Training is a crucial part of preparation for high mountain tour. The higher we get, the less oxygen there is in the air, and, consequently, less oxygen reaches our blood. It means that our body has to pump much more blood to keep the oxygen at the necessary level and carry it to our vital organs, such as heart or brain. Faster blood flow results in a fast, strong heartbeat and causes our body to get tired much more easily at high altitudes, even when performing simple tasks. In this article, we will share some tips on how to best prepare your body for high altitudes.
Before you dash into training and intense physical preparation, you should take a moment to analyze your physical fitness and conduct a medical interview. If you have had some pain in your knee for several months, or your foot clicks as you walk, you should have it checked to avoid injuries later on. The medical interview consists of functional assessment tests and motion diagnostics.
Another thing which may help you prepare a suitable training plan is establishing your maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2 max. The measurement shows us how much oxygen our body can absorb, how much oxygen is used up during physical exertion, and how effectively it is being administered. To put it plainly: the higher VO2 max level, the more energy our body can produce. Determining this parameter is crucial when choosing the type of training. But you should remember that your VO2max level will not tell you how capably you will move in the mountains and how quickly you will acclimatize.
Acclimatization is a process which cannot be hurried or achieved through training. It is a matter of our genes and we cannot really influence it. All we can do to help our body adapt to the high altitude is following the rules of proper acclimatization, i.e. ensuring adequate hydration, eating the right amount of calories, avoiding strong physical exertion, preparing a suitable trip route and location of subsequent camps.
You should start your training for your high mountain adventures at least several months before the trip. While preparing a training plan for mountaineering or trekking, it would be worthwhile to consult a specialist. Hiring a personal trainer to show you basic movement patterns might prove helpful, as you will learn to perform exercises correctly and efficiently. A good trainer will prepare a training cycle so that you can optimally prepare your body and achieve set up goals. Moreover, a specialist will help you to prepare psychologically and stay motivated.
Generally, your training should consist of three components: endurance sports, strength sports and regeneration/stretching. All these elements are indispensable and play an important part during mountain climbing or trekking. Every participant should build up endurance to cover long mountain distances. Moreover, you need to build up your strength, as you will need to carry your backpack, high mountain boots and make long ascents and descents. Additionally, you muscles should be stretched to minimize the risk of injury on the route.
Running is one of the endurance sports which proves very useful when preparing for your mountain trips. You should run on a hilly terrain or, ideally, on mountain terrain. This way you can accustom your body to changing the slope of the ground. If you don’t have any hilly routes in the area, go to the nearest gym and run on an inclined treadmill. At the beginning it is worth setting a 10 – 15% slope and start training from this level. After some time, when after a 5 km run on such a slope you will not be out of breath, you can increase its degree up to 20%. Moreover, you can use the stair climber equipment at the gym. This is the type of activity is the most similar to the movement that we do in the mountains during expeditions. 6 – 8 weeks before the expedition, you should start training with a backpack and increase its weight by 1 kg every week.
Other exercises which can help you build up your endurance are swimming and cycling. Both sports are relatively safe for your knees and spine, and therefore are a good choice for the initial stage of your training. In addition, swimming, e.g. in a crawl, will help us to strengthen our muscles with a low risk of injury. Cycling, on the other hand, allows us to practice a movement pattern similar to climbing uphill (similar knee bend). It would be favorable to start cycling on a flat ground, and then, gradually, on hills and low mountains. Nonetheless, nothing will replace mountain climbing and hiking, which are the best forms of training for mountaineering.
While getting ready for your high mountain expenditure, you should also build up some strength. You should start strength training, with exercises such as exercises with kettlebells, exercises with weight (dumbbells, barbells, weight of your own body). Activities which can help you gain strength are: deadlift, squats with weights, bends and lunges, step-up boxes with weights, bench press, planks, sumo squat, exercises with TRX and with rubbers and many others. You should pay extra attention on your postural muscles (so-called core) and the back leg, which must be systematically strengthened to avoid injury during trips. You should keep in mind that your technique and suitable training plan are absolutely critical when performing strength exercises. Each person should have an individual training plan to avoid aggravating postural dysfunctions or past injuries (if you have had any), and to adjust the suitable weight for the exercises.
The last stage of our training is regeneration and stretching, which can help us to prevent injuries. And there is nothing worse than a knee injury a week before a trip, when everything is already arranged, and flight tickets had been bought long ago! It should be remembered that even a simple effort (at 50% of maximum heart rate) allows you to regenerate better than while lying on the sofa. On non-workout days, you need to take care of fascia training, i.e. rolling different parts of the body, stretching different parts of your body (with an emphasis on a proper technique) and having some rest.
Preferably, you should train regularly (3-5 times a week) at 70% of maximum heart rate. If you feel that your body is getting stronger, you can introduce interval training (reaching 90% of maximum heart rate, going back to 75% and repeating). Start with one interval training a week, but not sooner than after 6 – 8 weeks of regular training. Then, when you are in a good shape, you can work interval training into your training plan (1-2 times every 8-9 days). Interval training will help you build up your high altitude strength.
You should also remember to set your goals reasonably and to gain strength gradually. The keys to success are time, method and diligence. But the training itself does not guarantee that the expenditure will be a success. You should also take care of your diet, positive mental attitude, and hope that your body will easily adjust to the high mountain conditions.
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