Advanced fitness training overview: Trekking and beyond

Note: This article is a continuation of our simple physical fitness required for trekking and aimed for intermediate and advanced fitness enthusiasts. Consult a certified trainer before taking up any training schedule.

Physicality, training and how these helps in Trekking in the wilderness – Something I have always pondered about!

When it comes to physicality, there is no less number of available gurus to throw light upon workouts with weights, callisthenics, power yoga and so on. When it comes to treks some people associates it with an athletic level of cardio where one is able to withstand a hell lot of panting and still moving up a steep incline, and naturally relates to popular forms of cardio like running cycling etc. You may feel a bit startled when I will say that treks, in reality, require a sort of physical preparation which is not actually any of the above mentioned processes, but a judicious mix of all.

First, let’s understand the requirement of a moderate to difficult trek. Undertaking this requires a good cardio endurance to scale the steeps, moderate strength to handle your scores and do the daily necessities (I recommend that you should possess that strength in wilderness, even if it may be possible that you don’t lift and carry you Rucksack always)

Building a lot of muscles by working out with moderate to heavy weights does not really helps while hiking in a challenging route. I have seen people doing reasonably well in gyms but quickly becoming breathless and struggling on rough terrains. Why? Due to one simple reason. Having too much muscle mass may increases the general oxygen demand of the body and lungs simple may not be able to cope with that, and this situation may get worse in higher altitude, with thinner air.

So, shall I not work with weights at all? You should, do the conventional exercises to a moderate level with light weights, maintaining full range of movement and high number of repetitions(15-20 per set)  to build up the necessary strength and at the same time build up the stamina and endurance to keep you get going, but not adding extra unnecessary muscle mass.

So, as you can see we are more interested in lean muscles and good power to weight ratio, with a little more weightage towards endurance and lower body strengths. After all, it’s your legs which will do most of the staff. This part you can build easily with medium distance running (3- 4 km) coupled with short sprints (once or twice during the running session). Supplement this cardio schedule with body weight workouts like Squats and Lunges, with or without weights. But if you take weight, take it light, so that you can do sufficient no of repetitions per set (15 – 20), which is necessary to build endurance.

Seems fairly straightforward, isn’t it? So, start right on with this basic idea in mind and, one last point, remember rest is as important as training, so do not exceed 4 to 5 days a week in your work schedule. Best of Luck and hope this will help you to perform excellently in your next trekking endeavour!

Elaboration on above outline: The journey from a casual fitness enthusiast to a hard athlete and how this relates to different mountain activities, like High to Medium Altitude trekking, Rock Climbing and Mountaineering


When it comes to fitness and physicality, there are no less number of available gurus to throw light upon workouts with weights, calisthenics, power yoga etc. When it comes to treks some people associates it with an athletic level of cardio where one is able to withstand a hell lot of panting and still moving up a steep incline, and naturally relates to popular forms of cardio like running cycling etc. You may feel a bit startled when I will say that treks, in reality, require a sort of physical preparation which is not actually any of the above mentioned processes, but a typical mix of all, which also depend on the difficulty / Grade of the trek involved (refer to trek Gradings and their meaning page). A relatively easy trek of Grade 2 may have significantly different physical and psychological demand than that of a hard Grade 9/10 trek. And trekking is only a part of the bigger picture, part of a larger range of activities that a person undertakes in the mountain as Mountaineering. Hence in this article we will be focusing on a comprehensive range of activities, starting from casual fitness workouts to intense athletic activities, and will try to relate them to understand how they help us in different mountain activities, like Trekking, climbing and Mountaineering.

As we have outlined the above scope lets quickly take a look at the commonly used parameters like VO2 Max, Resting Heart Rate(RHR) and Body Mass Index(BMI).

Resting Heart Rate: As the name suggests, it is a normal Heart Beat rate per Minute for a Person when he or she is at rest.

VO2max stands for maximal oxygen uptake at maximal exhaustion state and refers to the amount of oxygen your body is capable of utilising in one minute. It is a measure of your capacity for aerobic work and can be a predictor of your potential as an endurance athlete. Although there are many factors that affect your VO2max, it is a commonly accepted measure of cardio respiratory fitness. It is also a fairly good index of your overall fitness. Presented below for your reference is the general distribution of VO2max over different age groups of men and women, and their grading.

Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) norms for men (ml/kg/min)


Age (years)

Rating 18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
excellent > 60 > 56 > 51 > 45 > 41 > 37
good 52-60 49-56 43-51 39-45 36-41 33-37
above average 47-51 43-48 39-42 36-38 32-35 29-32
average 42-46 40-42 35-38 32-35 30-31 26-28
below average 37-41 35-39 31-34 29-31 26-29 22-25
poor 30-36 30-34 26-30 25-28 22-25 20-21
very poor < 30 < 30 < 26 < 25 < 22 < 20

Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) norms for women (ml/kg/min)


Age (years)

Rating 18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
excellent > 56 > 52 > 45 > 40 > 37 > 32
good 47-56 45-52 38-45 34-40 32-37 28-32
above average 42-46 39-44 34-37 31-33 28-31 25-27
average 38-41 35-38 31-33 28-30 25-27 22-24
below average 33-37 31-34 27-30 25-27 22-24 19-21
poor 28-32 26-30 22-26 20-24 18-21 17-18
very poor < 28 < 26 < 22 < 20 < 18 < 17


BMI or Body Mass Index:  It is measure of the extent of Body fat in adults. In many occasions, we have seen that people relating this to fitness, and there is a common notion that one with lower BMI will do better on inclines. In my belief, this is too gross an idea, to the extent of a misconception and doesn’t go much far to describe the whole story. What really matters in cross fit training as well as in tough terrain approaches are the person’s strength to weight ratio, endurance to weight ratio, to reduce struggle and to perform adequately. We have seen many people with big mass hauling comfortably in tough routes, as they have adequate strength to weight ratio to do so.  The reverse is also seen, thin skinny people doing well initially, taking advantage of their low body weight, but gets used up in the advanced phase, due to their limited strength and limited fat reserve. So, it is better to see BMI as a fat content index only and not to put primary emphasis on reducing that only! We have to understand when one gets really fitter and stronger; BMI automatically gets into control, not the other way round.

It is a bit surprising fact that though VO2max decreases with the increase of age of an adult male or female, RHR remains more or less constant, i.e. though the VO2max of a 45 yr old person has decreased to 33 from 40, when he was 25 years old, his RHR may remain fixed at 65. So the VO2max is a better indicator of athletic potential than RHR across ages. All these above parameters can be used as an indicator to your position in the fitness scale as you move up through different difficulty zones.

Workout Stages and how some of these meet the demands of specific Mountain activity requirements

As we all have an idea that training processes range from basic light cardio to Extreme Athletes, who pushes their VO2max to astounding levels. Refer to the below flow chart for the basic stages which we will walk through.

 Light Cardio/Low Intensity Workouts.
E.g.:  1 -2 Km Jog, 30 min brisk walking at 12 min per Km

Medium intensity workouts to raise VO2max significantly. E.g.: Running 4-5 km at 5.5 to 6.5 min per km, Working out with Supported machines combined with simple body weight training like Squats/Push-ups/Lunges.

High Intensity workouts/ Power endurance Training

E.g: Working out in circuits using free weights. Complex Body weight circuits like combinations of Pullups/Burpees/Clean and jerk/Box jumps. Boxing. These kind of trainings are very effective to push VO2max, hence useful in mountain circuits.

Very high intensity training/nearing the last phase.

E.g.: Working on Boulder circuits in Rock climbing. Plyometric. In these activities, you should to able to utilise your ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate, a biological energy releasing molecule) in your muscles to generate sudden bursts of power within a short span of time. Marathoning and Martial Arts like Krav Maga.

Extremes. These are very specialised and should only be performed by experts with long term proper training.

E.g: Triathloning, High Altitude trad climbing, Dry Tooling, Competition Boxing.

STEP by STEP: The key is Measure and progress

If you are an healthy and active individual, at any point time in your life you can try out the above steps to move up in the athletic performance ladder. But mind it, it is a step by step process where all the steps has to be covered. One has to be patient and consistent in his/her practices to improve. Starting from the first step:

Step 1: You can take up the first step any fine morning with a glint of motivation. You require only a pair of Running shoes and a nearby road or park or playground(if any available) as your track. Measure the track with you bike or friend’s bike, or you can install any activity and distance tracking app like Strava in your mobile and track the distance.  You don’t need a trainer and your only investment is the shoes, which I recommend to take a good one with sufficient midfoot and heel cushion to avoid minor injuries. Make sure you time your jog/Walk with the stopwatch function of your watch and take a mental record of the progression. The key to improvement is  measuring and subsequently improving your jog, and when you do a 2 km in 15 mins comfortably, you are through to move to the next stage.

Step 2: Running takes perseverance, but by now, you must have got the fun of the improvement process. Your target is now to do a 6 km in 30 mins, though you can even push to 10 – 15 kilometers with proper practice and time.  Run three to four days a week, and try not to push yourself with more than an increment of 5% of your last day’s speed. Speed is important, but more speed also makes you more injury prone, so take care to feel deeply your body’s response, and stop in case of any unusual feeling or pain, especially in the lower back, knees or ankles. Supplement your schedule with body weight trainings like Squats/Pushups/Lunges. They will give you a balanced strength improvement, especially of the lower body/legs. Take help of a local trainer for the correct postures of these workouts.

Takeaway:  These two steps will make you enough strong to undertake medium grade treks with ease. You will feel stronger I the route, an as you feel that, you will become psychologically more stable, and can enjoy the natural bounties of the route better.

Step 3: In the next level, as your capability increases along with your VO2max, you definitely now need a gym and a trainer to help you learn the exercises properly. You need to learn a three very important things to improve as well as to prevent injuries – How to handle free weights, proper posture of each workouts (either using free weights or using your own body weight) and right mix of exercises, to make use of most of your power producing muscles. You will learn techniques like Valsalva Maneuvers when you become moderately proficient in working with weights. Take the help of a good trainer who will guide you at least through the initial phase of your learning process and help you to avoid injuries(remember, injuries can be bad and can not only stop your cycle of improvement abruptly but also can reverse it!!) Take healthy balanced diet with sufficient amount of proteins and drink a lot of water to keep you hydrated throughout your workout sessions. Ample rest is a must and it is enough to work out 3-4 days a week, if you intensity is high.

Step 4:  Very high intensity trainings like Bouldering and plyometrics can be pursued when you have specific interests and you have gone enough strong in the last three phases. Plyometrics are workouts which involve sudden bursts of power for a short period of time. To do this the process uses the energy generating molecules of muscle cells, the ATPs, as well as involves an intense level of cardio.  The exhaust you a lot and takes time to master. They also involve risk of  injury and should be learnt under the supervision of an experienced trainer. The workouts stimulate multiple muscle groups at a time and are very good for improving strength, endurance, agility and co ordinations. All these capabilities are required in amateur to expert level bouldering practices (French Grade 5A – 7A), which involves a lot of plyometric and dynamic movements. As on plyometrics or even more, Bouldering takes even more time to learn and execute, and is an evolved sport in its own discipline. The learning can become a way of life in itself. You require a experienced bouldering trainer to learn the moves and techniques, which will eventually lead you to this new world.

Takeaway: Both the steps contains enough practice to make a mountaineer, from the physicality point of view (we are not discussing the general details and nitty gritties of mountaineering here in this article, anyways, our scope is only to consider these practices from the physicality point of view), who can take extensive expeditions in the high Himalayas. One will be comfortable hiking the steep and arduous approach routes to the base camp carrying a proper load of personals, rations and equipments, and should have enough physical conditioning to start treacherous scrambles/climbs to the higher camps.

As his/her VO2max (which is an indicator of how efficiently you can consume oxygen in your body cells) has risen remarkably from the previous training, it will be definitely be helpful for him/her to work actively in the thin air, which is one prime difficulty the massive altitudes pose in the High Himalayas, apart from terrain and other factors.

Step 5: Finally we step in to the Extremes. Not much relevant in our present day context, as not many people reach this level and try themselves out. Yet, as I am talking about physicality, I thought of touching base of this one last aspect. Extremes deal with very specific sports or activities, each of which requires not only highly developed physicality but also heavily controlled psychology. Some of these activities may  inherently posses certain level of risk, as failure may result to injury, even death.

Here are a few examples of activities which may be considered extremes in my opinion:

Triathlons: These pushes the athlete to his absolute margins of capability by putting him through sequential Swim, Cycling and Run circuits, each of which long enough to exasperate a seasoned athlete, even when taken up isolated. One very known example of Triathlon is Ironman, consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, raced in that order and without a break. It is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.

Traditional Climbing in High Altitudes: Negotiating climbing pitches on natural routes which has got no pre bolting can become equally difficult. In Trad, the climber has to find cracks and fissures to put temporary holding equipment like nuts, cams or Friends into, to support the protection rope, all af these activities when the climbing is in progress. Not only Climbing gets physically more challenging when one places his own protection but also it becomes  much more riskier to undertake as the placement of protection depends solely on the judgement of the climber in the route, and any wrong choice may result to a gear failure and fall.

Dry Tooling: This involves climbing rock with ice axes and either crampons or rock shoes. It has its origins in mixed climbing, ice climbing and more recently sport climbing. Climbing steep rock faces with these metal equipment not only requires highly developed skills but also very high forearm strength and upper body power, not to mention of the massive endurance to carry the activity on, on an exposed route. This form of climbing activity is relatively recent and still controversial among the climbers.

This is all for now. Hope I have been able to give you a comprehensive overview of how physicality progresses, the steps to train and the takeaways with respect to trekking and mountaineering in its different phases. Hope this helps and feel free to contact in the following email Id for more queries.

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About Author

Abhishek Ghosh
Abhishek is a workout freak to keep himself fit inside his daily IT cubicle. He has trained himself for running, indoor rock climbing, bouldering for more than 7 years. He loves to go to high altitude once in a year or two.


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