How to go about Trekking Post-Covid Recovery: A Doctor’s Note

When I look at Covid numbers in our country, I cannot help but imagine how many trekkers may have been affected by the virus.

Even within Indiahikes, around 35% of us got affected by Covid. Most of us got moderate to mild symptoms. Some lucky ones escaped with no symptoms. Most of us have recovered now.

Given that Covid is an infection that leaves a bit of its ghost behind, it’s important for us to understand how to get ready for a trek post Covid recovery.

To learn about this, I interviewed our go-to doctor, a medical practitioner, who has been a Covid frontline warrior since Day 1 of the pandemic. Her name is Dr. Sreelakshmi Thirumoorthy. We fondly call her Dr. Sree.

Dr. Sree has witnessed the impact of Covid up close. She has also worked with Indiahikes extensively, and has many great treks under her belt. Her academic interest is in pursuing the knowledge of human physiology at high altitudes. She is our medical expert. So it was natural that I interviewed her on this topic.

I caught up with her yesterday to ask about how we can get ready for a trek if we have recovered from Covid.

Before I get on with the interview, I want to give away the spoiler! The good news is that no matter how bad your Covid case was, if you have recovered from it, you can trek at high altitudes.

But she advises that we follow some protocols.

I’m going to lay my conversation out as questions and answers to make it easier for you.

Sreelakshmi - Indiahikes
In conversation with Dr. Sreelakshmi. Picture from the Indiahikes archives

1. I’ve recovered from Covid-19. For how long should I wait before I head out on a high altitude trek? 

Dr. Sreelakshmi: If you’ve been affected by a mild case of Covid without too many symptoms, you can give it around 4-6 weeks before you head out on a high altitude trek.

If you’ve got a severe bout of Covid, though, I would advise waiting a minimum of 3 months before heading to the mountains. There’s a reason for this. For moderate to severe Covid, there can be scarring in the lungs and fibrosis as a sequela of the disease. You tend to feel body pain and tiredness long after the infection is gone.

Recovering from this takes some time. It takes 2-3 months to reach your Pre-Covid energy levels and get rid of the post-viral myalgia.

So my advice is to wait it out for a minimum of 3 months and then head out on a high altitude trek. I would also recommend that you start with easier treks to see how you perform before you think of the more difficult treks.


2. How should I go about getting started on a fitness routine? 

(Dr. Sreelakshmi is a Certified Advanced Power Yoga Instructor, so her advice here is on-point.)

Dr. Sreelakshmi: Exercise is beneficial as soon as you recover from Covid. Here, I would advise you to start slow.

Start by brisk walking for 20 minutes (you can do this within your house / or on your terrace). After about 10 days, mix it up with jogging. Do a 10 minute jog + 10 minute brisk walk.

After 15 days or so, start including functional exercises like squats and planks to build your strength. (See some good functional exercises here.) Increase your workout incrementally, seeing how much your body allows you.

Over and above everything, my advice is to include deep breathing exercises in your fitness routine. For a high altitude trek, your lung capacity is what you need to build.

So simple pranayama like anulom-vilom, kapalbhati and nadi shodhan will help. These are very basic forms of pranayama and anyone can do them. They help your lungs expand and that’s what you need while recovering from Covid.


3. You were very particular about following a good diet. What diet would you advise trekkers to follow while they are recovering?

Dr. Sreelakshmi: A healthy diet is imperative on your road to recovery. You need protein-rich food, with a lower glycemic index (GI). This is what will help you prepare for a trek as well.

Consume more fruits, vegetables and greens. Choose millets instead of rice. Choose wholesome grains and sprouts instead of processed food.

Avoid any junk food, and even high GI food like bread and biscuits.

While this is the usual advice you hear when it comes to a healthy diet, it becomes all the more important when you’re recovering from Covid.


4. Is it possible that you’re more susceptible to Acute Mountain Sickness if you’ve been affected by Covid? 

Dr. Sreelakshmi: This is hard to say, because COVID is a new infectious disease and there still is a lot unknown about it. I am studying it too. Our Indiahikes health app data will be of vital help in studying the impact of Covid in high altitudes, not only for India but also for the world.

Yet, theoretically, you could be more susceptible because of the lung scarring and fibrosis. Which is why it is all the more important that you recover fully before taking up a high altitude trek.

Having said that, I would advise trekkers to follow what we suggest to anyone. Acclimatize well, take precautionary measures. I would strongly advise to test yourself first on treks that do not go above 12,500 ft.

If you’re climbing above 14,000 ft (having tested yourself on lower grade treks), go on a preventive course of Diamox. These are the basics that Indiahikes has always advised to trekkers, and anyone should follow them.

On another note, on any Indiahikes trek, you’re required to bring a medical certificate with you. When you hand this over to your Trek Leader during your Safety Check-In, inform them that you’ve had Covid in the past. They will make sure to keep an eye on you.


5. Would you advise trekkers to choose any particular treks? 

Dr. Sreelakshmi: Hmm, what I’d suggest is that you go on a local trek and see how you fare. I understand that it’s difficult during these lockdowns. But after the country opens up, you should definitely do that. If you feel breathless and tired after just 2-3 hours of climbing, you’ll know where you stand and whether you can attempt a Himalayan trek.

But if you have fully recovered and know you’re back to your pre-Covid energy levels, you can attempt any Himalayan trek, difficulty no bar.


6. Should trekkers be vaccinated in order to trek? 

Dr. Sreelakshmi: If you have not been affected by Covid, or if it’s been 6 months since you have had Covid, then it’s much safer to trek after vaccinating yourself. It helps to keep yourself and others safe.

With the current vaccination drives in our country, I see that most people have received one dose of the vaccination. Even this is better than nothing to keep you and others around you safe. If you’ve got both doses, that’s the best.


Conclusion 

From my conversation with Dr Sree, going to the mountains after recovering from Covid is not difficult.

A lot of her advice is what we advise our trekkers to follow on any given day — have a good fitness routine, maintain a good diet, know your trek well and head out.

If you have any doubts on this topic, I’ll be happy to request Dr Sree to help answer your questions. So drop in your questions in the comments below and we’ll write back to you.

Indiahikes treks from mid June?

All of us at Indiahikes are gearing up to head back to the mountains too. We are hopeful about reopening treks from mid-June onwards. Of course, a lot depends on state-imposed restrictions and the Covid numbers in India. We will reopen treks when we feel it is safe for our trekkers and our mountain teams.

Until then, I hope you work towards getting fit and taking care of yourself.

I’ll see you next week.

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy

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 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 in a person's mind, body and spirit. Read Swathi's columns. Watch Swathi's videos.