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Train Your Body to Hike Mount Kilimanjaro
Get pro tips on training for a long hike to the top of one of the world’s highest mountains (plane tickets not included).
The rain pelted down on me, making each step more difficult as I slowly made my way up the giant, stair-like rocks leading to Mount Kilimanjaro. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of it in the distance—the “roof of Africa”, topping out at a stunning 19,341 feet.
When I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I knew I was signing up for an adventure, but I had no idea just how much physical stamina and strength this multi-day hike was going to require. Lucky for me, I followed advice from veteran climbers: To prepare for a demanding trek, I needed quality trail shoes and a solid training program—specifically, a routine that mirrored the obstacles I would face during my climb. With these in place, my trip would be a success.
You might not be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro this year (although I highly recommend it if you love challenges), but if you’re looking to do some hardcore hiking that involves mountainous climbs, this training advice can get you started on the right path.
Training to Hike Kilimanjaro
Your first goal is to make sure you’re in strong physical shape, says Sharone Aharon, founder of WellFit Performance, a Chicago fitness studio and training program that offers mountaineering training programs. “There are two elements to training for a trip like Kilimanjaro,” he explains. “One is being fit and having the ability to walk long distances on consecutive days. It’s very similar to how you’d train a soldier in basic training.”
With enough time, Aharon believes anyone can achieve this level of fitness. He recommends allowing at least six months for training if you’re not already in strong physical shape, and 10 weeks for training if you work out regularly.
The second element is a little more complicated: Adapting your body to higher altitude where oxygen levels are lower. WellFit Performance has an altitude room that allows clients to pre-acclimate to such conditions. Other options include purchasing and sleeping in an altitude tent (where oxygen levels are manipulated to reflect mountain conditions) or if you live near high mountains, taking practice hikes to get your body used to exertion in lower oxygen conditions (while enjoying the mental benefits of hiking, too).
Either way, plan on doing a lot of walking as part of your training. You’ll gradually increase the duration and intensity of your walks so sturdy training shoes are essential. “Always include some hiking, running or strenuous walking into your program,” advises a representative from Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experience (SENE), a popular tour guide company that regularly leads Kilimanjaro treks. “Do these wearing a backpack of 10 to 15 pounds, which will be the approximate weight of the pack you will carry on Kilimanjaro. If you intend to use hiking poles, make sure you practice using them on both ascents and descents.”
Major Muscles for a Multi-Day Hike
When you’re scaling a mountain, strength is everything. “We focus mostly on big muscle groups when training to hike Kilimanjaro,” says Aharon. “It’s about core and overall body strength.” The key here, he says, is functional training rather than isolated movements so you can prepare your muscles to work in exactly the way you’ll be using them during your adventure. That means less time using the weight machines at the gym and more time doing step-ups, farmer’s carries and more.
Aside from strength training, you’ll want to increase your aerobic capacity, too. You can do that by briskly walking or jogging up hills in your neighborhood. Or, if your terrain is flat, hit the gym. “Walk on a treadmill at an incline,” says Aharon. “Start at three percent—that’s your flat road. Gradually increase length of time and elevation. Eventually work up to five sets of 10 minutes at a time, walking at 10 percent incline.” Between each set, return the treadmill to zero incline for two minutes to give your legs and heart a break.
To prepare for this type of hiking, your workouts should be long and steady rather than short bursts of speed. After all, on the Kilimanjaro trek, your guides will encourage you to go “pole, pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. Slow and steady movements make it easier for your body to acclimatize to the higher altitude, thus increasing your chances of successfully summiting the final peak.
A sample weekly Kilimanjaro training program might look like this:
• Monday: 45 minutes of incline walking (weighted backpack optional)
• Tuesday: 30 minutes of lower-body strength (step-ups, lunges, squats and more)
• Wednesday: Rest day/active recovery (yoga, walking, light stretching or another low-intensity activity)
• Thursday: 45 minutes of incline walking (weighted backpack optional)
• Friday: 20 minutes of core strength (farmer’s carries, woodchoppers, weighted planks and more)
• Saturday: Long trail hike (2-6 hours, depending on where you are in your training)
• Sunday: Rest day (focus on recovery activities like stretching, foam rolling and massage)
A typical training cycle might be anywhere from eight to 12 weeks out from your actual hike, and the length of your workouts will increase as you become fitter and get closer to the event.
Know Before You Go
As important as it is to develop your physical fitness, you also need to prepare for the logistics of a climb as intense as Kilimanjaro. Start by doing your homework, advises Aharon. “The more you know, the better off you’ll be,” he says. “Once you understand your route and learn what each day will be like, there will be fewer surprises.”
For example, there are seven established routes to climb Kilimanjaro, each varying in length and intensity. Longer routes, like the Lemosho Crater path, give you more time to acclimate to the altitude. Shorter climbs, like the Umbwe route, are physically taxing and don’t allow time for acclimatization—so preparation is even more vital. Whichever climb you’re doing, your best bet is to review the course and replicate it in your training as much as possible.
Above all, says Aharon, “reduce your expectations and be humble to the task.” After all, no matter how much you’ve trained and visualized your climb, unexpected things will happen. “Just be present,” he says. “If you do that, you’ll have a great chance to finish and enjoy the climb.”
In the meantime, get ready to crank up that incline.