Why Fitness is Important for Your High Altitude Trek

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Why Fitness is Important for Your High Altitude Trek

Category easy-moderate moderate moderate-difficult difficult fitness trekfit

By Swathi Chatrapathy

2022-09-07

It’s a serious mistake to not prepare for your trek after signing up for it. Unfortunately, 30-40% of trekkers make this mistake every year.  

Three years ago we even faced a ‘fitness faking epidemic’ where trekkers who were not fit resorted to faking their fitness screenshots in order get approved for the trek. Some trekkers still do it. 

In such a scenario, there is a simple thing that trekkers don’t understand. 

You sacrifice a lot to sign up for a trek — money, time, so much thought and planning. You do it to enjoy trekking, to enjoy being in nature.

But just putting thought, money and time into registering is not enough. Reality is — you won’t enjoy the trek if you are not fit

Trekking is very different from going on walks. Walking long distances on a road, or in a garden cannot be compared to climbing a mountain or a pass. On treks you are continuously ascending and descending on uneven terrain. This takes strength and endurance. It becomes more difficult when you are doing it at a high altitude (above 9000 ft). 

Three things happen when you are not fit:

  1. You do not enjoy the trek
  2. You struggle to be a part of the team
  3. You miss out on a deep transformative experience that trekking can offer

This is why it’s important to be fit for a trek. Good part is, it’s not difficult. All you need to do is  start following a fitness routine 30-45 days before the trek begins. 

A common question —  I have no trek experience. Will I be able to trek just by following the fitness routine?

Yes. Trekking is a sport that primarily uses your lungs, your core, and your lower body. Prior experience matters only for difficult treks. For all other treks, good fitness is key.

To reach this fitness, there are just two things to work on — your cardiovascular endurance and your muscle strength. 

Running works your lungs and lower body, while basic strength training using your own body weight like planks and push-ups makes your core stronger.

These exercises when done consistently over a period of time will yield tremendous results and make your trek ready by the end of the training plan. Thousands of trekkers have benefited from this simple routine.

How fit is fit enough?

Before you start on your fitness journey, find out where you stand:

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?

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Note: It’s important to have a combination of Cardio and Strength Training

Cardio and strength training both are very important to help you prepare for your high-altitude trek. 

But you may notice that once you start training, it’s easy to just focus on the runs. This happens with many trekkers. Many times, strength training gets sidelined. This is why we have consciously incorporated strength training in your trek fitness routine. 

With that, let's get into the fitness routine.

Always Start With a Basic Stretch

The key to avoiding injuries on your fitness journey is to start by stretching. To help you get started on the right foot, Slope Manager Dushyant Sharma takes you through the stretches he personally follows before and after his run. Dushyant has been a consistent runner for more than five years. In this video, you'll see how he maintained his fitness regimen without getting injured

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In this fitness guide, you'll also notice that we have placed considerable emphasis on running. There's a reason for that.

Why Running Is The Best Exercise To Get Fit For A Trek (Vs Swimming and Cycling)

Many trekkers ask us if they can go swimming or cycling instead of running to get fit for a trek.

In this video, Co-Founder of Indiahikes, Sandhya Chandrasekharayya shares why running is the best exercise to get fit for a trek, especially compared to swimming and cycling.

While both of them are great endurance builders, running / jogging focuses on the exact same muscles you use while trekking, she says.

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With that, let's get into the fitness routine of specific trek levels.

Fitness Plan for Easy-Moderate Treks

5-6 km each day | Gradual ascents and descents | Max. altitude about 12,500 ft.

There are no technical sections on these treks, but there could be small sections of steep gradients or tricky patches that require you to be surefooted.

Fitness Chart - Easy-Moderate - Indiahikes

Here is an easy plan for you to follow:

Weeks 1 - 4:

- Keep the distance of your run/walk to just 2 km (Week 1), 3 km (Week 2), 4 km (Week 3), and 5 km (Week 4) on running days. Do not increase the distance.

- For Strength Training, do at least 10 repetitions and 3 sets of all the exercises mentioned.

- Take your rest days seriously, and rest. Your body recovers quickly when you rest.

- When you climb stairs, target for at least 15 floors (20 stairs per floor), and repeat it for 3 sets.

Weeks 5 - 8:

- Once you can comfortably run 5 km, the following weeks are focused on building speed.

- On every run day except when you run easy, run 5 km with an intention to finish within 38 minutes. Do not worry if you are not there yet. You will get there by the end of Week 8.

- Strength Training days will be the same as the previous 4 weeks. If you can easily do 10 repetitions and 3 sets of each exercise, increase your repetitions to 15 or 20 in each set.

- For stair climbing, add an 8-10 kg backpack and climb for the next 4 weeks.

What is a repetition and a set? Repetition is the number of times you repeat the workout. A Set is a combination of repetitions, usually performed three or more times during the workout session. For example, doing 10 push-ups, 3 times (10x3=30 push-ups) will constitute 10 repetitions and 3 sets.

Fitness Plan for Moderate Treks

6-8 km each day | The ascents and descents could get steep | Max. between 13,000 ft to 14,000 ft.

You’ll come across tricky patches frequently (like snow or scree), which require you to navigate with a certain amount of caution. There might also be small stream/river crossings.

Fitness Chart - Moderate - Indiahikes

To elaborate further, here is an easy plan for you to follow:

Weeks 1 - 4:

- Keep the distance of your run/walk to just 2 km (Week 1), 3 km (Week 2), 4 km (Week 3), and 5 km (Week 4) on running days. Do not increase the distance.

- For Strength Training, do at least 10 repetitions and 3 sets of all the exercises mentioned.

- Take your rest days seriously, and rest. Your body recovers quickly when you rest.

- When you climb stairs, target for at least 15 floors (20 stairs per floor), and repeat it for 3 sets.

Weeks 5 - 8:

- Once you can comfortably run 5 km, the following weeks are focused on building speed.

- On every run day except when you run easy, run 5 km with an intention to finish within 35 minutes. Do not worry if you are not there yet. You will get there by the end of Week 8.

- Strength Training days will be the same as the previous 4 weeks. If you can easily do 10 repetitions and 3 sets of each exercise, increase your repetitions to 15 or 20 in each set.

- For stair climbing, add an 8-10 kg backpack and climb for the next 4 weeks.

What is a repetition and a set? Repetition is the number of times you repeat the workout. A Set is a combination of repetitions, usually performed three or more times during the workout session. For example, doing 10 push-ups, 3 times (10x3=30 push-ups) will constitute 10 repetitions and 3 sets.

Fitness Plan for Moderate-Difficult Treks

8-12 km each day | Gradual to steep ascents and descents | Max. altitudes of 15,000+ ft.

Expect technical sections (such as rockfall zones, near-vertical sections, glacier walks), which our technical teams will help you navigate.

Fitness Chart - Moderate-Difficult - Indiahikes

To elaborate further, here is an easy plan for you to follow:

Weeks 1 - 4:

- Keep the distance of your run/walk to just 3 km (Week 1), 4 km (Week 2), and 5 km (Week 3 onwards) on running days. Do not increase the distance.

- For Strength Training, do at least 10 repetitions and 3 sets of all the exercises mentioned.

- Take your rest days seriously, and rest. Your body recovers quickly when you rest.

- When you climb stairs, target for at least 15 floors (20 stairs per floor), and repeat it for 3 sets.

Weeks 5 - 8:

- Once you can comfortably run 5 km, the following weeks are focused on building speed.

- On every run day except when you run easy, run 5 km with an intention to finish within 32 minutes. Do not worry if you are not there yet. You will get there by the end of Week 8.

- Strength Training days will be the same as the previous 4 weeks. If you can easily do 10 repetitions and 3 sets of each exercise, increase your repetitions to 15 or 20 in each set.

- For stair climbing, add an 8-10 kg backpack and climb for the next 4 weeks.

What is a repetition and a set? Repetition is the number of times you repeat the workout. A Set is a combination of repetitions, usually performed three or more times during the workout session. For example, doing 10 push-ups, 3 times (10x3=30 push-ups) will constitute 10 repetitions and 3 sets.

Fitness Plan for Difficult Treks

12-20 km each day | Extremely steep ascents and descents | Max. altitudes till 19,000+ ft.

Technical sections (such as rockfall zones, near-vertical sections, glacier walks, boulder and scree sections) are an everyday affair. Some sections can only be crossed with the help of our Technical Staff.

Difficult treks are the most demanding, which is why we take only those trekkers with prior trekking experience on them. 

To do a difficult trek, target running 10 km within 60 minutes consistently. This will be possible only if you can run 5 km within 30 minutes comfortably before signing up for a difficult trek.

This fitness chart will help you get there by following the plan for 8 weeks (or 2 months) before the start of your trek.

You will receive a questionnaire asking for your current fitness level and high altitude experience. Only those who have prior high altitude trekking experience will be allowed to sign up for difficult treks.

Fitness Chart - Difficult - Indiahikes

To elaborate further, here is an easy plan for you to follow:

Weeks 1 - 4:

- Keep the distance of your run/walk to just 5 km (Week 1), 7 km (Week 2), 10 km (Week 3 onwards) on running days. Do not increase the distance.

- For Strength Training, do at least 10 repetitions and 3 sets of all the exercises mentioned.

- Take your rest days seriously, and rest. Your body recovers quickly when you rest.

- When you climb stairs, target for at least 15 floors (20 stairs per floor), and repeat it for 3 sets.

Weeks 5 - 8:

- Once you can comfortably run 10 km, the following weeks are focused on building speed.

- On every run day except when you run easy, run 10 km with an intention to finish within 60 minutes. Do not worry if you are not there yet. You will get there by the end of Week 8.

- Strength Training days will be the same as the previous 4 weeks. If you can easily do 10 repetitions and 3 sets of each exercise, increase your repetitions to 15 or 20 in each set.

- For stair climbing, add an 8-10 kg backpack and climb for the next 4 weeks.

What is a repetition and a set? Repetition is the number of times you repeat the workout. A Set is a combination of repetitions, usually performed three or more times during the workout session. For example, doing 10 push-ups, 3 times (10x3=30 push-ups) will constitute 10 repetitions and 3 sets.

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 enormous pressure on the training schedule.

In such a situation, 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.

How Children Can Get Fit for a High Altitude Trek

We've noticed that many families have started stepping out on high altitude treks with their children. It's a heartening trend!

But if your child has not trekked in the Himalayas, or locally, or has not been physically very active then you must watch this video. In this video Neha Satheesan, who was a part of the Learning and Development Team at Indiahikes, shares how children can follow a step-wise fitness routine to get ready for a Himalayan trek.

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With that, we come to the end of this fitness guide.

In Conclusion

We’ve observed that trekkers going on tough treks like Kedartal, Rupin Pass, Buran Ghati, Warwan Valley, instinctively aim to reach Level 3. These are usually trekkers who have trekked in the Himalayas before. They understand the challenges of trekking in high altitude. 

But most others, especially trekkers who are preparing to go for easy-moderate treks, reach just Level 1. This could happen if you are undermining the challenges on the easy-moderate treks or have not trekked before. In such cases, a common mistake is to think that bad weather and emergencies don’t occur on easier treks.

You must know, 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. 

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.

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Swathi Chatrapathy

Chief Editor

About the author

Swathi Chatrapathy heads the digital content team at Indiahikes. She is also the face behind India's popular trekking video channel, Trek With Swathi. Unknown to many, Swathi also writes a weekly column at Indiahikes which has more than 100,000 followers. A TEDx speaker and a frequent guest at other events, Swathi is a much sought after resource for her expertise in digital content. Before joining Indiahikes, Swathi worked as a reporter and sub-editor at a daily newspaper. She holds a Masters's in Digital Journalism and continues to contribute to publications. Trekking, to her, is a sport that liberates the mind more than anything else. Through trekking, Swathi hopes to bring about a profound impact on a person's mind, body and spirit.

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