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Climbers Feet & Toes: The Terrifying Truth

Updated By Sam on 10th Nov 2023

There are no two ways about it: climbers feet are the stuff of nightmares. Most of us have a pair of trotters that are on par with those found on farmyard animals.

There are no two ways about it: Climbers’ feet are the stuff of nightmares. Most of us have a pair of trotters that are on par with those found on farmyard animals. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great benefits to climbing; it’s a full-body workout, it helps with cognitive functions and problem-solving – and at the very least – it’s just a good bit of fun with your mates. But if there is one glaring downside to the sport we all know and love, it’s that it won’t exactly do your foot modeling career any favors. 

At the danger of putting you off climbing, vowing never to slip your feet into another pair of climbing shoes again, I want to take a break from my usual shoe-related rambling and discuss the effects climbing has on your feet.

DISCLAIMER: There are some serious knowledge bombs about to be dropped in this article. However, I am not a doctor and I don’t have a Harvard medical degree I forgot to mention. The information on this page is based on medical and academic studies, that said, if you are looking for some real medical advice, make sure to hit up your doctor.

NEED MORE INFO? If you are looking for a killer resource on climbing-specific injuries and general health, then I highly recommend checking out Dave Macleod’s book, Make or Break. It is one of the best books I’ve read on preventing and recovering from climbing injuries. 

On that note, here’s what you need to know about climbers feet.

Is climbing bad for your feet?

rock climbers feet

Behind finger and elbow injuries, foot injuries are the most common acute and chronic injuries a climber is likely to experience. In fact, it is thought that almost 50% of all climbing-related injuries occur in the feet and legs. 

With such a high proportion of climbing injuries occurring in the lower body, it seems that the unavoidable nature of rock climbing puts a significant amount of strain on your lower limbs. Research suggests the cause of injuries to climbers’ feet can be attributed to two common factors: falling and climbing shoes. 

Falling

Falling is the most cited reason for sustaining an injury to your lower body whilst climbing. It accounted for 77.5% of all climbing-related emergency department visits between 1990-2007. A climbing fall can be classified as either a ground fall or rock-hit trauma.

A rock-hit trauma, also known as a wall collision, is the result of hitting the wall after taking a nasty whipper. With these types of falls, you make contact with the wall at an almost vertical angle, so the force exerted on your feet is determined by the fall height, the dynamic nature of your rope, and your belayer’s technique. Due to the angle at which you hit the wall (hopefully with your feet and not your head), the most common injuries from a wall collision are contusions and compound fractures.

What does climbing do to your feet
Falling is the main cause of foot injuries in climbing

A groundfall, as the name suggests, is when you make direct contact with the ground. These types of falls are most common while bouldering or caused by an early fall on a lead route before you have clipped the first bolt. 

The contact you make with the ground and the resulting force that is exerted on your feet, is more or less horizontal, which is why these falls have a tendency to create more problematic injuries. The impact force will ultimately be dictated by the height of the fall, your landing, and the underfoot terrain. Injuries that occur from a ground fall can include fractures of the calcaneus, talus, and ankle joint, as well as less serious ligament issues and ankle sprains.

Here’s the real problem: The tight fit and unique characteristics of our shoes – which change how force is distributed throughout our feet – increase the likelihood of injury when we sustain a fall.

Are climbing shoes bad for your feet?

Climbing shoes can exacerbate the injuries you are likely to experience in a fall, but there are plenty of other ways in which climbing shoes can impact your feet. I’m sure you already know that climbing shoes need to be tight in order to engage the tension rands and transfer all that awesome edging power to your toes. However, the margin between “too tight” and “just right” is a very fine line and one that can be detrimental to your foot health.

Excessively tight climbing shoes force your feet to conform to natural shapes which can change the biomechanics of your feet and increase the stress load on your forefoot. With the average climber wearing climbing shoes that are between 2-4 sizes smaller than that of their street shoes (brand and shoe model dependant) it seems that there are a lot of uncomfortable feet out there.

Adam Ondra climbers toe
The size of Adam Ondra’s feet compared to his climbing shoes… ouch.

In a study of 100 climbers with an average climbing grade of 5.11, 81% of them stated they had experienced acute foot pain whilst wearing climbing shoes. Other studies have even suggested that the number could even be as high as 91%. 

But actually happens to your feet when you cram them into climbing shoes? The quick answer to that question is that our feet shorten through contracting and contorting our toes, which ultimately alters the normal weight distribution between our heel and forefoot. This is what allows you to balance your body weight on your tippy toes.

What does climbing shoes do to your feet
What happens to your feet when they are crammed into climbing shoes

The long answer is that your shoes are unnaturally manipulating the various joints throughout your digits. X-rays of climbers’ toes within their shoes show that the proximal and distal interphalangeal bend in an irregular way, whilst the metatarsophalangeal joints become overextended due to the pressure caused by the excessive curling of the toes.

The result of this strain has various short-term and long-term impacts. In the short term, this can lead to callosity (callus) of your foot skin, nail bed infections, and Subungual hematoma (the medical term for the blood under your toenail). In the long term, this can potentially lead to the development of hallux valgus (bunions), dead nails, claw toes, and a bunch of other nasty things.

What does climbing do to your feet?

So you now know the two main culprits as to why so many of us climbers have feet that terrify children, but what are the most frequent issues rock climber’s feet experience?

Here are the results of a study that evaluated the feet of 30 high-level climbers and the foot deformities they witnessed. The average climbing grade of the participant was 5.12d/7c, and each individual spent approximately 10 hours per week in climbing shoes and, on average, wore climbing shoes 2.3 sizes smaller than their street shoe.

Pain in climbing feet
The most common foot problems climbers experience

Other similar studies conducted with climbers of lower ability and fewer years of experience showed lower levels of feet and nail deformities, suggesting a correlation between your climbing ability, shoe downsizing, and the degree of severity that climbing shoes impact your feet.

Countless medical studies have shed light on the most frequent issues rock climbing (and climbing shoes) have on their feet. Here are a few of the most common.

Hallux Valgus (Bunions)

are climbing shoes bad for your feet
Many climbers are familiar with bunions

More commonly known as Bunions, Hallus Valgus is one of the most common issues climbers have with their feet. This occurs when the first toe begins to angle inward, towards the second toe.

In a study conducted of athletes who had spent 5 years or longer climbing, researchers discovered that 53% of climbers have the condition in both, and 20% have it in one foot (Peters, 2001). When you compare this to the standard 4.5% of cases found in adults aged 17-44, this is a pretty shocking difference.

While this does sound pretty terrifying, however, it’s important to remember that the root cause of bunions isn’t tight shoes, but rather often caused by inherited faulty foot structures and loose joints, which can be worsened through excessively small footwear. 

Vessel compression 

This study on rock climbers’ feet found that 65% of its participants cited experiencing tingling or numbness whilst wearing climbing shoes. This is thought to be a result of the compression of the blood vessels and nerves that occur while wearing climbing shoes, which usually disappears shortly after removing your shoes.

Another related – and extremely common – issue that most climbers will experience is the pressure marks on their toes and the hardening of the skin 

Ankle Sprains

Climbing Feet Injury
Besides vessel compression, ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries climbers face

Ankle sprains are a common sports injury, with 27.5% of climbers reporting having recurring issues with their ankles. Our feet become increasingly susceptible to ankle injuries when they are in an inverted, inward position (like they are in climbing shoes) and the muscles are unable to stop our ankle from exceeding its normal range of motion.

Action can be taken to avoid such injuries, including exercises that strengthen the muscles around the ankle, as well as having a spotter helping to ensure a safe landing whilst bouldering.

Nail Disease

The same study that cited almost ⅓ of climbers suffering from ankle sprains also cited nail disease as a big issue among climbers. In fact, the study suggested 65.3% of climbers will suffer from common nail problems like; onychodystrophy, onychomycosis, subnail hematoma, and onychocryptosis. 

Besides the trauma that our digits and nails experience from being cramped into downsized shoes, it seems climbers are prone to fungal infections due to the constant sweaty human environment our feet are exposed to within our shoes. Washing your feet after climbing, allowing your feet to be aired regularly during sessions, and even wearing socks whilst climbing can all help reduce our exposure to fungal infections.

How to care for your feet 

Starting to freak out a little? I know this is all pretty scary stuff. Trust me, as someone who is regularly breaking in climbing shoes, researching this has been terrifying. I have seen the transformation of my own feet over the last few years, and I’m not exactly in love with what I am seeing, and neither is my partner. 

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to help reduce our chances of encountering foot and toe problems. If you want to avoid having serious issues with your feet, it’s important you give them some TLC every now and then. Here are some easy tips you can follow to help look after your feet.

1) Use the right size climbing shoe – Your best chance of avoiding causing any damage to your feet starts with choosing the correct climbing shoe size.  

2) Avoid overusing aggressive shoes –  Many of us are guilty of wearing aggressive shoes when they simply aren’t needed. Be sure to wear neutral or moderate shoes on those less intense routes and problems.

3) Take your shoes off throughout the session – Ideally, you want to wear your shoes as little as possible. Don’t walk around in your shoes either, this will destroy your shoes and most likely your feet too.

4) Clean your feet after climbing – Washing your feet will help to avoid bacteria build-up and prevent infections.

5) Massage your feet – Give those dogs a rubdown every now and then. Regularly massaging your foot is proven to help circulation and strengthen ankle muscles.

6) Climb barefoot – Barefoot climbing will help avoid many of the issues that arise from wearing small shoes, although it does have some of its own downsides too. If you want to find out more about barefoot climbing, take a look here.

Cramming our feet into ridiculously small shoes has become part of the climbing culture, stemming from the early days when poorly constructed shoes were the norm. Even today, we climbers are still willing to sacrifice our foot health in the name of crushing hard. One study suggested that 87% of climbers were willing to accept foot pain if it allowed them to achieve better performance.

Maybe it’s time we reevaluate how we think about our foot health and give our poor little piggies a break.

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