In rock climbing, as in every other human activity, people search for the instantaneous improvement, the ‘magic bullet’. In climbing, if I had to cite a magic bullet for technique, it would be improved footwork. I’ve seen world-class climbers with terrible footwork. (How much better could they have been, one wonders, if only…)
You may have just started rock climbing or you may have been at it for decades. I’d be amazed if you couldn’t improve your footwork (and that includes me too!) Better footwork means less effort on your fingers and arms. Put simply, you can stay on the rock for a lot longer without a rest. On a route near your limit, this will often mean the difference between success and failure.
On the rock, most climbers think about going from handhold to handhold. You would do far better to think about going from foothold to foothold. It’s as though peoples’ brains think, “Hands!” – especially when they’re scared. They would be better thinking “Feet!” At their best, footholds may give you a hands-off rest, i.e. full recovery.
A good way of improving footwork is traversing on low walls, just above the ground, in a position of maximum safety (but still, please, take care). Use the toe of your climbing shoe as a precision instrument. Pivot through on it and push your entire body from it. This is what Mike Lea, a former UK national climbing team coach, used to call, “Building your feet.” Try it and see the difference.
Many people shuffle one foot after the other. It may make more sense to ‘step through’, e.g. if you’re traversing leftwards, bring your right foot leftwards, past your left foot. And remember – you don’t need to climb facing straight on to the rock. You can use the inside or the outside front edge of your climbing shoe. You can use heel-hooks and toe hooks.
When I started climbing in the 1960s, it was in big boots. Precision? Forget it! Modern climbing shoes are like Formula 1 racing cars, often driven by novice drivers. Make the most of your climbing shoes and you will notice a huge difference.
A last point (for male climbers, especially novice male climbers). Forget ‘pulling yourself’ up the rock. Instead watch women climbers of all abilities. In general, women have massively better footwork than men. But, with rare exceptions, really good climbers of both genders have a lightness and precision of footwork that’s a marvel to behold. Watch them and learn. Above all, in climbing and in life, never stop learning!