That means, don’t move it. The exceptions are moves where the ankles are used to supply power to the upward movement such as a lunge move or a knee drop where movement of the foot is required. Watching climber’s feet as they climb, most climbers move them. Even minute movement on a hold that is maximized can cause the climber to pop off. The rule of thumb is to move the foot as little as possible once the foot position is set but it must be remembered that in some circumstances foot movement is necessary and desired.

It is possibly that balance problems that cause the problem of excessive foot movement. Balance is controlled by a climber’s overall body position but more specifically, subtle movements in the knees and ankles. Poor strength in the support muscles of the feet, ankles and calves can cause balance problems. To counteract this problem, climbers tend to grip handholds more tightly just to hold position. As a result muscle fatigue occurs more quickly and the climber begins to move more quicker to compensate.

When the commitment to the hold has been made the climber can take his eyes off this foothold and begin the scanning process again.

Vertical Face
Climbs with vertical face or sections are very common. This type of climbing is characterized by progression through the use of pockets, edges and smears.

On edges, either an inside or outside edge, try rolling your foot onto the hold. This helps to insure that the shoe rubber digs into the rock.

On large holds that protrude from the wall, stand on outer edge of the hold to get better leverage and gain a mechanical advantage. Many climbers stamp their foot carelessly far on the hold near the wall and waste an advantage.

Toeing into pockets requires great precision and foot strength and also a shoe with a small toe.

Slabs are lower angle rock that often has few features. Progress is made with a dependence on smearing and maximizing usage of small features. Personally, I dislike this kind of climbing. However, when I do it, I come away with vastly improved footwork.

Smearing with as much rubber as possible is necessary. Climbing is characterized by gentle, subtle movement with accurate foot placement and gradual pressure applied by the feet. Keep the heel as low as possible, you will feel a stretch in the Achilles tendon. Use as much shoe rubber as possible to contact the rock.

Once moving, it is a good idea to continue so as to maintain momentum. It is an error to stop regularly on a slab.

Look for features to stand on such as edges and dips but if there are none, look for different colors of rock since this represents different texture of the rock and different friction.

Overhanging Rock
Moving quickly becomes more important as the rock steepens. Good footwork is important but moving fast may be more important than optimalising a foot placement. Sometimes it is better to move through on something adequate rather than spending time trying to optimalise the placement. Too much energy may be lost trying to optimalise.

On steep bulging rock seeing the footholds, especially pockets, can be difficult. The climber must try to memorize the footholds on the way up.

On overhanging rock, the toes are pressed down and curled as much as possible in an attempt to grasp the hold with the toes. Body strength to hold the body tense is critical here. If the body droops, the feet cannot hold and probably will cut loose out of control.

From time to time however, it may be necessary to cut the feet loose intentionally. Here the feet lead the body. One foot is taken off the hold and swung gently away from the rock, as far as possible. The hips follow as far as possible, the other leg then cuts loose. This controls the swing so that it takes less effort to hold on.

Heel hooks, heel toe, high steps and flags are specialized movements of the foot that are used on steep rock. Knee Drops also require a different movement, a torquing motion of the foot. This can be very difficult on small holds since the twisting movement can roll off the hold.

Crack Climbing
Cracks are encountered on all types of climbing, from slabs to steep rock. Footwork in cracks is much the same as anywhere else but for one exception. Jamming into cracks with the foot requires the climber to twist the foot and push up off a foot position that is sideways.This requires a great deal of flexibility and strength in the ankle and foot that must be trained specifically.

Hopefully, one day a shoe will be developed that will perform equally well on all types of rock.

Shoes should be tight fitting but not painful. Sticky rubber is a must. Generally softer shoes excel on slab and steep rock while stiff shoes are best on faces. Some climbers like softer shoes for face climbing because they can feel the rock better, I believe that these people have very strong feet and do not need stiffness in the shoe to hold an edge. Without strong feet, a stiffer shoe is better for edging. A small toe size is useful for pockets. I have found softer shoes better for cracks as they form more easily to the shape of the crack but pain must be endured and as a result I usually compromise with a moderatly stiff shoe.  A well fitting heel pocket is important for heel hooking. In my experience, I have yet to find a shoe with a heel that is functional. This is an area where shoe manufacturers could improve. Most routes contain a variety of hold types and as a result shoe selection is always a compromise.

Climbing and bouldering are good practice for footwork. Climb easier routes and concentrate on foot placement. Climbs with pockets are good because the climber must place their feet precisely and also must get used to memorizing the position of the hold as the pocket is often difficult to see from above. Slab climbing helps to improve footwork.

Strength training is required. Overall torso and leg strength is needed to hold the body tense when required. Ankle and foot strength is particularly important but difficult to train.

A form of bouldering can be done where the climber repeats the same problem over and over, each time making subtle changes in body and foot position so as to learn the maximal position.

Obviously, flexibility is important and can be trained through the usual regimen of exercises designed for this purpose.

Many years ago, I practiced walking a slack chain, the kind found at parking lots to improve balance. I believe that this helped substantially.

I now do what I call a Tai Chi exercise. In a standing position I take the frog position and shift my weight slowly into different positions, sometimes lifting the heel of my foot and standing on my toes. I found this surprisingly difficult to do at first and discovered that my strength, power and flexibility were inadequate. If I couldn’t do this standing on the ground, how could I expect to do it standing on two small footholds?

It is important to watch others climb and boulder, watch their feet and body position in the context of the movement that they are performing. When you see it done right, and you will know it when you see it, try to visualize yourself doing the same thing.

Get a video of Patrick Edlinger and learn from the master.

Bob Bennell
May 6, 2000


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