TNB: Eight Ways to Improve Your Footwork
“Well, I use my feet a lot better than you do,” my friend Ben said. Well, he was right. This conversation occurred years ago in France, when I was first experiencing sport climbing. Ben was not simply putting his shoes on the rock carefully, but adding an active element: “You can grab with your feet and pull yourself in,” he said. It’s a lesson I’ve passed to many since then, and is crucial on steep ground.
“Well, I use my feet a lot better than you do,” my friend Ben said.
I was shocked. I wasn’t the strongest person in the world, though I could hang on and figure things out, but I had prided myself on crafty feet, and placements that stuck. And hey, I could high step.
Well, he was right. This conversation occurred years ago in France, when I was first experiencing sport climbing. Ben was not simply putting his shoes on the rock carefully, but adding an active element: “You can grab with your feet and pull yourself in,” he said. It’s a lesson I’ve passed to many since then, and is crucial on steep ground.
We have an intern now—we usually have an intern around—who’s lately sought footwork beta. Monica Nigon, 22, traveled here from Minnesota with a few years of climbing experience, including many outdoor weekends. Her climbing has really progressed lately due to more continual practice, and to seeking input, especially on footwork.
I’ve found myself racking my mind to try to recall or explain tenets that had become second nature, which I realize anew that plenty of climbers don’t know. Or might know in some way, but need to put into practice. Her experience learning with college-aged friends these days is that a lot spend time on campus boards or in upper-body workouts, while working less on footwork. Is it time to (haha) step back?
Hence, this list of foot credos.
1) Choose before you go. Pick out your foot placements with your eyes before you even begin to move your feet.
2) Go from one hold to the next in one clean motion. Aim to move from one foot placement to another without changing your mind, feeling around, or what Monica refers to as “scraping.” All waste time and load your arms. On some occasions you will balance upward on one foot by tapping along the surface below with the other, but usually you want to move neatly from Point A to Point B.
3) Watch it all the way. “Look it in,” a football coach tells his players. Keep your eye on the ball until you catch it. Well, Watch your foot till it’s on the hold. Sometimes a climber returns his or her focus upward before completing the foot motion.
4) Grab with your feet. You can hold yourself on while reaching or clipping, just by pulling your weight in and over your feet. Think of it as limboing, or getting your center of mass over your foot.
5) Use your outside edge. For a long move, use the outside edge of your shoe, and turn your side and hips inward, into the rock. I learned this from small, strong Robyn Erbesfield Raboutou, and have used it, oh, thousands of times. This move makes you taller: Check how far you can reach from a normal stance, with your inside shoe edge on the rock (weight on forefoot and big toe). Now, swivel to the outside edge and twist your hip in. You just gained about an inch. When reaching with your right hand, use right-foot outside edge. Left hand, left-foot outside edge. Easy to remember.
The outside edge, aka back step, will help hold you in, either to prevent your feet and body swinging out (barn-dooring) or to lock your body in place while you take a hand off to clip or reach for the next hold.
6) Drop knee. This move takes the back step deeper. Especially when you have two good footholds, when you twist your hips in to move a hand upward, bend the knee on that side downward and dig in and hang on with the foot. (You are again on the outside edge and dropping the knee on the same side as the reaching arm.) The other knee bends upward. The motion brings your body into the wall, improving your ability to use the available handholds, and putting more weight on your feet, always a goal.
The drop knee can make positions that feel off-balance or pumpy suddenly completely solid.
7) Flag. If you have only one foothold, you can extend your other leg as a counterbalance to keep from barn-dooring as you move. Use your leg as a counterbalance to center your weight onto your good foothold.
8) Make your own foothold. This last one I got from Matt Samet, when I had been climbing long enough that I probably should have known it, but after he put words to it I used it more. If you lack a foothold, or only have one in the direction you need to go, you can place one foot on the hold and the other shoe on the first one. Just set one forefoot on top of the other. You will be slightly pigeon-toed, but both feet will be on. It’s a good position from which to make a long reach. If the reach is to the right, have the right foot on top, outside edge closest to the wall.
Last evening, Monica lowered from a pitch saying guiltily, “I just did that scraping thing.” But now she’s paying attention.
Offering tips works both ways. Today’s climbers, often learning and training in gyms, use heel hooks all over the place, very naturally. Last summer I was working a problem with a long power move I couldn’t touch. Instead I tried something different, a weird barndoor-y match, day after day. I was about to go back to failing my first way when our intern Laren Cyphers, 20, who wasn’t even trying the problem, pointed to a hold and said, “Why don’t you heel hook on this?”
I hadn’t even thought of that. It looked kind of high.
“It’s just the right shape,” she said, and she was right.
Please share your own best tips on using your feet.
Neil Gresham’s Climbing Masterclass – Footholds:
Also read TNB: Naked Soloist is Saner Than I Am
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