Climber's foot | Toe pain | Is it worth the risk for better performance?

Rock climbing, both recreational and competitive, is becoming more and more popular. Most coaches would tell beginners that using simple sports shoes is fine, but more serious rock climbers use a special kind of shoe that can enhance their performance, but also put them at risk for serious leg issues like climber’s foot. 98% of climbers wear excessively tight footwear and 91% experience foot or toe pain while climbing – and the worst part is that this foot pain is normalized among climbers. There is also little acknowledgment of how much harm can be done to the foot in the pursuit of climbing excellence.

The shoes used by climbers are highly specialized and are designed to maximize the climber’s ability to grip onto small areas. They are flexible and of varying shape, as seen below.

climber's foot 1 | Family Podiatry Centre | Best Foot Doctor Podiatrist DPM Clinic Singapore Malaysia

The asymmetrical shape of these shoes increases the contact area of the foot. However, this results in the foot being forced into an unnatural position and eventually causing climber’s foot. The typical, recommended fit for these shoes is one size smaller than a regular sports shoe, which allows for a greater amount of control on tiny surfaces. However, rock climbers have a tendency to pick shoes which are about 2.5 sizes too small for them instead, and up to 4(!) sizes smaller than their regular street shoe size.

climber's foot 2 | Family Podiatry Centre | Best Foot Doctor Podiatrist DPM Clinic Singapore Malaysia

While they might be aware of how painful the shoes and the resulting injuries are, many climbers seem to underestimate just how dangerous these habits are for their feet later in life. Climber’s foot can take a variety of forms, but all of them are caused by being forced into too-tight shoes.

Corns and calluses, which are areas of abnormally thickened skin, are evidence of poorly fitting shoes in general. This is made worse in extremely tight fitting shoes like rock climbing shoes, where there is increased pressure and friction between the shoe and the skin. This is typically present on the top and bottom of the feet, especially the toes. 

Lack of shoe length results in increased pressures at the back of the heel and the front of the foot. This results in the shoe cutting into the back of the heel, causing pain as a result of inflammation of the back of the ankle, which is known as retrocalcaneal bursitis. It may also cause inflammation of the Achilles tendon itself (Achilles tendonitis), or a bony enlargement of the heel bone, known as Haglund’s deformity.

climber's foot 3 | Family Podiatry Centre | Best Foot Doctor Podiatrist DPM Clinic Singapore Malaysia

Wearing shoes that are too small is also a cause of toe deformities, such as claw or hammer toes. While in the shoe, the toes are forced to bunch up, and eventually the toes will remain in that position even out of the shoe as the ligaments and tendons around the affected joints shorten. Toenail issues are also a risk when wearing undersized shoes, due to the great amount of pressure put on them in the shoe. 

The nails may thicken (onychogryphosis) and become brittle, or lift from the nail bed entirely (onycholysis). Ingrown toenails might also occur, especially if the climber also has poor nail cutting technique. Fungal nail infections (onychomycosis) are also common with rock climbing shoes, because the rubbery synthetic material used for the shoes combined with the sweaty, warm and moist environment makes for a perfect breeding ground for fungi. 

Other nail conditions that athletes often get while rock climbing include splinter haemorrhages and subungal hematoma, which are both types of internal bleeding that could potentially require the entire nail to be removed if they are allowed to worsen.

In the long run, these issues could prevent you from walking properly altogether, and require surgery or other expensive treatments to fix. Take care of your feet – give them breaks, and don’t abuse them to their breaking point. Getting climber’s foot and ruining your feet for life isn’t worth “better performance”. Don’t hesitate to book a consultation with us if you need help with your feet.

Written by Mark B. Reyneker
Written by Mark B. Reyneker

Podiatrist 20 years of clinical experience. Practiced in South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore. Pioneered CAD/CAM custom made orthotics in S.E Asia.

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