Am I fit enough for the Annapurna Circuit?

Acclimatisation for the Annapurna Circuit starts as soon as you touch down in Kathmandu. Nepal’s capital city is a frenetic mixture of trekking tourists, traffic, ancient and intricately-carved stone temples, busy street markets and crazy overhead electrical wiring – all scented by heady incense and the fumes of almost two million motorcycles. But while a day or so exploring Kathmandu can acclimatise you to the culture shock of Nepali life, toughen up your tummy to local food and help you get over your jet lag, at only 1,400m it won’t help with the altitude in the Himalayas. And therein lies the Annapurna’s big challenge; crossing the Thorong La pass at 5,400m.

No matter how fit you are, the Thorong La pass is not easy, but the rest of the Annapurna Circuit trek is at a moderate altitude which most people will find comfortable, albeit with the odd mild headache or two. So how fit do you really need to be to complete this – up to three-week long – hike?

How fit do I need to be?

Are you a keen long-distance walker with experience in hilly terrain? Do you regularly take part in strenuous, aerobic activity such as running, swimming or cycling? Are you often found in the gym and are happy on walking on the treadmill at a steep gradient or tackling the stairclimber for half an hour? If you answer yes to any of the above then the Annapurna Circuit should be within your grasp.

You need to be confident in your ability to hike for consecutive days for almost three weeks – if you’re completing the full circuit you can expect 18 days of between five to seven hours walking per day – and while, on both small group and tailor-made treks, you’ll have a porter carrying your main bags, you’ll have a daypack with water, waterproofs and snacks on your back all the way.
The Annapurna eases its trekkers in gently – with no long or steep climbs for the first few days, and a gradual ascent to a challenging, but moderate, altitude. The Thorong La pass, however, is a toughie. Expect to spend at around three days at an altitude above 4,000m (topping out at 5,416m) and a 10 to 12 hour day getting up and over the pass itself.

Bearing all the above in mind, we do still have to stress that this is by no means a young person’s trek, there’s no upper age limit and hikers in their 60s have had as much success as their more youthful counterparts. If you’re at all unsure schedule a check up with your GP to discuss your physical fitness and be honest with yourself about your stamina. Knees and ankles are going to feel the strain – particularly as you head downhill – so get any existing injuries, or chronic conditions, assessed before you sign up. Hiking poles can be a godsend.

On a trek of this duration mental toughness becomes as important as your physical fitness– and getting some experience of long-distance hillwalking before you leave can help you learn more about yourself, and what will keep you motivated and moving in Nepal.
Responsible Travel writer Joanna Simmons shares her experience of the Annapurna Circuit:
“You obviously do need to be reasonably fit to tackle the Annapurna Circuit, with stamina more vital than sprinting skills. Some of the inclines are long and demand endurance, and the steps can be deep, so you’re doing a lot of leg work. I also found that the descents were tough in their own way, too – descending lots of steep steps really hammers your knees after a while. You also need the right mindset. Remember, for day after day, all you’re going to be doing once you’re up and have had breakfast is hike, so that needs to appeal to you. If you get bored or impatient with all that walking, you’re in trouble. That said, anyone used to long hikes back at home should be fine. I didn’t do any special training for it, but was pretty fit already and used to walking and using the gym. If you pick a guided trip that includes porters to carry your packs, you’ll make things much easier for yourself.”

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Hiking at altitude

Somewhat annoyingly there’s no correlation between altitude sickness and cardiac fitness – you can be an Olympic athlete and still succumb to the mountain air – so all the preparation in the world, unless it’s spent gently easing your way up high, won’t eliminate the risk. There’s also no guarantee that even if you’ve trekked at high-altitudes before you won’t suffer this time around.

The key is to take things slowly and your trekking specialist will ensure your route builds in plenty of time for acclimatisation. Even if you feel physically able to hike further, faster and harder remember a gentler pace will aid your acclimatisation for the Thorong La pass. And with spectacular mountain view after spectacular mountain view what’s the rush? Enjoy the opportunity to simply ‘be’ in the heart of the world’s highest peaks.

Trekking training tips

Making space for training in an already busy lifestyle can seem tough – but there are a few easy changes you can make. Set your alarm an hour earlier and use that time for a run or cycle; walk rather than drive to work – or get off the bus or train a couple of stops earlier than usual; or simply increase the time, distance or intensity of your usual workout. Don’t just focus on strengthening your legs – full body workouts will help your balance, overall strength general fitness and ability to cope on uneven terrain. Gym workouts, aerobics classes, racquet sports, swimming, circuit training and yoga are all valuable additions to your exercise regime. Previous hiking experience – even just in local hill country – is highly recommended before you tackle the Annapurna Circuit. Consider organising a few weekends in the Lake District, Snowdonia or Scottish highlands – or fit in a few long-distance hikes in your local area to build up stamina in your legs. Long walks to the pub will do but make sure you add in a fair few hills to get your knees used to all those ups and downs. Training isn’t just important for you but for your kit as well. You’ll want to walk some hard miles in your hiking boots and socks before they set foot in Nepal to make sure your feet stay dry, comfortable and blister-free. And take your daypack with you so you’re confident carrying it for extended durations. Talk to your tour operator – many trekking specialists will have a training programme or training suggestions they can supply to customers booked to hike the Annapurna Circuit.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Yongyut Kumsri] [Intro: travelwayoflife] [How fit do I need to be?: AjayKumarShrestha] [Hiking at altitude: HimalayanEco]
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