Training for Kilimanjaro
We lead hundreds of climbers of all ages and levels of fitness to Kilimanjaro each year. The two questions that nearly every climber asks before trying for Uhuru Peak are: “How hard is the climb, and how do I prepare?”
Many people picture the climb up Kilimanjaro as something like a marathon up Africa’s tallest mountain, a physical challenge far beyond their ability. While the climb is tough, it is not nearly so bad as this. With the right attitude and good preparation, climbers young and old successfully reach the summit each year, and have a wonderful time along the way.
It’s important to put the climb up Kilimanjaro in perspective. There are 6 routes of different lengths up the mountain, ranging from 60 to 85 km in length and each provides different amounts of time to gain and acclimate to elevation, two big factors in how strenuous the route is for climbers. You can find more information about the differences between routes here:
No matter which route you choose we’ll go slow and steady all the way to the top. For most climbers, the first few days are pretty easy. We spend 5 – 6 hours on the trail each day as we pass through the foothills and make our way up.
The true challenge of Kilimanjaro is the summit day. All of the climbing routes converge into one of two approaches to the peak, Gilman’s Point or Stella Point. No matter your route, you will make your approach to Uhuru Peak overnight, leaving your last camp near 11pm and hiking through the night in order to catch the sunrise from the summit. This is a long, steep night of climbing that will push you hard. We will maintain a slow, steady pace through to the peak. Momentum is important here and we have a short period we can stay at such high elevation safely.
Once you reach Uhuru Peak you’ll have a short time to enjoy it, to avoid elevation sickness we need to move down the mountain again quickly. This means another several hours of hiking to get to your camp and rest before heading off again to the next lower camp. On most climbs, summit day will require between 14 – 16 hours on the trail in a 24 hour period. This is one of the things that makes Kilimanjaro truly challenging.
Preparing for your climb
Getting yourself physically and mentally ready for your climb shouldn’t feel overwhelming. Don’t underestimate it, but you don’t need to be a marathon runner or top-grade athlete to make the trip. However, practice and preparation will make your climb much more enjoyable.
You should always check in with your doctor before taking on a physical challenge like Kilimanjaro. It is important to understand that physical fitness does not guarantee you won’t be impacted by High Altitude Sickness. It will help you endure the challenges of the climb, and enjoy your experience much more, but how your body adapts and responds to extreme elevation is only somewhat impacted by your physical fitness.
Train in conditions as close to the climb as possible:
- Wear your boots and daypack with a bit of weight in it (buy it early, train with it, be ready to return it if it isn’t comfortable)
- Hike for hours (push for duration, in addition to distance)
- Practice elevation gain and loss (look for steep hills, use a stair machine)
The single best way to prepare for your Kilimanjaro climb is to get out hiking. Find some local trails or hike through your town, just get out and walk. Get used to long walks, learn where your body struggles and how far you can push yourself. You’ll be amazed at how far you can go once you get used to pushing through the first wave of discomfort.
Start small, build your endurance and step up the difficulty over time. Get to where you can walk for 5 or 6 hours with minimal breaks. Find routes that will take up up and down as many hills as you can. Once you’ve done a few all day hikes you will have a good idea how your body will react and how to manage the trail on Kilimanjaro.
Important: Get your boots early and break them in! Whether you’re hiking on local trails or wearing them to the supermarket, you’ve got to get used to your boots. Pay attention to how your feet feel wearing them, you should have about a finger’s width of space between your toes and the end of the boot. If they’re pinching or rubbing after a few hours on the trail at home it could be much worse after a few days on the mountain. The same goes for your daypack. Get it early, and wear it on your practice hikes. Get used to weight and learn how to adjust it to be more comfortable. Add a bit more weight as you get more practice. You’ll be glad you did, everything seems to weigh more after a few days on the trail and you’ll be far better prepared.
Cardio Training (Aerobic Exercise)
Cardio workouts (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling) help train your body to work hard with less oxygen. This will help you keep your breath and focus at high elevation, and to enjoy the climb dramatically more.
Develop your cardio endurance with a simple workout 2-3 times a week, YouTube has many great options that can be done at home or on easy to find equipment. Build up difficulty and duration over time, and remember why you’re training when you’re tired and want to stop early. You want to be basking in the views, not bent over struggling to catch your breath.
Hiking is a natural activity, it’s what the human body does best. You shouldn’t need a lot of dedicated strength training, but it is a good addition and can be very helpful if you can’t do practice hikes. You’ll be hiking and gaining elevation for several hours each day, help your legs get ready by doing some strength training early.
If you don’t have access to good trails, here is a basic workout program that will get you pretty far in preparing for your climb using a treadmill and stair machine. If you don’t have access to these machines, a running track in the park or going around the neighborhood will work just as well.
- Walk / jog for 45 minutes on the hill setting
- 10 minutes of stairs at 30 – 45 steps per minute
- 5 minute slower walking to catch your breath
Repeat a few times, or until you’re too fatigued to continue. Do this 2 times a week and increase the time jogging and on the stairs as you’re able. If you want extra strength training, adding in a few sets of lunges and squats can be a great way to build those leg muscles.
Watch your form, and make sure you’re stretching after!
Tips to get the most out of your training
- Give yourself enough time to prepare
You won’t get much benefit out of rushing your training in the few weeks before your climb. Start early. We go slow and steady up the mountain, your training should do the same. Give your body plenty of time to adjust.
- Watch your nutrition
As you step up your training you need to make sure you’re stepping up your nutrition too. You’ll use more calories and need more protein and nutrients to build muscle and stay healthy.
- Learn a few stretches to limber up before and after a day on the trail
I can’t encourage this one enough. Get in the habit of adding 5-10 minutes of stretching to the end of your day on the trail. You’ll sleep better, and your body will thank you in the morning. Some dynamic stretches will warm you up in the morning and get you ready for the trail, and some static stretches will help loosen your muscles to heal as you’re resting at night. Here are some good recommendations for both dynamic (warm up) and static (cool down) stretches.
- Taper off before your climb
You don’t want to push yourself hard right before your climb. If you’ve started early, let your body rest up for a few days or a week before you get to Tanzania. Stay active, keep stretching, but don’t train too hard. You want to arrive fresh and ready to hit the mountain.
Putting it all together:
It is worth it.
Train now. Get in the best shape you can so you’ll be ready to enjoy the incredible landscape and views from Africa’s tallest mountain.
Categories: Staying Healthy