Why is Fitness Important for A High Altitude Trek: A Trek Leader’s Perspective

F rom my experience of trekking for 1700+ kilometers and leading numerous groups in the high altitudes of the Indian and Nepal Himalayas, I have come to realize that one of the most important factors in having a great trek experience is fitness.

Treks like Kedartal, Everest and Annapurna Basecamp test a trekker’s fitness to extreme levels. Seen here are trekkers crossing the Spider wall section on Kedartal trek. Picture By: Sudheer Hegde

This concept might sound very banal to you, but trust me it makes a world of difference. Invariably, in all the treks I have led, I have noticed that people who have prepared before a trek have performed much better and enjoyed much more than those who didn’t.

Countless people on a trek have terribly suffered only because they didn’t bother to prepare at all. I have seen scores of trekkers endure an unnecessary bout of struggle and pain, which feels unending at the time.

Here I will tell you how to prevent this and correct a big mistake people make when preparing for a trek.

How lack of fitness affects the quality of your trek

The pain and struggle caused by lack of preparation diminishes trek experience and spoils all the fun.

Trekkers who are not fit do not look around to experience the beauty of the majestic snow-capped mountains. They are unable to absorb the tranquility of the pristine forest trails. They walk like robots and only focus on whether their next step is going to be painful or not. Even though they look down and walk, in their physically traumatic journey, they never come to discover how lush green the meadows are.

Trekkers climbing up to Machermo at 14.600 ft on the EBC-Gokyo Ri trek. Picture by Santhosh Govindarajulu

These situations can be very hard to tackle.

As a trek leader, I feel extremely helpless when trekkers are not fit because no amount of trek guidance, instructions, medicines or motivation can actually relieve trekkers’ suffering.

This has compelled me today to write about how to avoid such an unpleasant experience in the mountains.

The only solution is to prepare hard and prepare well.

Understanding the link between high altitude, the human body and fitness

High altitude is generally defined as any place 9,000 ft above sea level or higher.

You all know, as you go higher, the amount of oxygen going into your bloodstream from the inspired ‘thin’ air is less due to lower atmospheric pressure. So when you prepare in the plains, nothing will compensate for this lack of oxygen in the mountains. It is important to note that no amount of trek preparation is completely sufficient for high altitudes.

Having said that, a good physical training schedule before a trek will definitely prepare your body to withstand all the hardships that lie ahead.

When you’re fit, you can enjoy the scenery on the trek instead of gasping for breath or struggling to catch up all the time. Picture of the meadows on the Hampta Pass trek by Chirag Sadhnani

When you travel to high mountain areas, your bodies initially develop automatic physiological responses to change in surrounding condition –

1. Lungs start working doubly hard to get enough oxygen into your bodies.

2. There is an increase in breathing and heart rate, even while resting.

3. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up sharply as your hearts pump harder to get more oxygen to the cells.

Thus the heart needs to be in a terrific condition for a trek, which is a physically demanding activity. The heart muscle should be strengthened so that it is able to pump more blood per heartbeat.

You also need to build cardiorespiratory endurance. This is the ability of your heart and lungs to absorb, transport and utilize oxygen over extended periods of time during physical exertion. Higher cardiorespiratory endurance will enable your lungs and heart to better use the low amount of oxygen.

Aerobic exercises like brisk walking, jogging, swimming and cycling will help achieve this. Endurance training will prepare you to do more work with the oxygen you take in.

What does it mean to get fit for a High Altitude Trek

Now, the biggest mistake most people make when preparing for a trek is to train only for stamina and cardiovascular endurance. They ignore a very significant aspect of an ideal trek prep – building muscle strength.

What all trekkers and especially first-timers need to do is to strengthen their muscles especially lower body ones, build a strong core and improve their sense of balance and stability.

When you are not used to walking on an uneven terrain, your muscles take a lot of beating. Training for your muscles will prepare them to absorb all the shocks on a hike. The leg muscles will get stronger through aerobic training, but you should include exercises in your trek prep that specifically work your legs too.

The main constituents of the leg group of muscles are quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.

To successfully negotiate uneven terrain on treks, you need to build strength, flexibility and balance along with stamina. Picture of the Kedartal trek by Sudheer Hegde

The quad muscles at the fronts of the thighs are the primary muscles used for trekking. A trek engages all portions of the quadriceps to propel the body forward during steps. The quads extend (straighten) your knee. If they are weak, your knees will have to bear the weight which can cause knee injuries such as the patellofemoral syndrome (PFS) or runner’s knee.

Apart from your leg muscles, the glutes, hip, abdominal and back muscles also need to be incorporated in any strength training schedule. All these muscles help to support the torso while engaged in any physical activity.

The torso provides the central pillar against which the limbs move. A trek requires a lot of bending, twisting, and turning. At times you have to be on all your fours to scramble on boulders. Additionally, picking your backpack up and carrying it for long distances needs needs good muscular endurance in your mid-section. It is therefore important to maintain strength in your core and back supported by hip and the glutes to maintain a good erect posture especially during a strenuous walk carrying a backpack.

Our trek leaders usually run at high-altitude basecamps to maintain their fitness.

Most of the treks I have done are a mix of various kinds of terrain. Treks may require you to walk on gravel, moraines, boulders, steps, soft snow, hard snow, glaciers, meadows, streams, rivers, suspension bridges, arid and sandy trails or steep rocky patches. The trails may be so wide that a herd of sheep can walk alongside or they may be so narrow that one step off the trail will take you down a gorge.

Therefore, along with building cardiorespiratory endurance and strong muscles, training for flexibility, balance and stability is also very important.

Walking on narrow trails, a mix of different unfamiliar terrain and navigating uneven ground requires you to have good balance and be flexible. It will help you trek with confidence and even if you slip you will be quite adept at arresting your falls.

What you should include in your Trek Preparation

So our trek prep schedule must have all the aforementioned three essential components:

| Cardiorespiratory Endurance
| Muscle Strength
| Flexibility and Balance

We need to focus on all three to have an holistic preparation before undertaking a trek adventure.

Brisk-walking or jogging is a must and ideally should be done daily with gradual increase in duration over the period of your preparation. Apart from this, we also need exercises which target all of the above three components

Now, it can be a daunting task in choosing exercises from the innumerable ones out there. Below I am listing only 4 exercises which will do the trick for you. You do not need to do anything extra.

Exercises such as stair climbing mimic what is required of you on a trek and are great way to build lower body strength. Picture of the Pangarchulla summit climb by Satyen Dasgupta

These will help you increase your aerobic capacity and endurance, build strength in all primary trekking muscles and also improve flexibility and balance.

| Stair Climbing with Backpack
| Bodyweight Squats (Check Video)
| Step-ups with knee raise (Check Video)
| Deadbug (Check Video)

The above exercises should be done minimum 4 days a week. You have to progress with increasing the intensity and duration of exercise as the trek day approaches.

Out of all of them, stair-climbing is the most important as it works the whole body and tries to mimic an actual hike. You should increase the intensity of the activity gradually by doing it with a backpack and for longer duration.

Remember, being disciplined and consistent is the key. Please keep aside your mobile phone for some time and remove all distractions. Perform these exercises at least 4 days a week, religiously, in an extremely disciplined manner and trust me you will see results. Starting with them at least two months before will do wonders for you.

So go ahead to prepare hard and prepare well.

A final request

Finally, I want to make an earnest request to all first-timers: you are putting so much time, effort and money to plan and book a trek. You must take a little time out of your busy schedule to prepare too. Do not take a trek for granted and treat it as a picnic or a tour holiday. A trek is a different ball-game altogether. A little preparation will prevent all the unnecessary suffering and pain that I have been a witness to in most of my my trek adventures.

There is a reason people trek in the high altitudes. The breathtaking sceneries, the pristine sights and the reinvigorating serenity brings people out to some of the remotest places on earth. These places are not accessible by motor vehicles and therefore you walk.  You walk on a difficult terrain for days in harsh weather and unfamiliar environment.

If it was easy, everybody would have done it. It is not. You should understand no one is going to do the trek for you. And no one is going to carry you to such places. So it is of utmost importance that you take preparation seriously. Because for those who do, a trek adventure can turn into the best few days of their life.


What you should do now

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Abhirup Paul

Abhirup Paul

Abhirup Paul was a Trek Leader at Indiahikes. Born in Tripura, he was brought up in Calcutta. He studied economics before landing a job at an analytics firm in Bangalore. He is passionate about travelling and body building. He quit his corporate job to be in the mountains.

2 thoughts on “Why is Fitness Important for A High Altitude Trek: A Trek Leader’s Perspective

  1. Sir,
    Thanks for useful info. To start what is the ideal duration you suggest and it should be increased to what duration. Please reply… Thanks

    1. Hi Sanjeev, it would be best if you can start off by running 4 km a day, 5 days a week. And then hit 5 km a day 6 days a week. You should be able to cover the 5 km distance in around 40-45 minutes.

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