Purchasing new climbing shoes is always exciting, until you remember that you now have to break in this beautiful new pair of shoes, which can be an unpleasant and uncomfortable process. However, it’s all worth it in the end when you’ve gotten your new shoes perfectly broken in!
So, how do you break in climbing shoes? The easiest and most direct way to break in your shoes is to simply climb in them, but especially if you’ve purchased some very tight performance-fit shoes, you might need to take some additional steps to loosen them up a bit before you dive into climbing with them.
Steps to Break In Your New Climbing Shoes
First, it’s important to note that climbing shoes will never stretch in length because the sole and rand are rubber. However, the uppers will relax somewhat in terms of width and the overall volume of the shoe, which can make the entire shoe feel a bit looser and more comfortable.
Additionally, the amount that the uppers will relax depends on the material – leather can stretch anywhere from half a size to two full sizes while synthetic materials likely won’t stretch more than a half size, if at all. If a leather shoe is lined, it’ll stretch less than an unlined leather shoe.
Now, let’s dive into the steps for how to break in your new climbing shoes.
Step 1: Purchase Properly Fitting Climbing Shoes
Managing your expectations of the amount that a shoe will stretch based on the above information, be sure to start by actually purchasing the right size of shoe. Unless you have previously owned the exact same model and size of shoe and are familiar with the exact amount that it will stretch out, assume that it won’t stretch an enormous amount (with the exception of unlined leather shoes), and purchase a shoe size that isn’t excruciatingly painful right out of the box.
Particularly if you are a new climber, there’s no need to make yourself miserable with minuscule climbing shoes. They should be snug, not torture devices. Check out this article about how climbing shoes should fit if you still aren’t sure.
Step 2: Wear Them For Short Periods Off The Wall
Once you’ve determined the proper size for your rock climbing shoes and made the purchase, start by wearing your shoes for short periods at home. There’s no need to walk around in your climbing shoes as they are not, in fact, made for walking. Too much walking around can actually flatten the camber of the shoes and make them less effective on the wall.
Instead, just sit and wear them for a few minutes at a time to ensure that you like the fit and shape of the shoe before you actually commit by taking them to the gym or crag. You can still return or exchange them after wearing them for a few minutes at home, but not after you’ve actually climbed in them (generally speaking).
If putting the shoes on and taking them off a few times a day is irritating your heels, try using a piece of a plastic grocery bag to cover your heel. This reduces the friction from pulling them on and off and can ease the break-in period a little bit.
Step 3: Climb In Your New Shoes
The easiest and most effective way to completely break in your new climbing shoes is to actually just climb in them. I don’t recommend starting out with a multi-pitch climb on day one, though. Instead, take your shoes to the gym, out bouldering, or on some easy single-pitch sport routes. This way, you can take them off between climbs to let your feet relax, and you can start on some easy terrain so in case your feet are screaming a little bit, you won’t have to put all of your weight on your big toe on a tiny flake.
If you are worried about your shoes being too uncomfortable and ruining your climbing session, bring some older, already-broken-in shoes along as well. That way, if you want to climb something hard or just take a break from the tight new shoes, you can swap out easily.
Remember, it’ll probably take anywhere from 3-5 solid climbing sessions to really break in new shoes to the point where they are “comfortable.”
Bonus Step: Use Heat, Cold, or Water to Stretch Your Shoes
If you’ve already committed to a pair of slightly-too-tight shoes or you are attempting to break in performance-fit shoes quickly, there are a couple of tricks you can use to speed up the process. However, use these tips at your own risk, because it’s possible to damage your shoes by forcefully stretching them.
First, you can use heat to help make your shoes more flexible. Point a hairdryer at your shoes and then put them on while they are warm so they mold to your feet. Beware that too much heat can melt the glue that holds your shoes together or damage the rubber sole, so think ‘warm,’ not ‘scorching.’
Or, you can put your shoes on and get them wet in the bathtub or shower. Soak them for about 5 minutes and then keep the shoes on your feet until they feel like they are drying out slightly. Then, take them off and stuff them with wadded up newspaper or socks so they keep their shape. Leave the stuffing in until they are completely dry and you are ready to climb in the shoes.
Getting your shoes wet and warm essentially mimics your feet sweating in your shoes (gross, I know), which is what happens when you climb in your new shoes and break them in naturally.
Frequently Asked Question
Do climbing shoes really need breaking in?
Generally yes, all climbing shoes go through a breaking-in period where the uppers will slightly stretch and relax, and the shoes will become fractionally more comfortable. If you purchase entry-level climbing shoes in a comfortable but snug size, you likely won’t have to do too much to break them in. But, if you are a more advanced climber and purchase performance-fit (aka ultra-tight) shoes, then you’ll probably need to do more to break them in.
How long does it take to break in climbing shoes?
Breaking in new climbing shoes typically takes anywhere from 3-5 climbing sessions, although it can be longer if you only wear them for a few minutes of climbing per session, or quicker if you grit your teeth and bear it through a couple of longer sessions.
Are climbing shoes supposed to hurt?
Climbing shoes should be snug and, yes, perhaps somewhat uncomfortable, especially when you first purchase them. However, they shouldn’t be excruciatingly painful. If so, you’ve probably purchased shoes that are too small or that aren’t the right shape for your feet.
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