Climbing with IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is a common condition that affects the digestive system. It causes symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. These tend to come and go over time, and can last for days, weeks or months at a time (source: NHS UK)
IBS is annoying as it is, but as a climber or climbing guide, it can be quite problematic. What to do when you get an IBS episode while at the crag? Or just before going out to the crag, and everyone’s ready to go, but you’re the driver and 45 minutes later you’re still stuck on the toilet? Or what to do when you find yourself having to go to the toilet while on a multi-pitch? And do you recognise that feeling of not knowing whether your fart will be just some air, or some more? Just a few examples to illustrate that Climbing with IBS can be quite a challenge.
Practical tips for Climbers with IBS
1. Always bring wet toilet wipes and/or toilet paper, as well as a plastic bag to take those back home with you. To avoid embarrassment, it is handy to bring a dark coloured non-see-through plastic bag. Pain killers should be standard in your climbing bag as well.
2. Wear a menstruation pad. In that case at least if your fart does come with some more, it won’t show immediately. You’ll have time to come back down from the route, and sort yourself out.
3. Choose a harness of which the leg loops can be unclipped or detached from the waist belt at the back (see photos). Handy when needing regular toilet breaks while single pitch climbing. It means you don’t constantly need to take your harness off and on. Especially as a climbing instructor every toilet visit means less time spent with the clients who have paid for your guidance.
A harness like this is ESSENTIAL for IBS climbers who go on a multi-pitch route. It allows you to stay tied in and go to the toilet at the same time!
If it’s mainly bloating, cramps and stomach pains you’re suffering from, then consider wearing a full body harness for adults. Full body harnesses allow space for a bloated belly, reduce the pressure on the stomach and relieve the pain.
4. If you have a choice, belay lead climbers rather than toprope climbers. This might be counterintuitive. You might think: I’d rather belay a toprope climber because that’s easier. However, when toprope belaying, there is a constant pressure on the belayer’s harness and body. Especially when the climber needs a tight rope to assist him/her up the route. When belaying lead climbers, there’s only pressure on your harness and your body when they fall off or when lowering the climber.
5. When you’re having a bad day: climb easy routes. The exercise, the blood flow, the distraction can relieve the IBS symptoms. Climbing hard isn’t recommended. Being in pain is energy-consuming enough as it is. Plus, you don’t know whether the pressure on the core will lead to wind or dirty pants. Avoid routes that need body tension/ engaging of the abs.
When suffering from heavy cramps or diarrhea but still wanting to climb, try slabby easy angled routes. Palming off, as well as taking very small steps are two climbing techniques that help to take the pressure off the stomach.
I once found myself at Odyssea, Kalymnos, on a day off. After two IBS episodes in the hotel in the morning, I got myself to the crag. I was desperate to make good use of my day off guiding. Three painkillers and some time lying on a rock later, I thought I’d try to climb this slabby F6a (5.10a) called Nausicaa Nausicaa. I remembered climbing it in the past and finding it a bit challenging for the grade. This time though, I climbed it completely different. I made almost every upward movement with at least one, sometimes two hands pushing down, thereby relieving the pressure on the stomach. It became an interesting challenge to get up the route without engaging the abs in any sort of way. (Note: it is only when you physically CAN’T engage your core that you realise how much you use it normally. Simply standing upright means your abs are engaged). I got to the top and came down, still in cramp but feeling much better. For the time I was on the rock my brain was focused on something else rather than negativity and self-pity.
6. Be patient. If it’s not your day, it’s not your day. Tomorrow will be better. There is no point being hard on yourself. Especially make an effort to not let it affect the climbers around you. Try to enjoy the environment you’re in and sooth yourself by lying down (pressure off stomach), listening to the birds and the wind in the trees (distraction), watch other people climb (inspiration), and if you’re up for it: socialise. It makes you feel better.
7. Be even more patient. Not only day by day, but also in the larger time frame. It takes most IBS sufferers years to figure out which foods to avoid to reduce the frequency of IBS episodes. During these years you can obviously climb, and you can climb hard as well. But when you’re having to cancel your climbing plans with your mates, when you can’t get enough time in between feeling ill to project your route, please realise that you’re in it for the long run. The route will be there next year. And next year you will probably have your diet sorted and you’ll be much healthier!
If you want to know more about Climbing with IBS, please don’t hesitate to contact us.