I WAS SOAKED to the bone. The wind howled around me. The granite rock stretched forward into empty whiteness, and I gripped onto the wet, greyish rope that guided my way up the mountain.
This was supposed to be a beginners' trek. I was sold a sunrise summit on the granite turret of Mt Kinabalu, with views of Borneo and out to the ocean.
Instead I was caught in a typhoon, wishing I was waterproof. My best mate was vomiting a few metres below me as my hardcore super-Mum coaxed me up from above.
Half our group turned back at the last hut, tearful and shaking, but I was adamant I would continue. It wasn’t out of pride, but rather concern that I’d be wasting the pain it cost my legs and lungs to get me this far. (And there may have been some scoffing about ‘Princess Bella’ that I was keen to shove somewhere.)
I pushed through. The summit was spectacular. No views or sunrise, but a breathtaking, unqualifiable joy. I silently thanked those soft sand sprints and smiled.
A few years later, I was perched on yet another rock with a pounding head and jelly legs, gasping for breath. As I pulled my glove off, goose bumps crept up my arm and across my previously warm belly. I shivered.
It was a clear day, but clouds kissed the summits of the surrounding peaks, and the quiet stillness felt almost intimate.
As I basked in the shadows of the highest mountains on earth, my raw cheeks cracked into a Cheshire grin. It was magical.
There were 12 of us panting at Everest Base Camp, rugged up in various shades of purple. A group of everyday chicks, ranging in age from 19 to over 55, had made it with ease – if you ignore the reasonable trail of vomit left in our wake.
Trekking at altitude is no walk in the park.
Sure, you’ll hear stories of young fit blokes running to Machu Picchu weighed down with rum filled backpacks, but for most people, trekking requires physical and mental preparation, especially if you want to enjoy the journey and appreciate the spectacular wilderness.
You need to train your body and mind to walk on steep, undulating terrain, with an 8-20kg backpack, for 8-10 hours, in all weather, at altitude. Often with diarrhoea.
This is why you need trek training.
“Trek training is a specialised outdoor adventure fitness training program to prepare the body for Life-Changing Adventures,” says Di Westaway, CEO of Wild Women On Top and author of How to Prepare for World Class Treks. “It is designed to make trekking and hiking less arduous, safer and more enjoyable.”
Essentially, the more time and effort you put into trek training prior to your adventure, the more you will be able to enjoy the culture, exquisite scenery and great satisfaction that comes from safely achieving a wilderness adventure challenge. In addition to being an adventure, every trek training session should include some interval training on hills, stairs and/or soft sand, some hiking on undulating terrain, rock scrambling as well as core stretching and strengthening activities in nature. Here’s how:
High Intensity Interval Training
Start trekking in mountainous regions, such as Nepal, and you'll be glad of your training. (Photo credit: Anna Dhaulagiri)
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) might be the latest trend in the fitness industry but it has been used by mountain climbers and trekkers for decades. It involves short bursts of high intensity effort, followed by a recovery period. Trek Training expert Lisa Marshall says, “HIIT is time efficient, and it gets you fitter faster.”
Stair or hill HIIT is a brilliant way to increase your fitness and prepare you for trekking at altitude. The more stairs you huff and puff up in training, the less your head is going to ache at 4000m, because your body can suck more oxygen out of the air. And the descent helps you build strong leg muscles so you can climb high passes with ease. Bonus points for bum toning!
The best way to do it is to find a set of stairs that takes you one to two minutes to get to the top. After a warm-up, do 10 sets. Push yourself on the ascent until you’re really puffing, and then focus on control on the descent.
You can add intensity in two ways: without impact by putting on a backpack, starting at 5kg and getting 0.5kg heavier each week, until you reach 18-20kg; and with high intensity and high impact by jogging up and down the stairs. Di recommends five sets with pack and five sets without for the best results.
Soft sand HIIT is a real winner when it comes to pushing your body in a short period of time. Di says, “It really gets your heart and lungs fit because you sink into it with each step. It’s a bit like hiking on snow, which is awesome if you’re trekking in the Alps.”
Find a sandy beach and put two markers 50m apart on the sand. Do sets between the markers, alternating between running, shuffling, jumping, skipping and high-knees running. Repeat 10 times and do it with and without pack weight. It’s a killer.
Undulating tracks are wiggly, windy, hilly trails in the bush. Go hike them with a heavy pack and trekking poles, for two to eight hours in all weather. “You can do it on bush trails, coastal tracks, rocks, soft sand, anywhere in nature,” says Lisa.
The best way to do it, suggests Lisa, is to gently to warm up, then gradually pick up the pace. Start with a 5kg pack, and increase by 0.5-1kg per week until you’re carrying 18-20kg. Aim to cover 3-6km per hour, depending on your pack weight, taking breaks every 90 minutes for a stretch, drink or snack.
Multiday treks require a certain fitness level for you to enjoy them. (Photo credit: Justin Walker)
Technical walking includes a number of techniques to assist you to stay safe and in control in wild rugged locations. Di says, “It requires excellent balance, strength, core control, cardio fitness and upper body confidence to manage difficult conditions.” Technical walking includes rock scrambling and the pause step.
Rock scrambling is the ability to scramble and hop around rocky gullies, rivers and boulders, as well as trekking along steep ledges, creek edges and headlands without going for a tumble. You’ll need to bend, stretch, leap, hop, jump and climb to improve your coordination and balance, as well as to strengthen muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Find a rocky area, nature’s gym, nearby – coastline, river banks, hills, mountains or a kids’ playground. Scramble along the obstacles, trying to use your hands, feet and bum.
The pause step is a technique used at altitude to assist you in maintaining a slow and even pace to keep your heart rate calm. It allows you to climb at altitudes over 3000m for long periods of time with less fatigue, preventing altitude sickness.
To master the pause step, walk up a set of stairs, pausing for a second or two in between each step as you let your back leg relax, and lock momentarily while you place your front leg on the next step. The goal of the practice is to ascend the stairs without increasing your heart rate at all, which is surprisingly hard to do.
Preparing for beginners' treks
Joining a trek training group, such as Wild Women on Top (pictured) makes training far more enjoyable. (Photo credit: Justin Walker)
Follow this guide to prepare for treks such as Australia’s Mt Kosciusko, Coast to Coast in the UK, the Mont Blanc Circuit in Europe and Mt Kinabalu, Borneo.
Plan your week as follows:
1 x 2 hour undulating trek
1 x 60 minute interval, soft sand or rock scrambling training session without pack
1 x 60 minute interval training session with pack1-2 x 1 hour relaxation and injury prevention sessions, such as cycling, yoga, swimming or pilates
Preparing for intermediate treks
Machu Picchu in Peru, and Aussie classics including the Overland Track, the Larapinta Trail and the Jatbula Trail are excellent options for intermediates.
Plan your week as follows:
1 x 3-6 hour undulating trek with 5-10kg pack
1 x 90 minute interval training session with 5-8kg pack
1 x 60 minute soft sand or rock scrambling training session without pack
1-2 x 60 minute relaxation and injury prevention sessions, such as cycling, yoga, swimming or pilates