Climbers Feet & Toes: The terrifying truth
What does climbing do to your feet?
Let’s be honest, most climbers 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.
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. That said, if there is one glaring downside to this sport, 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 poor little tootsies.
HEADS UP: There are some serious knowledge bombs about to be dropped in this article. Please remember, I am not a doctor and I do not have a Harvard medical degree that I forgot to mention. The information on this page is based on medical and academic studies, however, if you are looking for some real medical advice, make sure to hit up your doctor!
HEADS UP #2: 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 ever written 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?
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 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.
A ground fall, as the name suggests, is when you make direct contact with the ground. These types of falls are most common whilst 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.
As I just mentioned, climbing shoes exacerbate the injuries we are likely to experience in a fall. I hate to say it, but there are plenty of other ways in which climbing shoes can impact your feet too.
I’m sure you already know that climbing shoes need to be tight in order to engage the tension rands and work effectively. However, the tightrope walk between ‘too tight’ and ‘just right’ is a very fine line, and one that can be detrimental to your foot health if you get it wrong.
Excessively tight climbing shoes, combined with the unique shape in which your feet conform to, change the biomechanics of your feet and increase the stress load of your forefoot. With the average climber wearing climbing shoes that are between 2-4 sizes smaller than that of their street shoes, it seems that there are a lot of uncomfortable feet out there.
In a study of 100 climbers, with an average climbing grade of 5.11, 81% of climbers cited having acute foot pain whilst wearing climbing shoes. Other studies have even suggested that the number could even be as high as 91%.
So what 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 we have between our heel and forefoot. This is what allows you to balance your body weight on your tippy toes.
The long answer is that your shoes are unnaturally manipulating the various joints throughout our 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 curling (crimping) of your 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 developing 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 climbers feet experience?
Here’s the results of a study that evaluated the feet of 30 high level climbers and the foot deformities they whitensses. The average climbing grade of 5.12d/7c, spending about 10 hours per week in climbing shoes, and on average, wore climbing shoes 2.3 sizes smaller than their street shoe.
Other similar studies conducted with climbers of lower ability and fewer years of experience showed lower levels of feet and nail deformities, suggesting there’s a strong correlation between your experience level, climbing difficulty, 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)
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 age 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.
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 whilst wearing climbing shoes, which usually disappears shortly after removing your shoes.
Anther related, and extremely common, issues that most climber will experience is the pressure marks on your toes and the hardening of the skin
Ankle sprains are a common sport 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.
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 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 new 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, 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 top 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 buildup and prevent infections.
5) Massage your feet – Give those dogs a rub down 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.
Cramming our feet into ridiculously small shoes has become part of the climbing culture, stemming from the early days of when poorly constructed shoes were the norm. Even today, us climbers are still willing to sacrifice our foot health in the name of crushing hard. One study suggested that 87% of the climbers were willing to accept foot pain if it allowed them to achieve better performance.
Maybe it’s time we revolute how we think about our foot health and give out poor little toes a break?