A big worry for many trekkers is their physical fitness for a high altitude trek. Steep climbs, rough terrain, walking in the snow, all of these can be daunting. But they can all be tackled with prior training. Here’s how you can get fit for a Himalayan trek.
At Indiahikes, we insist that all our trekkers train for at least two months and get fit before going on a trek. That’s a minimum prerequisite to have a good experience. However, many trekkers could be short on time as well, for which I’ve shared a separate routine below.
This is a complete training guide, so that by the end of it, you’ll know exactly where you stand and what you need to work on when you sign up for your first Himalayan trek.
Let’s get started.
While you can have an elaborate training plan for your trek to get fit, you need to focus on primarily two aspects:
1. Cardiovascular Endurance
2. Strength Training
On a high altitude trek, you are gaining altitude with every step you take. With the altitude gain, the oxygen available in the air also decreases. Which means your heart has to do more work with less oxygen. And that’s not easy.
You need cardiovascular training to be able to manage these constant climbs comfortably.
Along with it, add some strength training.
│Let’s start with Cardiovascular Endurance
Any high altitude trek requires you to build a good amount of cardiovascular endurance.
Since 2016, we have been asking trekkers to train by jogging, and it has shown us brilliant results.
We tell them to target jogging 5 km in 40 minutes.
This averages around 8 minutes per kilometer, which is a respectable speed. If you achieve this much speed, you can comfortably do an easy-moderate Himalayan trek.
Here’s how to go about it.
Phase 1 (when you have around 2 months to your trek)
1. Start with the slowest jog possible by you. Look to see the maximum distance that you can cover without feeling overly fatigued. We call this the starting distance.
2. The next day, look to increase 0.25 km over the starting distance. Do not worry about the time taken. Use a running app like Strava or Nike Run Club to track your run.
3. The subsequent day, add another 0.25 km over the last distance covered. Again, do not worry about the time taken.
4. Continue the incremental increase of distance for 4 days in a row.
5. On the 5th day take a break. Allow your muscles to recover.
6. From the sixth day onward, jog for 4 days continuing to increase your distance by 0.25 km every day. Take a break every 5th day. Do not worry about the time being taken.
7. When you are able to get to a distance of 5 km, note the time taken to cover the distance. This is your starting time. At this stage you must be able to cover 5 km, even if with some exhaustion.
8. The next day, look to see if you can reduce your time by 15 seconds.
9. Over the next few days, reduce the time taken by 15 seconds every day. Continue with your breaks every 5th day.
An ideal benchmark is to cover 5 km in 40 minutes (averaging 8 minutes per km). If you are above 40 years old, then 5 km in 45 minutes would be your benchmark (averaging 9 minutes per km).
If you feel overwhelmed by this, don’t worry. We have seen our trekkers able to build this endurance from scratch starting from zero in about 30 days.
Protip: Join a running group in your city. Running groups have mushroomed all over the country. You will find one close to your home. Running groups have systematic beginner programs that are of immense help. It also helps you to be part of a group and lose the inertia that people have about training.
A guide to start your fitness journey
│Let’s move on to Strength Training
Any high altitude trek requires you to cover steep inclines. This could be while ascending or descending. The terrain could be rough as well, sometimes with snow.
To manage yourself well in such conditions you need good leg strength as well as a strong core.
Squats are the best way to build leg strength quickly. Especially your thighs, glutes and knees.
1.Start with 10 squats. This is one set. Learn how to do a proper squat by looking up online tutorials.
Once you are comfortable with a set of 10 squats (this may take 3-4 days), take a break of 2 minutes and start on your second set of squats. Start your second set with only 2 squats. So your set one will have 10 squats and set two will have only 2 squats, totalling 12 squats.
2. Everyday, increase your squats in the second set by 2. So the next day you are doing one set of 12, with a 2 mins break and then another 4, totalling 16.
3. Take a break every 4 days for your muscles to recover.
4. You must be able to do 2 full sets of 12 squats each comfortably in 15-18 days.
5. Try to get to 3 sets of squats before your trek starts.
For strengthening your core, there’s no better exercise than Planks and Hip Raises. Both of them are very common exercises.
For Planks, start with holding them for 20 seconds the first day. And add 5 seconds everyday so that you can comfortably hold it for 1 minute.
And for Hip Raises, follow the same formula as you do for Squats.
Note: Any form of exercise requires you to warm up first. Do not do any cardio or strength training with a cold body. And also important is to cool down your body once you are done with the exercises. This video will help you do basic warm up and cool down routine.
│What to do if you are short on time
Sometimes you may join a trekking group late — less than 30 days to the trek start date. This puts an enormous pressure on the training schedule.
In such a situation, you need to start training without losing a day’s delay. You need to compress the training schedule so that it can quickly get you to the cardiovascular threshold of being able to cover 5 km in 40 minutes.
Increase the jogging distance by 0.5 km everyday instead of the 0.25 suggested earlier.
1. Start by the slowest jog possible by you. Look to see the maximum distance that you can cover without feeling overly fatigued.
2. The next day, look to increase 0.50 km over the starting distance. Do not worry about the time being taken.
3. The subsequent day, add another 0.50 km over the last distance covered. Again, do not worry about the time being taken.
4. Continue the incremental increase of distance for 4 days in a row. On the 5th day take a break. Allow your muscles to recover.
5. From the sixth day onward, jog for 4 days continuing to increase your distance by 0.5 km every day. Take a break every 5th day. Do not worry about the time being taken.
6. When you are able to get to a distance of 5 km, note the time taken to cover the distance. This is your starting time.
7. Over the next few days maintain this distance until your trek starting day. Allow your body to get used to the stress of jogging. This preparation is crucial for the success of your trek.
8. An ideal benchmark is to cover 5 km in 40 minutes (averaging 8 minutes per kilometer). If you are above 40 years old, then 5 km in 45 minutes would be your benchmark (avg of 9 minutes per km)
9. The minimum you must aim to do if you are short on time is be able to jog for 4 km in 32 minutes. This is minimum but not ideal. The longer distance you cover, the more endurance you get.
│What happens if you do not train for the trek
Many trekkers do not train for a trek. These are the usual reasons:
“I did not have the time.”
“I have done other treks before. They were more difficult. I could manage myself in those treks.”
“I walk for an hour everyday and I am fit.”
Training is imperative for a trek. When you join an Indiahikes trekking group, most members are serious about their training. They spend considerable time preparing for a trek.
Even if they are fit, they run that extra mile to ensure a comfortable trek.
If you do not train for a trek and lag behind, then it is a great disrespect to those who prepare. It also becomes difficult for us to manage a group. The group spreads out on the trekking slope and safety of the team is compromised. Which is why we have a clear turn-around time on our treks.
At Indiahikes, if trekkers come without training, we send them back immediately. If they are lagging behind by more than 45 minutes or an hour compared to other fit trekkers, that’s the end of the trek for them. The Trek Leader sends them back to the base camp.
│How fit is fit enough?
At Indiahikes, we look at it like this. There are four levels of fitness when you’re on a trek.
Level 0 is not preparing for a trek at all. It’s appalling but it is true that there are umpteen trekkers who go to the mountains with zero preparation. Since we at Indiahikes are extremely strict about fitness, we don’t see too many in this category. But in the mountains, there is a discernible difference between our trekkers and others, especially when others are at Level 0.
➤ Level 1 is being just about fit to manage to complete the trek. You struggle a bit, but not much. You make it to the top (from our experience most trekkers achieve this fitness level).
➤ Level 2 is being fit enough to enjoy your trek. You don’t feel exertion or pay attention to your body. You have enough time to absorb the surroundings and make conversations while trekking (around 10% of our trekkers achieve this).
➤ Level 3 is when you are fit enough to comfortably face bad weather conditions, and trek that extra mile through snow and rain. Most trekkers who achieve this level of fitness are stoic about the weather, they accept it and embrace it (very few trekkers achieve this level of fitness).
Are you at Level 0 or 3?
I notice that if trekkers are going on tough treks like Kedartal, Rupin Pass, Everest Base Camp etc., they do try to reach Level 3. But most others who go on easy-moderate treks reach just Level 1. They think bad weather / emergencies don’t occur on easier treks.
But I must tell you, emergencies can occur even on the easiest treks. We are dealing with the Himalayas at very high altitudes. The weather is never predictable, it could rain or snow any time.
So no matter what trek you’re going on, target to be at the peak of your fitness. Aim at Level 3. That way, you’ll at least hit Level 2.
If you have found this guide helpful, or you know of any more exercises that could help build the required strength and endurance for Himalayan treks, feel free to drop in your thoughts in the comments section below.