So you’ve booked that big trip and planned your route and imagined yourself at the top of the mountain taking the ULTIMATE facebook profile picture to make your friends at home green with envy… But you have to get up there right?! Have you been googling statistics like percentage effective oxygen at 4000m?! Nope? Well I can tell you its only 60% of what you are breathing right now, if you climb to 4000m. So you might need pick yourself off the sofa and train just a little bit.
There are oodles of health and fitness blogs out there which will give you plenty of fitness regimes to get you in tip-top condition for your high altitude trek. But most of them are written by personal trainers or fitness gurus. I am neither. As a doctor I know the importance of being healthy and I try to keep reasonably fit. I LOVE dancing and dance regularly. I try to eat healthily 80% or the time (Oh ok… more like 60%) but I’ve never really been a gym go-er, the idea of going for a run gives me palpitations and I have to admit I drive into town more often than I walk! (I blame the rain in Wales!) But I’m a sucker for a bucket list and the Inca Trail has been on mine for as long as I can remember having one! That said I’m not actually doing the Inca Trail, I missed out on a permit by a few weeks so I had the choice, trek in the rainy season or take the alternative route – The Lares Trek. I chose the later and I’ve since heard many people say it’s even better. Only problem, its even higher at 4500m!!
So here I tell you what I’m doing to train. It’s not perfect but as with all things it’s a compromise. I’d like to be in the gym every day getting super-duper fit but in reality I have to go to work, plan my 9 week trip (see my trip planning guide) and write this blog!
I started training 2 months ago and I will be leaving for my trip on the 6th October and doing the trek on the 19th. So I still have a few weeks left. Thank god as I’ve realised I still have a way to go after climbing South Wales’ biggest peak this weekend! Luckily my friend was with me who has already done the lares trek and it was of some comfort that she thinks my fitness levels are sufficient!
If you read most guides for training for altitude they suggest walking several days in a row gradually increasing the mileage and the gradient. Ok so that’s great, but what about those of us who actually have to work?!! Add to that, being in my early 30’s means that pretty much every weekend involves going to a wedding or on a hen weekend – not conducive to hiking on a daily basis! So I’ve done the best I can in the time I have and am hoping that sheer grit, determination and the thought of that profile picture will get me through!
So this is my regime though I have had to be flexible with it. Sometimes I’ve dropped a gym session to be able to see a friend as it’s important still to have a life! I try to do 3 gym sessions a week. I do about 40 minutes of cardio. I’m doing most of this on the bike as I’m trying to strengthen my quads. The combination of being a dancer and being flat-footed means I build calf muscle ridiculously fast which makes my quads lazy and calf length boots REALLY hard to find! So I’m trying to balance this out by working my quads harder on the bike and the weights machines hoping this will make the walk a doddle?! After my 40 minutes cardio, I hit the weights machines. I went to a personal trainer for a few months last year until I got tennis elbow so technically I know how to use free weights but in reality they still terrify me! So I stick to the machines! I work on upper body as much as lower body as I will also be carrying around a heavy backpack for 9 weeks. I stick to 10-15 reps and usually do 3-4 sets on about 6 machines. After this I go for a 30 minute swim. I find swimming after doing the weights gives me less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) the next day as it stretches all my muscles out nicely! I then reward myself for all my hard work with 15 mins in the jacuzzi (which also helps prevent my muscles getting too sore!) It’s then home to research flights, travel insurance and work on my blog!
In between the gym sessions I try to walk when I can. Pen Y Fan was great training – the first 3 miles are a steep uphill climb with no flat or down hill bits so it was a great test. The views from the top were definitely worth it! I saw a few people running back down – rather them than me! But I have a huge amount of respect for how fit they must be! When I’m not in the gym, walking, working or blogging, I go dancing. I dance ceroc and zouk amongst other dances and I absolutely love it. I zone out when I dance and can express myself creatively – a similar concept to blogging! It’s the best form of exercise because it doesn’t feel like exercise! It’s very sociable and we often go away for weekends where I will happily dance pretty constantly from 12pm to 7 am and limp home in daylight! I’m actually off to spain next week for a week-long dance event. I can’t wait and it’ll be great for helping me build stamina both for my trek and the competition I’m in the following weekend. (Did I mention I was pretty busy right now?!)
If I manage to find a bit more time, I would like to add in some quick HIT sessions possibly before work (though I am NOT a morning person!) These are short bursts of intense exercise e.g star jumps, skipping, running on the sport with high knees etc. I realised on my walk up pen y fan, my stamina is pretty good (that’ll be those dance weekends) but I’d like to be a bit faster at getting up the steep hills where you need shorter bursts of energy. I’m hoping HIT workouts will help with this. And if it wasn’t for literally every weekend being booked up for weeks, I would have loved to have joined a rambling club which would solve the issue of having opportunity to get out walking! Next time eh?!
Whilst being fit will undoubtedly help me get up that mountain but unfortunately no one can really predict who will fare badly with altitude sickness. I was a tad concerned that as an asthmatic I may struggle but speaking to a travel health expert, I was reassured to hear that asthmatics actually sometimes fare better at high altitude especially those who seem to be triggered more by allergies than exercise which is the case with me! Phew!
So what is altitude sickness? This is a collection of symptoms due to the lower oxygen content that can vary from mild (a bit of a headache, poor sleep) to severe (fluid on the lung or even the brain -> NOT good!) Given time, our body acclimatizes to the lower oxygen levels by increasing our heart rate and breathing rate, offloading fluid from our bodies (making you pee loads) and eventually by increasing the amount of red cells we produce which carry oxygen.
There are medications that can help. Acetazolomide (otherwise known as diamox) is a mild diuretic which means it helps offload some of the fluid in the body (making you pee EVEN more!) This is mostly available through health clinics such as Nomads. Some GP’s may prescribe it but be nice if your GP is reluctant – it’s not something we’re asked to do often and is pretty specialised so many will ask you to go to a travel clinic instead. Also there are often lots of local remedies such as chewing cocoa leaves in Peru (don’t worry completely legal!) But the best way to avoid it is to ascend slowly and give yourself time to acclimatize prior to your trek, preferably at least a few days. The general rule is that you should sleep no higher than 300m higher than the previous night (even if you ascend more than 300m when walking you should come back down to sleep.) Make sure you choose a reputable company to do the trek with that abide by these rules. The company I will be using is Gadventures who I’ve travelled with regularly.
So to sum things up, here are a few of my top tips!
- Be realistic and set achievable goals – you have a life to live!
- Try to do both cardio and strength training – your muscles will thank you for it when you are lifting that rucksack!
- Get out walking when you can and wear in your boots as much as possible – wear plenty of blister plasters! My feet blistered so deeply the first time I wore my boots it set my training back about a week!
- When you can’t go walking (if its dark or raining!) Then the gym is an option but try not to restrict ALL your training to the gym
- Do exercise which you love so it wont be a chore. For me that’s dancing but for you it might be playing a team sport or doing an exercise class!
- Speak to a travel nurse at a nomads clinic about whether you need Diamox.
- Trial Diamox before you leave home to make sure you don’t get any side effects – you dont want to discover this halfway up the mountain!
- Do your research and choose a reputable tour company that follow the rules to reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
- If you start to feel unwell, keep your tour leader in the loop. If your symptoms are significant then you may need to descend.
- Take LOADS of blister plasters and also high energy foods to snack on. You might find your appetite is reduced at high altitude so snack and keep your energy up.
I will report back after my trek and let you know what it’s like to take diamox, walk at high altitude and to witness the beautiful Lares trek! Watch this space!
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I would love to hear your thoughts and comments? Any other top tips? Have you done a high altitude trek? How did you find it? Did you take diamox? Please leave any comments or questions below and I’ll do my best to answer them. Please bear in mind though I am a doctor, I’m not a travel health specialist!