This is a question we get asked a lot at The Grand Adventure Company, with people worrying about fitness being one of the main barriers to undertaking an adventurous challenge or trekking holiday. However, this doesn’t need to be the case!
Trekking is not something reserved for the super-fit, and whether at home or abroad, is certainly an activity that is accessible to all reasonably active and healthy people willing to put in a little preparation.
Preparing for your trek needn’t mean spending every evening in the gym or begrudgingly taking up running, by starting small with local walks and building to back-to-back days, along with small amounts of specific conditioning and adding activity to your daily routine you can attain the fitness you need to enjoy your trekking holiday. If aiming for a mountain summit, such as Kilimanjaro, you can give your chances of success a real boost with some tailored training a few hours a week.
General Fitness Requirements for trekking trips
Fitness for multi-day trekking in the mountains is more about being able to stay on your feet and keep moving, day-after-day, than being able to run a marathon or lift weights in the gym! Most active and healthy people will be more than capable, given a modest course of preparation, of completing a multi-day trek at altitude.
Having a good base of fitness and some walking under your belt is certainly going to increase the enjoyment of your trekking holiday, as you’ll be able to spend more time looking at the views rather than huffing and puffing up the slopes or worrying about sore legs!
So what do we mean by a reasonable level of fitness?
By a reasonable level of fitness, we mean that you are generally active and healthy. You may play a sport a couple of times a week, get out walking daily (to work/with the dog/in a lunch hour) or go on long walks at the weekend.
To get from this point to being “Trek Ready” will require different amounts of preparation for different people, depending on their starting point and the difficulty grade of the trek they are training for.
Essentially, you want to get to a point where you can walk 2-3 back-to-back days of the distance and elevations that you are expecting to encounter on your trek without undue discomfort and being ready and able to do it all again the next day.
For the most part, this can be achieved by doing some training walks in the hills. If you are training for a more challenging trek (grades 4 and 5) you may require some additional specific training, such as raising your cardio fitness to a higher level and conditioning leg muscles.
You can read more about our Trekking Grades and the requirements for each level here.
Types of fitness needed for trekking – areas to focus on
To complete a multi-day trek you need to be able to perform the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again for several days in a row. There are a few key components to being able to do this and a few things that can make it more difficult.
We find that most active people can gain the cardio fitness to trek uphill, but where people can often struggle is on the downhills. Walking downhill, especially if carrying a pack, exerts higher forces on your joints and muscles. If walking with poor form or on untrained muscles this can lead to discomfort and eventual injury that could force you to end your trek early. Therefore whilst improving cardio fitness will be an important area for some, particularly if aiming to do a challenging trek at altitude, it is important to also spend time on getting your legs and body ready to hike.
Below we have listed a few areas of fitness that are most important to consider when preparing for a multi-day trek. We have included a few ideas of where to get started in each area. For sample training plans and more ideas please sign up to our training and preparation newsletter.
Walking and running are basic movements that the human body is designed to be able to do almost indefinitely. Walking (or running) should not cause injury. However, when we find ourselves sat down for long periods, whether at a desk or in your car, as many people do, we are training our bodies to reset their default positions. Our muscles and soft tissue fibers lengthen or shorten to allow us to rest in the positions we spend the most time. This is why in cultures where sitting on chairs is not as prevalent as ours, such as in most of Asia for example, most people can comfortably squat on their haunches, whereas most people in western cultures lose this skill soon after being trained to sit at primary school.
This adaptation to sitting has fairly disastrous consequences for our ability to walk or run efficiently and injury free. With shortened muscles and poor hip mobility, we lose our full range of motion and have to make compensations – changing our posture, twisting, perhaps favouring one side over the other. This puts pressure on joints and systems in directions that they were not designed to be used in, which is then exacerbated over several thousand steps loaded with our body weight. As stubborn walkers, we figure pain is part of the game and try and push through, further compensating rather than addressing the underlying issues, creating more problems as we go.
If you find yourself constantly injured or sore after running/walking modest distances this could be a major contributing factor, and spending time correcting these issues is going to be far more beneficial than hobbling your way through more training mileage. If walking or running is painful, stop. You are probably doing something wrong and certainly aren’t helping things by pushing through! A sports physio will be able to help diagnose the underlying mobility issue and then work on restoring function.
Improving your mobility is about making small but consistent changes in your life, as well as actively working on specific problem areas. Here are a few things you can start with:
- Sit down less, move more. If you work at a desk, find excuses to get up and walk around as much as possible. NHS tips for reducing sitting.
- Do your day-to-day walking in flat shoes (or barefoot where possible). Raised heels (including men’s shoes) can shorten your heel cords and lead to your knees collapsing inward into a weak position that compromises your posture.
- Use a foam roller or massage ball to work out tightness. There is lots of great information online/youtube of how to do this, try searching for “MobilityWOD” + the area you want to work on.
- Use Hip opening positions, such as the couch stretch or low squat (holding the position, not doing repetitions), to reverse the damage done sitting.
- Warm up before and cool down after exercise.
- Actively consider your posture during exercise or repetitive activities.
- Aim for 10-20 minutes a day working on your mobility.
- If sore when running or exercising, stop and address the problem, rather than “pushing through” and risking injury.
- Consider instructed classes that focus on good position and movement patterns such as pilates or CrossFit.
Your legs are obviously important for trekking! You don’t need tree trunks for legs, but the additional stress that walking up and down hills puts through your muscles means that they will certainly benefit from some level of pre-conditioning.
Quads for downhill and calves for uphill are the main muscles groups you will notice first if walking on unconditioned legs, but your hamstrings and glutes are also important for holding up your upper body (including any backpack) and general stabilisation.
Some people choose to do specific bodyweight or gym work on their legs when preparing for a trek, but this usually isn’t necessary unless rehabilitating from an injury or aiming for peak performance. For most people, the simple answer is to do some walking! Building up intensity and distance and gradient.
Some things you can do to improve leg strength:
- Go walking on terrain similar to your trek. Off-road and with lots of up and down.
- Build more walking into your day-to-day routine.
- Take the stairs instead of the lift (up and down!)
- Consider simple bodyweight exercises, such as leg balances, raises, squat jumps, “mountain climbers” etc. (If unsure how to do these correctly consider a class such as circuits or pilates)
Core strength is what helps us to maintain our posture and support our back and is often underrated when considering preparation for trekking. When we get tired our body can slip into bad posture, making you less efficient and increasing the likelihood of injury, so having a strong core can help ‘lock everything in’ for longer.
Your core includes the muscles around your stomach (abdominals) as well as your back muscles and those running up and down your sides. It’s important not to overtrain one without also working the opposite. I.e. if you do sit-ups for your abdominals then you should do some lower back work too.
Exercises that work well for core strengthening: Planks, side planks, ‘supermans’.
- Sample 15 minute core workout (for use 2-3 times a week – Aim to increase the time of the holds each session)
– Warm up – jog on spot/star jumps etc for 1 minute, loosely move legs and arms through their range of motion.
– 3 x planks (hold each one until you begin to lose form, then 1-minute rest before the next)
– 3 x side planks on each side (as above)
– 30 x superman extensions.
– Optional (if this is too easy): add 3 x sets of push-ups (as many as you can do in one set without losing form)
– Cool down – foam roller or light stretching
Alternatively, there are more enjoyable ways of building core strength such as climbing/bouldering/yoga/pilates etc.
Cardiovascular or Aerobic Fitness exercise is needed to condition your heart and lungs and to build stamina for long days on the hill. If you already enjoy activities such as swimming, cycling, running or rowing then increasing your time or intensity in these activities will be great training. The most appropriate cardio preparation is to progressively increase your walking time and intensity with hills and a faster pace (remember your pace on your actual trek should be slow and comfortable, especially at higher altitudes).
The level you work at and the effort you make will depend on your existing cardiovascular fitness and the grade of your trek. Start slow if not used to this type of exercise and increase duration and intensity as you get fitter. It is possible to achieve a high level of aerobic fitness in as little as 3 x 30-minute sessions a week if undertaken at maximal intensity. Those with heart conditions or other medical conditions should consult their physician before engaging in high-intensity exercise.
Some ideas for activities to improve your aerobic fitness depending on your current fitness level:
- No previous fitness: Brisk walking / take up an active sport a few times a week (5-a-side football, swimming, cycling etc.)
- Moderate fitness: Increase the time and intensity of your chosen sport. Add another “good cardio” activity such as a circuits class or running.
- Good fitness: High-intensity interval training (HIIT). Sprint or hill repeats. Time your efforts and work to improve each time.
Where to start
Before you start squatting heavy weights or running marathons from scratch, it is likely to be worth your time looking at your general movement. If you are sore after walking moderate distances try to find out why and start working to improve the areas giving you most problems. This might be working on a particular mobility issue (e.g. tight quads causing knee issues) or having to work to strengthen an area (e.g. working on core strength). It’s much easier to put training mileage and cardio work in if your body isn’t falling apart as you go!
Try not to get bogged down with a specific training plan. Making choices to be more active in your day-to-day routine, enjoying a few activities a week and getting some progressively longer and more intense walking in at weekends will stand you in good stead for preparing for your trek.
Top tips for training for a trekking trip:
- Start early, it takes several months to make fitness improvements. 3-6 months before is a good time to start.
- Consult your itinerary and difficulty grade for information on what you should be aiming for
- Remember why you are training – for those epic views and experiences you’ll get at the top
- Rest and good nutrition are equally important to the physical training you are doing
- And most importantly, keep it fun!
- Still not sure? Why not join us on one of our Lake District based International Trekking Training Weekends, where we’ll cover trekking fitness and training for your trip.
- Sign up to our Trekking Preparation newsletter. We’ll send you 1 email a week over a 3 or 6-month period with ideas and training plans designed by expedition leaders to get you ready for your trip. This will also include early notifications to space-limited social and training walking weekends based in the Lake District.