One of the most frequent questions I am asked by people who are planning to trek in Himalayas is how to prepare for a Himalayan trek, particularly a longer one at high altitudes (above 3000 meters/10,000 feet)..
Assuming that you have the basic physical conditioning equal to the trek that you have chosen to do, preparing for the trek is fairly straightforward. There are three basic components of preparation - aerobic, strength, and mental.
Aerobic conditioning is important primarily because you will trekking in thin air, up to 40% less than at sea level.
With good aerobic conditioning you will be able to better metabolize whatever oxygen is available to you, not only bringing energy to your leg muscles, but minimizing the potential effects of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). You should plan on doing at least one hour of aerobic conditioning at least 4 times per week for 2 months or more before you start. This can running, cycling (outdoor or stationary), Nordic track, hill climbing, or any exercise that gets your heart rate into the aerobic range (70% of your maximum heart rate) for sustained periods of time.
Even if you are in good overall physical condition you may not have the right muscles well-conditioned for the kind of trekking terrain you will experience in the Himalayas. Building good leg muscle strength in the gym is helpful but it is also very important that you exercise the exact muscles that you will depend on when you trek. Hiking in hilly areas for at least two hours per day with some weight on your back is the best way to do this. Not only will it make your climbs up steep mountain trails easier and more enjoyable, but even more importantly it will help with the long descents down steep trails.
You might think that the biggest challenge of high mountain trekking is going up but actually it is descending that creates the most problems for trekkers. In the gym be sure to focus on building strength in your quadriceps, the muscles that take on all of the burden going downhill. If you have weak quads you will be likely to step down heavily, possibly leading to ankle, knee and other problems during the trek. Tai Chi is also an excellent exercise for trekkers as it focuses not only on strengthening these muscles but also on technique for stepping lightly and safely. The Tai Chi technique of well-balanced “weightless stepping” is ideal for navigating steep, uneven trail surfaces for many hours per day.
Trekkers will notice how the trails there are generally so much steeper than in their home countries. This is not because the Himalayas are necessarily steeper than anywhere else, but because locals use these trails as their main routes of commerce, just as we use roads. Mountain trails in other countries are designed for recreation and so are usually laid out in long, sweeping switchbacks to reduce the amount of effort required without concern for the time it takes to get from one place to another. Trails in Himalayas are much straighter, going almost directly up or down to their destination, from village to village. Rather than have long, gradually ascending trails most Himalayan trails point almost directly up, requiring a lot more effort, and especially when descending, a lot more concentration.
Mental preparation is often overlooked by many people who have otherwise prepared well in all other areas. While trekking may require a lot of physical effort, something to “endure” as the only way to see remote parts of Himalayas, it can be a very enjoyable exercise of itself.. Pay close attention to various parts of the body and consciously let them loosen up. When you trek try to relax your body, especially your hips. Focus on the muscles in your hips, right where the legs meet the pelvic bone and try to let you legs swing free as if they were on a hinge. If you’re on a winding downhill trail, think of each step as part of a simple dance and enjoy the natural rhythms that the terrain and your body can find together. Think of the trail as a flowing river and float along on its current, letting the trail take you where it will. Experiment with different ways of walking as a way of finding enjoyment beyond the goal of reaching a destination.
Trekking in the Himalayas is a relatively safe activity and mishaps or problems are usually minor if taken care properly. However, unpleasant things can occur on a long trek or High altitude climbs. You might have a bout of mild illness, not sleep as well as usual, find the trek pace too fast or slow – any number of things might be annoying or stressful during some part of your trek. Try to imagine your trip as an opportunity to experience whatever happens as an essential part of the journey. You should be prepared to find joy and fulfillment in all the moments of your trip, including the less pleasant ones that you hadn’t expected. Preparing to keep a very positive frame of mind throughout your trip, along with good physical conditioning, will insure that you are ready to experience all the wonders of Himalayas.