5 Fitness Tips: Preparing for your first Himalayan Trek
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Program for pro trekkers.
Fitness can be defined in a variety of ways and at a very rudimentary level it is the ability to perform a physical task for a definite amount of time. You may be good at lifting weights or have great upper body strength but to achieve trekking fitness for your next Himalayan trek just one thing will count the most i.e. cardio-vascular fitness.
Cardiovascular fitness is the ability of your heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the working muscle tissues which produces energy for movement. To contract and expand muscles need energy. We produce this energy by a chemical process called metabolism. Energy systems can further be divided into two pathways-aerobic and anaerobic. Without getting in the nitty-gritty, just remember that our aerobic metabolism allows us produce moderate power for a longer duration and that is just what we need on our treks.
So how and why do we develop an aerobic energy system?
Step 1: Low-intensity exercise
To understand the benefits of a low-intensity workout, we first need to understand the problems that high-intensity workout possess. Firstly, high-intensity exercises stimulate only a part of our aerobic system, in other words, after these workouts you will feel more powerful but you won’t be able to sustain that power for a long time. Secondly, if we are consistent and your body doesn’t recover adequately then it will lead to stagnation of your fitness or even weakening of your body.
When we say high-intensity we mean “REALLY high intensity”; weight or cardio exercises you can’t continue doing for more than 5 minutes. Movies normally endorse this type of training where the protagonist is ready to face an entire army after just a few months of training. High intensity workouts like these in isolation will only lead to a lack of motivation and doesn’t serve our purpose.
Low-intensity exercises are defined as exercises performed at 60 to 80 % of your maximum heart rate. At this level of intensity one can sustain fatigue for longer periods and build endurance more efficiently. After these exercises your body will take lesser time to recover, plus you’ll train the necessary energy pathways to do slow-paced work. All this said, there is a place for high-intensity exercises in your training plan. But it comes in the end after you have a good cardio-vascular foundation and your body’s recovery time has decreased.
Remember that it’s better to exercise a little, and often, than to do a lot once in a while. Intensity is not a substitute for volume.
- Rock Climbing
Step 2: Don’t run too fast
Run but at a pace where you are able to speak complete sentences. Aim for long duration runs, if you have very low fitness then jog. You are not going to sprint in the mountains; you’ll most likely walk for a long time.
“Run at a pace which stimulates your intended movement and remember that the intensity is not a substitute for duration. Keep the intensity low and try and build on volume. Breathe through your nose while running, if your breathing gets laboured then decrease your pace” – says ultra-runner Kieren Dsouza, the man with a jaw dropping endurance. He recently finished 8th in Eiger ultra-trail 2018.
Step 3: Core
Stabilizing yourself on uneven terrain requires a lot of core strength and add to it the weight of a backpack, you have the answer to why you need to do core workouts. Imagine your core as a tree’s trunk and your limbs as branches, if the trunk isn’t strong then everything else will collapse. Add a few lower back-exercises to your circuit because you will be carrying a backpack for hours at a time. A strong core also reduces the risk of injury to your knees and ankles.
- Superman Push-ups
- Hanging leg raises
Step 4: Cut down on sugar intake
You can’t go longer than a couple hours without eating if you’re relying on a high-carb sugar diet. Our body has a large fat storage which can be used as energy. Carbs are converted to energy (glucose) more quickly and easily than protein and fat. Sugar burns easily but body fat is more energy packed. The longer your hikes the more you need to rely on fat as fuel. So how do you develop a fat engine?
– Fat-adaptation for athletic performance is a long term game. Your body will only use fat as fuel when you’re building new mitochondria, increasing your metabolic flexibility, and increasing the amount of fat burnt for a given intensity. Eat a lot of fat and exercise often. If you are overweight this pattern of exercise will help you lose weight but if you break consistency than you’ll be back to square one.
-Your workouts need to be long. Sugar is easy to burn and it is our body’s primary fuel; normally we first burn our glycogen energy stores which we get by consuming carbohydrates. After we burn those glycogen energy reserves, our body eventually starts getting energy by burning ketones, energy produced from fatty acids.
-Do low-intensity exercises, if you are building your aerobic system then your body will automatically utilize your fat reserves.
Step 5: Recovery
“Training weakens your body but recovery makes it stronger”.-Tony Yaniro
Sleep: The most important tool for recovery is sleep. One of the hormones, namely GH1, is body’s primary signaling agent for adapting to higher training loads. If you aren’t getting enough sleep GH1 levels will decline and your recovery will be impaired.
Food and water: Refueling is critical for recovery especially within 20-30 minutes of your workout. Missing this window after training can extend recovery time by days. Depending on the workout, it is advisable to take in 100-200 calories immediately. Adequate hydration is important especially, if you are training in heat or for extended periods of time.
This article only covers half of the picture. The most important and often forgotten parts of any training plan are mental or psychological preparations. We cannot prescribe any guidelines but from our own experience, we can say that if one chooses to remain consistent with their training plan, it helps build one’s mental capacity to remain calm in the face of adversity.
(All tips provided here are inspired from the philosophy of Uphill Athlete and the book Training for the New Alpinism. For more information please visit www.uphillathlete.com)
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Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.