The first of our coaching clinics last week was based on smearing, below we’ve produced a roundup of the topic to help those that couldn’t make it. Want to come to a coaching clinic? Book now for the next session here.

We’ve all been there – you’re cruising a route and feeling awesome, then it comes to some smeary high step to the finishing jug, and before you know it you’re sat back in your harness wondering what happened.

Here, you have two options:

Option A: Deploy climbing excuse
“It’s just the temperature in here – can you ask them to switch the air con on?”

Option B: Take the opportunity to work on your smearing technique.

In this article, we’re mainly going to focus on the latter – what smearing is and how it works, how to smear, when it might be useful, and some challenges to purposefully practice till you’re a smearing master.

What smearing is and how it works:
A fundamental climbing skill, smearing involves using the friction between rock (or wall) and climbing shoe to enable you to make progress or find a good body position where a positive foothold doesn’t exist or is in slightly the wrong place.

Easy to explain, harder to explain how it works – below I’m dipping into my college physics textbook to try and explain the important bits…

things we can choose to use to understand smearing on a deep level:

for effective smearing, (climbers mass)*(acceleration due to gravity)<resistive force of friction

resistive force of friction=(coefficient of friction between two surfaces)*(normal contact force)

normal contact force is proportional to the mass of the climber, but is affected by how much of that mass is directed through the feet – this is the key part of smearing technique that we can control as a climber. The Coefficient of friction is a property of the two materials (so we can choose the climbing shoes we’re wearing, or smear on the rougher bits of rock) but also a couple of more subtle things (like whether the shoes are moving or not) 

Ok, what?

In plainer English, the amount of weight you can put through your smearing foot, is dictated by how grippy/sticky the surface is and how hard you are pressing into the wall with your foot, simple*.

Ok, but what about the other stuff in those formulae?

You can improve the coefficient of friction by getting fancy sticky rubber climbing shoes, and making sure they are clean, free from dirt and chalk, and by picking good rough spots of rock. The coefficient of friction is reduced dramatically by motion, so make sure your foot is still on the wall before you start weighting it. Your mass is irrelevant in relation to effectiveness of smearing, as it is on both sides of the equation so cancels itself out (unfortunately it does have some effect on your climbing fitness everywhere else).

*Interesting side note for coaches and people that think they knew everything about smearing – we usually teach that the amount of rubber in contact with the wall/rock improves the holding power, but it’s actually the case that more rubber in contact with the rock is generally linked with a higher normal contact force, because you need to push harder to get more rubber contact, and the surface area of contact has very little effect on the resistive force of friction.

How to smear:

Pick your spot, push the front of your foot into it, decisively weight the foot placement, carry on cruising as though it’s a normal foothold, bask in the glory of your successful send (optional).

Alright, if it’s that easy, what did I do wrong?

Usually, smearing doesn’t work because you have failed to apply enough force through the smear, i.e. push hard enough, or because you have introduced movement into the foot placement which has enabled it to slip. Here are our top tips for effective smearing:

1. Pick your spot well

  • if you’re on rock, pick the rock with the shallowest angle, and try to avoid polished (shiny) rock.
  • In any case, pick a spot that enables you to put maximum force through the foot- way out to either side, too high or too low is unlikely to work – in this case you are better to use multiple smears to get into the final position in small steps.

2. Place your foot at right angles to the rock surface

3. Keep your heels low (this serves multiple purposes, but is mainly to do with maximising rubber contact which in turn improves your contact force)

4. Engage your core muscles and focus on maintaining pressure through the smearing foot through the entire move (this eliminates motion which reduces the friction force)

5. If smearing up to a foothold, keep smearing up until your feet are level with the target foothold, then step across. (high stepping above a smear often introduces some movement which encourages your smear to slip).

When to smear?

There are multiple occasions when smearing comes in handy, but sometimes you might not consciously pick it as a tool when it might be really helpful.

Use a smear when holds aren’t there, or when they are in an awkward spot.

Use a series of smears to gain height instead of high stepping to a powerful rockover.

use a series of smears above a foothold to facilitate swapping feet when the foothold is too precise for a normal swap.

use smears in a corner to bridge

consciously smear over poor slopey footholds to improve their usefulness

smear in a corner so rubber is in contact with both sides of the corner for a super strong foot placement.

Smearing generally works best on easier angled climbs, slabs and verticals, and becomes less effective on steep ground.

Challenges to practice smearing:

Try climbing routes and problems with no footholds, or take it in turns to use no footholds with your left foot and right foot.

Use at least two smears between every foothold

no foothold hand traversing

tie your legs together with a loop of cord to force smearing between footholds (best done on a rope to ensure falling off is safe)

This is the first in our series of coaching clinic articles – there are 10 more planned, so please take a look and let us know if you find them useful! The content is inspired by work we do to plan coaching sessions – you can come along to our next one by booking here.

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