It's supposed to be uncomfortable! You just have to break them in!
Most of the advice around buying climbing shoes sounds like this. Size down until your feet can't take it. Wait a month until the shoes break in. Needless to say, this is a very slow feedback loop. By the time you realize the shoes aren't a great fit, it's too late to return them and you don't have the money to buy a new pair.
Other shoe-buying advice is focused on explaining what features in a shoe are useful in different situations. For example, what are good bouldering shoes, good for overhangs, good for tiny footholds or cracks.
But I've never heard an explanation for what a good-fitting shoe is actually supposed to feel like. When I try shoes on, the salesperson doesn't have a system for choosing a shoe. You try on as many as possible and then choose the least uncomfortable one.
I've been climbing for eight years and bought seven pairs of climbing shoes. I'd describe myself as a recreational gym climber (climb 5.11c at a soft-grading gym). I haven't found a pair of shoes that fit great. But I'm getting closer.
I recently discovered Mountain Footwear Project and I'm figuring out a system to use it to choose new shoes. Mountain Footwear Project has two key tools. The first is, you can see how sizes correspond from one shoe model to another. Most shoes do not have consistent sizes, the same size could be an 8 in one model and a 9.5 in another. Secondly, Mountain Footwear Project standardized attributes across models. You can see if a shoe is narrow, low volume, stiff, among other traits. The descriptions from the brand can be misleading. I bought a low volume version of a shoe and found out much later that Mountain Footwear Project classifies this version as high volume.
How to buy shoes:
- Don't buy when you need to buy. I typically wait until the rubber starts to go in a pair of shoes before I start looking for a new pair. This starts a ticking clock before the shoes are too damaged to repair. I only have time to check out a couple stores to find a new pair of shoes, limiting my choices.
- If you have a pair of shoes that you're comfortable in, use this shoe to set a baseline size in Mountain Footwear Project. Too often, I didn't know if the shoe size was wrong or if the shape was wrong. Once you narrow the size down, you can focus on the variable of the shoe shape.
- Start trying on shoes. Because the size is in the ballpark, you can focus on the shape. Are your pinky toes squeezed but your big toe is fine? Try a less assymetric shoe. Is your heel floating? Try a narrower shoe or narrower width. Does the top of the shoe have a gap? Move to a lower volume shoe.
- The next time you buy shoes, you can use the characteristics of your current shoes as a starting off point.