Hiking the Himalayas: FITNESS preparation guide

Paula Martinelli Blog, healthy, Travel 7 Comments

The Challenges:

As I prepared for my adventure to hike the Himalayas mountains in Nepal, I focused on my health and fitness preparation for this challenge, and I am happy to share with you this guide and I hope it helps you to prepare for your personal fitness goal.

As a bodybuilding athlete, my regular training and diet looks very different than it does for this preparation.

My challenge: Trek the Annapurna Base Camp in the beautiful Himalayan mountain range.

High Altitudes: Annapurna Base Camp, at 4,130 m, is set amidst the majestic peaks of Annapurna I (8091 m), Annapurna South (7219 m), Machapuchhre (6993 m) and Hiunchuli (6441 m).

Low Temperature: I hiked to the ABC in December, 2018 during the winter. The higher you get the colder it gets, and the estimated daytime temperature was around 5-10°C (41 – 50°F). At night the temperature drops to below freezing.

Backpacking: If you are hiking the Himalayas, you will be backpacking, of course. But this is something to consider when training, since a strong back and torso will be appreciated during the long days carrying weight on your back. I needed to be ready to carry my clothes and also my photography gear with me the whole time.

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FIRST, let's talk about HIGH ALTITUDE

The majority of my training and diet preparation were focused on the high altitudes, one of my biggest concerns. I live in Florida at sea level and I am not used to any elevation (and base camp is over 2.5 miles high).

If you have ever suffered from altitude sickness before, you know what I am talking about. My first experience was during a trip to Peru, on my first night at the hotel in Cuzco (11,152 feet/3,399 meters). I woke up in the middle of the night, alone in my hotel room, with terrible symptoms of altitude sickness: headache, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and it took several hours for me to feel like myself again. After that episode, I spent 2 weeks in Peru, including hiking the Montana Machu Picchu (3,050 meters) and I had no more symptoms whatsoever. Before I share my plan, it is important to review some important information:

What is altitude sickness: Also known as “mountain sickness”, altitude sickness is a collection of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation, or altitude, too quickly.

There are 3 types of altitude sickness -

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the mildest form and it’s very common. The symptoms can feel like a hangover – dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea.
  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous and even life threatening.
  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when there’s fluid in the brain. It’s life threatening and you need to seek medical attention right away.

Why it happens: The pressure of the air that surrounds you is called barometric pressure. When you go to higher altitudes, this pressure drops and there is less oxygen available. Any time you go above 8,000 feet, you can be at risk for altitude sickness.

When it happens: Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude.

Who is affected: You can never predict altitude sickness; you may not even get it. Physical fitness, age, and gender have no bearing on whether you will get altitude sickness. However, people at higher risk for feeling its effects are those with heart problems or lung problems.

What should you do:

  • Take it easy and take deep breaths
  • Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco
  • Keep hydrated, drinking plenty of water
  • Acclimate at a lower altitude, and ascend slowly
  • Take Diamox and/or Tylenol
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MY PREPARATION TO HIKE IN HIGH ALTITUDES

I know many people may say that there is no way for training for high altitudes, that being fit doesn’t mean you won’t get altitude sickness, the only training for high altitudes is to train in high altitudes…It is important to keep in mind that altitude sickness is pathologic and it can affect anyone. But if you are physically healthy and have trained your body effectively for the conditions, it will be beneficial and your performance will be better than someone who didn’t have any preparation. I am extremely happy with my training as I didn't have any symptoms of altitude sickness during my hike.

But the most important thing is that your next vacation should be your best Fitness Goal.

IMPROVE MY CARDIOVASCULAR ENDURANCE

I normally work out at the gym, lifting weights twice a day at a total of around 2 hours per day, 6 to 7 days a week.

For my hiking preparation, I changed my training and also took my workout outdoors, and still kept one session in the gym, and one session outdoors per day, during 2 months.

I focused on developing a breathing rhythm and deep breathing. Your ability to control and conserve your breath and expand your breathing capacity will come in handy when the oxygen supply is reduced. I would also recommend practicing deep breathing on training hikes. Whenever you begin to feel breathless, concentrate on taking deep breaths and smaller steps until a more normal breathing pattern returns.

You can mix and match, or pick at least 2 from this list, as you will need some variations. Some options are:

OUTDOOR RUNNING

What it does: Next to actual hiking, running will be the most similar type of training in terms of movements, so this will be a great way to get your legs and lungs prepared for what lies ahead.

Frequency and Duration: I target to run 5K (3.1 miles) 4-5 times a week during 40 minutes, including 10 minutes of warm up.

Tip: During each session, I try to train at a pace that keeps my heart rate at 70% to 85% of my maximum heart rate.

I chose to to train daily for 2 months and to run a 5K for personal goal
I chose to to train daily for 2 months and to run a 5K for personal goal

OUTDOOR INTERVAL TRAINING –

What it does: Interval training is a method of training the cardiovascular system by elevating the heart rate significantly and then allowing it to recover for a period before elevating it again, this prepares the cardiovascular system to deal with the stress of limited oxygen levels at higher altitudes

Frequency and Duration: I did this training 2-3 times a week, alternating with my running days. Duration was 10-15 intervals between sprinting 30 yards, and walking back to recover.

Tip: I did run sprints outdoors. But you can also do your interval training on a bike, up the hill, treadmill or any gym equipment that you may have access.

Take your run to outdoors in different conditions, such as using stairs at a park or soft sand at the beach

CLIMB STAIRS

What it does: Climbing stairs helps to strengthen leg muscles and lungs and this is another great way to do something that resembles what the hiking will be like.

Frequency and Duration: I kept 1 session per day 5- 6 times a week using a Stair Master at the gym, or at the stairs at a park. You can also use the stairs in a tall building, your apartment complex, a school stadium…

Tip: I incorporated the use of a resistance band around my quads, as it helped to add some additional resistance and helps to build more strength in your legs and glutes.

Stairs Masters with resistance band around tights
Stairs Masters with resistance band around tights

WEIGHT TRAINING –

What is does: I think you already realized I am a big fan of weight training. I have been training with weights since I was 16 years old. Some of the benefits include: it makes you stronger and fitter, it is good for your bone health and muscle mass and helps to develop better body mechanics

Frequency and Duration: I continue to train with weights at the gym once a day 6-7 times a week, for 45 to 60 minutes per day.

Tip: I prioritizing legs workout for hiking and incorporate more exercises such as squats, stiff legged dead lifts, leg press and calf exercises. It is also very important to train your upper body, as a strong body is very important. 3 days per week of legs training, 1 day for back, 1 day for shoulders and 1 day for arms (biceps and triceps) and 1 day with a combination of all body parts, with lighter weight, using cables.

Weight tainning focusing legs
Weight tainning focusing legs

PLYOMETRICS - 

What is does: Focus on increasing the strength and efficiency of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, improving greater involvement of your muscles which results in speed and strength gains.

Frequency and Duration: I do 2 sessions of plyometrics per week, never taking more than 20 minutes each session.

Tips: I like to incorporate plyometrics exercises during my weight training, between my sets. It can be platform jumping, walking lunges or jumping rope.

my DIET PLAN

The effects of high altitude on humans are considerable. The percentage oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, determines the content of oxygen in the blood. After our body reaches around 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) above see level, the saturation of oxyhemoglobin begins to decrease rapidly. You must be wondering: “and what does it have to do with our diet?”

Well, based on this science I have decided to change my bodybuilding to the ketones diet for my hiking. I am following a ketogenics diet with the help of my great friend and also one of the world’s leaders researches of  the ketogenic diet Dr. Dominique D’Agostino 

 

What is the Ketogenic diet?

The main principle of the ketogenic diet is to avoid simple sugars and complex carbs with a high glycemic index (GI), keeping even low-GI carbs to a strategic minimum while seeking energy from high-quality fats. The keto diet maintain low, constant insulin levels, promoting fat burning and reducing the hunger pangs that typically follow carbohydrate consumption.

 

How ketosis is affected by high altitude?

Since the ketogenic diet has being proven to increases performance results in high altitudes by increasing the amount of red blood cells in our system, and the more red blood cells there are, the more opportunities there are for oxygen to be absorbed, thereby reducing the effects of altitude sickness.

  • Ketosis increases the brain’s blood flow, so it could inverse the negative aspects of altitude.
  • Altitude increases intracranial pressure, which is countered by ketosis.
  • Ketones create energy more easily and efficiently than sugars or carbohydrates.
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What I avoid eating:

Processed and fried food, dairy, wheat, sugary food and drinks – yes, it means I don’t eat cakes, sweets, chocolate, soda  during any preparation of a fitness goal

What I eat in moderation:

Some specific carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice and quinoa, which have a low GI

What I eat a lot:

Eggs, lean animal protein such as chicken breast, fish, steak. Also healthy omega-rich fatty foods such as avocado, oily fish, nuts and olive, coconut and MCT oils. I add a portion of green salad or veggie to every meal along with protein and fat.

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Additional TIPS

Shoes - One of the most important items – they can help or hurt. Make sure to buy appropriate shoes for your activities. There are so many options for Hiking boots, so make sure they are ideal for your activity. Waterproof, hot weather, cold weather, leather, synthetic, etc. Also, ideally they will be light and easy to clean. I love my boots and I have hiked Machu Picchu, Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand, Sapa in Vietnam and now Annapurna Base Camp. It’s also very important, make sure you wear them before you go on your hike. I wore my boots to do my cardio when I first got them. By the time I went hiking, the boots were broken in and extremely comfortable.

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Backpack - I finally invested in a very good backpack that is “antigravity” (Osprey magic). It was not very cheap, but it is an investment in my back. Another tip I can give you, you also can train with a pack to add weight and simulate the weight that you might be carrying during a high-altitude hike.

Clothes - Considering any place that I have hiked in the world, I would give the same advice – Pack light and use layers! I also would advise you to look into Dry Fit clothes because they are the best. I have hiked in the rain before and the feeling of having wet clothes while you are hiking is not the best. You will notice the advantage if you are hiking in the rain, or in a hot and humid weather. For this trip, I have added a pair of Stability Compression Tights to my hiking kit. The concept is intriguing. I hope the support for calves, knees and hips along with quicker recovery helps during the 8 day trek to the base camp.

Snacks & Supplements - Have snacks & supplements to keep your energy levels consistent. At higher altitudes, your body will burn energy more quickly, so have some snacks with you. I prefer the healthier choices, and I normally bring snacks such as dried fruit, nuts, beef jerky, almonds covered by dark chocolate, protein bars and protein powder, MCT oil and ketogenic supplements (to prepare my shakes).

Massage or Physiotherapy - Make any adjustments before you go.When you include more training and/or different exercise routine it increases the possibility for you to develop some body discomfort or aches during the process. If this happens, take care of any symptoms as soon as you feel it and especially before you go on your trip. I use a massage therapist and I do a session of Neurosomatic Therapy every two weeks.

Make up Time - As I always say, “Make time, not excuses”. I know it sounds like a lot of work and time associated to a fitness goal. We all agree that we have a busy lifestyle. I get it, I am very busy too. But it is so rewarding when we work towards our goal, especially when it is related to improving your physical and mental health. Get up earlier, go to bed later, use your lunch hour or take your friends or family with you on your journey are a few advices I can give you.

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It is also work on upper body strength

I would love to hear from you. Have you ever gotten to prepare for a big physical adventure during your vacation? What was your biggest challenge and what would be the most important advice to share?

LIVE YOUR POSITIVE MARK ON OUR PLANET - Travel & be Healthy.

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Paula Tip:

To help you to prepare for your work out and diet plan, I will be posting more information and sharing tips and videos on work out and diet soon! Stay tuned!

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Comments 7

  1. This was such a well rounded and thorough read! Sound advice for any fitness level to set a goal for enjoying nature that may differ from what your used to. This is a great guide to use! Also noting that while you are fit you still experienced challenges and you breakdown a change up plan to address them on this present climb!

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  2. Paula ,your blog was very informative.you just about covered everything.i am from India and go for Himalayan treks often but not regularly (which means some years I cannot go).I am not very young too ,49.i am a surgeon.i have recently started on keto diet.we don’t really have many keto alternatives during our trek because we heavily depend on carbs based cooked food during treks.as we go in a group it becomes difficult to have a separate diet list and plan.can I come out off keto a month before the hike.i am planning forarkha valley trek along with Kang yatse peak in India Leh ladakh in September 2019.any tips about diet? Your suggestion will be welcome.

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      Hello and thanks for your message. You are right about not having keto options during the hiking, I have been there and mainly had a lot of carbs. It is perfect fine, as you are going to be burning a lot of calories during the hiking and you will need more carbs. I was in ketosis for a few months before my trip, and only got off during my hiking, and I still saw the benefits. You can always carry some ketogenic supplements with with you and maybe a little bottle of MCT oil to add to your coffee or tea (the oil has no taste) – this is what I did. Try to eat a small healthy snack between my meals, but 3 times a day have carbs (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Good luck and let me know if you have any more questions.

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