Training to Walk Hills at High Altitude

Banff, Alberta, Canada Lake Minnewanka
Walking Hills at Altitude in Banff, Canada. Philip and Karen Smith/Stockbyte/Getty Images

How can you train for a walk that will be at high altitude and include hills? Walkers should train not only for distance walking but also for the altitude and inclines. If you'll be walking at high altitude in the Rocky Mountains or the Alps or on the hilly terrain of the Camino de Santiago, you need to train for it.

If you live at low altitudes, such as near sea level, your body is used to a higher concentration of oxygen in the air you breathe. As you go up in altitude, the air has less oxygen and you must take deeper and more frequent breaths to get the same amount of oxygen. You can find yourself short of breath at higher altitude until you acclimate.

If you live in a flat area where you never walk uphill and downhill, you will have difficulty with hills as your muscles are not used to them. They work differently in going up and in coming down, and you will find yourself breathing harder when going uphill even if it is at low altitude.

Preparing to Walk at Altitude

1. Improve your posture. The first step is to train with the basics — working on good walking posture and walking form to open up your chest for the best breathing possible. Walking with hunched shoulders, looking at the ground or our mobile phones are bad habits that you may be getting away with on the flat and at sea level. But on hills and in thin air, you need good posture to be able to expand your chest for full breaths.

2. Work on your breathing. Practice taking deep, full breaths. If you don't live at altitude, you may have been getting away with shallow, inefficient breathing. By practicing taking a full, complete breath you will be more prepared to breathe hard when going uphill and when at high altitude.

3. Add hills. Next, add hills to your walking workouts. You don't need a big hill. You could use sloped driveways, overpasses or even parking structure ramps (with caution for pedestrian safety, of course!). Use hills or segments of hills for an interval walking workout—climb for a few minutes, then descend, climb again, descend, repeating throughout your workout. Interval training with hills will help develop both the aerobic fitness and muscles you will need for your hilly, high altitude walk.

4. Use hill substitutes. If you don't have a hill you can safely walk up and down, use a treadmill with incline for building the uphill muscles. If possible, use a treadmill that also has a decline feature so you are building your downhill muscles as well.

Stairs are not a perfect substitute for hills, because stair climbing uses a slightly different muscle combination than hill walking. But if you have neither a hill nor a treadmill, use stair climbing to build uphill muscles.

5. Learn good uphill and downhill walking form.

6. Go slow and steady on the hills. A hill workout is considered a hard workout of its own, so it shouldn't be combined with a long workout or done for speed. Go just as fast as you are able to maintain without stopping to catch your breath. Start with 15 to 20 minutes of hill workouts after a warm-up, and build up your time to 30 to 45 minutes.

7. Build your aerobic fitness. For high altitude events, work on improving how your body uses oxygen by building your aerobic fitness. Do aerobic walking workouts or an anaerobic threshold walking workout twice per week to get used to breathing hard and improving your body's use of oxygen. These workouts will take you to a zone where you are breathing hard and fast.

8. Acclimatize at altitude before the walk. A traditional way to acclimatize is to slowly increase your altitude over several days. That may work for a road trip. If you are going directly to a high altitude destination, plan on going slower and taking it easy for the first few days. If you are going to be walking a half marathon or marathon or starting a long distance walk, arrive a week early at altitude so your body can acclimatize.

9. Train with trekking poles. If you are going to use trekking poles on your walk, learn how to use them for the best effect.

Was this page helpful?