You may already know this, but it’s worth repeating: if you’re not physically prepared for a long-distance, multi-day trek, you’re going to have a bad time. This is especially true for the Walker's Haute Route, 13 stages of world-class hiking in the French and Swiss Alps.
The Walker’s Haute Route is one of the most difficult treks we offer. It has a lot in common with the nearby and more popular Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it is both longer and more strenuous, covering 117 miles (188 km) of trail and a total elevation gain of 39,000 feet (more than 7 miles / 11 km). A lot of those ascents and descents are steep and rocky, often more so than the TMB. The Haute Route also spends more time at higher altitude, and has a higher peak elevation, maxing out on Augstbordpass at 9,495 feet (2,894 meters).
But challenging conditions don’t mean that the Walker’s Haute Route is impossible. With the right training program, you too can get in shape for one of Europe’s top treks.
HIT THE TRAILS
In theory, preparing for a long-distance trek is simple: hike a lot, preferably in conditions similar to your trek. That’s true when preparing for the Walker’s Haute Route, too, but because of maintained high elevations on the trail, cardiovascular training should be the main priority.
One risk of hiking at high elevations is altitude sickness. Altitude sickness, for those lucky enough to have never experienced it, is caused by the low amounts of atmospheric oxygen at high elevations, and can lead to headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and fatigue. An elevation of 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) is enough to cause altitude sickness in many people. A full six of the 13 stages on the Walker’s Haute Route peak above a dizzying 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). The best way to ward off altitude sickness in the high Alps is to make sure your heart and lungs are in top condition, which will help you more efficiently process what little oxygen is available.
The most important aspect to training for the Walker’s Haute Route is time. Getting in shape takes time, and no one can effectively rush a training program without professional help (if you can, please tell us your secret). Start as early as you can with your Walker’s Haute Route training program, preferably 3-6 months before you leave for your trek. Remember: it’s better to give yourself too much training time than not enough.
Walking and running naturally works out the muscles you will be using on the trek, and will therefore be the base of your training. However, try as much as possible to walk and run on non-flat surfaces. Nobody is going to be laying asphalt on the hiking trails of the Alps any time soon, so training on asphalt makes little sense. Training on uneven surfaces also naturally strengthens the stabilizing muscles in your legs and core, which are vital to avoiding injury on the trail. Find some nearby hills and mountains to walk up and down. If you don’t have access to hills and mountains, you’ll have to make up for it by training harder or for longer distances.
Start small with your training program. Go for walks and runs that might challenge you, but that you can complete without issue. This gives your body time to acclimate to your training program, and gives you a psychological “win,” which will encourage you to keep training. Try to go for shorter hikes and runs a few times a week, with rest days interspersed between training days. On weekends, go for longer hikes. Again, challenge yourself but don’t wear yourself out.
Over time, increase the length, difficulty, and frequency of your hikes and runs. The Walker’s Haute Route will not be just one long day of hiking; it will be 13 back-to-back stages of high-elevation hiking, with a backpack and serious elevation gain and loss on many of those stages. An ability to easily complete one (very) long hike or run at home does not mean that you will easily complete the Walker’s Haute Route. You may start small with your training program, but by the end you should feel comfortable hiking or running every day for multiple days in a row, with added weight and up and down hills. Remember: the trail will not stop just because you want to take a break, and you must prepare your body accordingly.
HIT THE GYM
Unfortunately, not all of us have world-class mountains in our backyards. Extra training at the gym is good for anyone, but for those who live on flat terrain, it’s unavoidable.
The StairMaster is a machine that usually makes gym-goers run the other direction, but when training for the Walker’s Haute Route it is an important tool. You will be hiking up mountains, after all. As with training on the trail, start your StairMaster training small and work your way up to longer workouts. A great method is to switch back and forth between StairMaster and treadmill, which will mimic the terrain on the trek. When on the treadmill, vary the incline. Again, the hiking trail won’t be flat, and changing the treadmill incline will help get your legs accustomed to the varied inclines on the trail. When on either machine, don’t hold on to the handrails. You cheat yourself out of a workout when you do, and besides, you won’t have handrails on the trail.
In addition to cardiovascular training at the gym, you should perform some strength training. Because you’ll be stepping up rocks and trying to keep your balance on the trail, you should focus on strengthening the stabilizing muscles in your legs and core. Exercises like walking lunges, kettlebell deadlifts, and goblet squats are great for strengthening leg muscles that may not otherwise get much attention. Focus on performing more repetitions, rather than using heavier weight. If you want to challenge yourself, do some balance work on a bosu ball or balance board. Squatting while balancing on one of these is a great way to get stronger, but please be careful to not injure yourself by falling over.
TRAIN WITH GEAR
A big part of physical preparation is preparing your gear, too. Your boots are like extensions of your feet on the trail and need to be broken in before your trek. We recommend at least two months of use to really get them comfortable. If hiking with fresh boots, you run the risk of causing painful blisters, which will have no chance to heal until your trek is over.
That goes for your backpack, too. You should train while wearing your backpack as much as possible so that you know how to wear it comfortably. And yes, we do mean you should train with a loaded backpack. Wearing your backpack while working out will naturally strengthen the stabilizing muscles that are so important for preventing injury. Try training with a pack that is heavier than what you’ll carry on the trail. Unless you live at 9,000 foot elevation, your pack is going to feel heavier at high elevations than it does at home. You’ll have longer recovery times while training, so take advantage of them while you can.
Our base itinerary includes baggage transfers so you don’t have to carry all of your gear every day, and will make your trekking much easier. Your day pack will probably be somewhere between 10 and 20 pounds (4.5 and 9 kg), depending on how much gear, food, and water you want with you. The lighter the better, but don’t shed gear that might come in useful during the day. This is why proper conditioning is so important. You should be able to carry all the gear you need without getting beat down by your load.
And for those of you who have to train on the StairMaster: Yes, you should wear your backpack, too.
In a physical training program, a good diet is just as important as the physical training itself. You can work yourself to the bone and it won’t do any good if you're not nourishing yourself correctly.
Any training regimen should be based on a healthy, balanced diet. This is good advice in general, but here it counts double. The basis of a healthy diet is fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, excluding starchy vegetables like potatoes (sadly). You will be hiking a lot while you train and will need the good carbohydrates that these foods provide. Besides, vegetables, fruits and whole grains provide important micronutrients – like vitamins and minerals – that help your body recover and strengthen after exercise.
Speaking of recovery, a sufficient amount of high quality protein is essential for muscle repair. Lean meats like poultry and fish are great, but vegetarian options like black beans and other legumes can also deliver enough protein to help your muscles re-knit themselves. Supplementing with a good protein powder, whether whey, hemp or otherwise, is not a bad idea. We recommend calculating the calories and macronutrients you will need daily and then planning your diet accordingly.
Consume as few highly processed foods as you can. Again, this is good advice in general, but is even more important when putting strain on your body. Empty calories will not help you get stronger, and you will regret them in the end. However, you can treat yourself to snacks like bananas and dark chocolate while hiking, which provide an energy boost while being both nutritious and delicious.
TAKE A BREAK
As mentioned earlier, you should design a training program with rest days interspersed between the training days. This not only allows your body to heal—your muscles develop very small tears when you exercise and need time to repair—it also staves off mental exhaustion. On your rest days, you have our permission to kick back and relax a bit (or do a different kind of exercise).
Sleep is a central component of resting, and you should protect your sleep as much as possible during your training program. Sleep heals your body and mind in numerous ways, and helps you bring your best to the hiking trail. You should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Naps are good, but they don’t have the same refreshing power that a good night’s sleep does.
If worse comes to worst on the trail, you may be able to take a break from hiking and catch a ride on a bus, chairlift, cable car, or gondola. The industrious Swiss have installed various forms of transportation on their mountains, which are a welcome respite for those who need it.
TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR
This should go without saying. We always do our best to give you the best fitness advice possible, but there is no substitution for talking to your physician. They know you and your health history better than anyone and can help advise you on how to best prepare for a long-distance trek. Talk to your doctor and make sure you’re training right.
GETTING FIT FOR YOUR HAUTE ROUTE
Anyone can conquer the Walker’s Haute Route with the right training program. Whether you’re a couch potato or an ironman, we can help get you physically prepared so you can conquer your trek. For a free consultation, just send us an email or call us at 1-414-377-3555. We would be glad to answer any questions you have.