Climbing: How to stop sloppy footwork

I went to a new bouldering place last weekend. It was graded, which is unfamiliar to me, but I loved it.

My primary focus at the moment is my footwork. I think it’s the key to climbing efficiently and being as safe as possible. It’s easy to keep this in my head at the beginning of a climbing session. Not so easy when I’m involved in a project and I’m just trying to complete it.

I don’t want to rely on luck and guess work, I want to get it right. So, how should we do this?

1. Look at where your feet are going, until they get there

A funny thing happens in my brain when I actually see where my feet and toes are. It’s like I can feel it more. I realise this is just awareness, but it really helps with confidence in knowing what you can do.

For example, you have seen where you have your toes, which part of your shoe is on the hold, so you know how much support you have. This then gives you the confidence (or not), to trust that foot enough to maybe stand up. Or to reach across. Or to readjust so that you can.

The other thing with this is that footholds look different from different angles. Duh. I know, obvious. But, if you only know what it looks like as you climb up past it, you might not have enough information to know how you should place your foot on it when you get above it. There might be a dip in the top that you can hook an edge into, or there might be less grip than you think!

2. Listen

Before I started listening, I thought my footwork wasn’t that bad. When I started hearing that scraping sound, I realised it was way worse than I thought. The more I was aware of it, the louder it sounded. So, I went back to number 1, and now I can hear the music again.

This one sounds really simple, but trust me, once you lock into it, you’ll be surprised how noisy those sloppy feet are. Not just yours, other people’s as well.

3. I ask myself if I know where my feet are

This sounds silly, and don’t worry, I don’t say it out loud. Well, I don’t think I do. It’s more of a simple reminder.

Before I make a move which I think I might not complete, it’s just a quick check for where my feet are. This helps me know whether my move will be reversible if it fails.

The aim of this climbing game is not just to get to the top, it’s to do it in a controlled manner. And maybe, as a bonus, doing it with a bit of grace.

Which leads nicely to # 4…

4. Slow down

I struggle with slowing down. I’m not one of those climbers who is there to chat, or sit and watch. If I’m off the wall for too long, I get agitated. Like I’m not using my time wisely. I realise this isn’t everyone. I see some pretty impressive climbers do more talking than climbing. But they probably don’t have a 3 year old and they have the time to climb more than once or twice a week. My wall time is precious, so I want to use as much of it climbing as possible.

Slowing down is tricky. But I don’t think it actually negatively affects climbing time in the end. It’s like when you’re in traffic and you’re following a truck that you can’t get past. You decide to go a different way, only to find yourself three cars behind it at the next lights rather than right behind it.

This actually happened to me yesterday.

Slowing down at the beginning during my warm up is the perfect time to pay attention to my feet. It means my warm up is more gentle on my upper body and it means I start to program the awareness of my feet from the beginning of my session. This means it’s more likely to become second nature in the future. Something I just do, without having to think.

5. Watch other people

At the new wall, I watched two guys struggle with a problem. They thought they had to do an “impossible move” from the start to the next handhold. I couldn’t resist, I went over.

Instead of just forcing my insight on them (I’d done the route as part of my warm up and just sort of assumed it would make sense to everyone), I asked if they wanted help. They were friendly and said yes. I suggested that instead of using the two footholds on the adjacent wall, that the left foot should go on the same wall as the starting handhold.

They were confused. Then they looked at me like I was crazy. See, there was no foothold there.

I explained that you didn’t need one, because the wall was super sticky. He tried and slipped off like one of those slimy toys you used to throw at the wall and watch slide down. The ones that left a residue behind that only your mum could find at 20 paces.

I demonstrated, and they looked at me like I was a magician. I walked away and went back to my problem, they thanked me and I thought I’d taught something.

I saw them half an hour later completing another V0-2 route in the ugliest way I could imagine! Feet all over the place and missing footholds which would simplify their lives greatly and instead desperately reaching and heaving with their arms to reach the top. They did it, but it wasn’t pretty.

Watching other people can have different results. You can learn what to do, but also learn what not to do.

When I watched these guys, I realised my climbing was actually pretty good in comparison. I felt lucky to have a good teacher. Then I realised that my teacher shouldn’t get all of the credit – I obsess about this stuff and I do lots of homework! But really, I am very lucky to have a mentor in this.

6. Do easy routes

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that in order to improve, I need to try more difficult things.

But, by getting better at the routes we can already do, we may actually learn more than scrambling our way through something more difficult. It’s about paying attention to all of your body, not just your feet, and figuring out the best way to get to the top. Not just the quickest way so that you can get onto the next project.

What does all of this mean?

All of these things have made my climbing easier – not harder.  I’ve attempted routes by myself I wouldn’t normally try. I try all sorts of crazy projects with my buddy. Mostly because I trust him to make good – or at least interesting – choices.

I have found my balance is so much more improved and I trust my feet a gazillion times more. By default, this means I am using my legs more which leads to greater efficiency.

Greater efficiency = more climbing. Nothing wrong with that!

For more tips check out 7 Steps to Bouldering Success

CLIMBING: How to stop sloppy footwork

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alyssa says:

    Another thing you can do to improve foot work is climbing with one hand, it sound crazy but you rely so much more on your feet and have to be more aware for the entire climb!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an excellent tip! I haven’t tried that yet…


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