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Five Techniques for Better Footwork   

by Amanda Fox
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Find Your Footing 

It happens to all of us: You’re 10 feet above your last bolt, over-gripping and breathing erratically, and everything feels “off.” What’s wrong? The tension in your body has caused you to lose your balance. But there are ways to get it back, even when you’re mid-route. Boulder-based climbing trainer Justen Sjong offers five tips to instantly relieve your stress, find your balance, and send confidently.

Don’t forget to use your fifth digit “your thumb can be your secret weapon,” Sjong says. For example, if you’re on a sidepull and feeling pumped, try to find a thumb catch to turn the hold into a pinch; your thumb helps manipulate your hips into a better position to regain balance. Start thinking more about where your thumb is on each hold, and if you can gain a little more purchase with that one digit.

The standard flag—the position most climbers learn first.
The standard flag—the position most climbers learn first.

Make the most of your heels and toes:

A good way to pull your hips into the wall for balance is using your toes to “scoop” your foot onto the hold. This will automatically bring your heels up and your body in. Try to practice this without tensing your core; that will help to conserve energy.

Skilled footwork doesn’t exclude your heels. “We think about inside edges and outside edges, but the heel is important, too,” Sjong says. Learn to become aware of your heel positioning, which can directly affect where your hips go. Says Sjong: “Your heels move your hips.” For instance, if you’re gripping a lefthand gaston and need to rock hard out right, use your heels to start your momentum. Your hips will shift, and your shoulders will follow accordingly.

Also, when you place your toe on a foothold, leave a little wiggle room for pivoting your feet. If the foot placement is too deep, your toe will hit the wall and limit the mobility of your heel.

Display the flag:
The outside flag, which helps maintain stability for rotating and counter-balance moves, as well as clipping.
The outside flag, which helps maintain stability for rotating and counter-balance moves, as well as clipping.

Learning to flag is a necessary skill for improving your overall footwork. The standard flag—one foot on a hold, the other pushed out to the side and against the wall—is what most climbers learn first. (See photos for variations.) “Once you become comfortable flagging, you only have to find one perfect foothold the majority of the time,” Sjong says. “It helps open up your options since you’re only putting one foot on a hold.”

Where’s the drama?

Sjong says that most climbers hold stress somewhere in their bodies when they climb, which contributes to the loss of stability and balance. It can be expressed in scrunching up the face, sticking out the tongue, or unnecessarily flexing the core. Identifying where the tension automatically goes in your body when you’re getting pumped allows you to be more proactive—knowing what and when to relax—before you leave the ground. Found your tic? Keep reading.

Slow your breath:
The inside flag, used mainly for clipping or resting stances.
The inside flag, used mainly for clipping or resting stances.

When you start to feel gripped on the climb, clue into your breathing. Are you holding your breath? Don’t. Before pulling onto the wall, take a baseline breath—often a deep belly inhalation. It might take several breaths to get an even heart rate. Try to maintain steady breathing throughout the route.

When you feel your composure slipping, get to a good hold where you can rest, and then return to your baseline breath: inhaling, holding it for a second, and slowly releasing the air. Turn your gaze down and to the side. “Look with ‘soft eyes’ and zone out,” Sjong says. “Focus on feeling the air come into your lungs through your mouth. Once you relax, your body will naturally shift, and you’ll find balance.”


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