Written by: Jonathan Lee
AWESOME! You’ve committed to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and now it’s time to get physically and mentally fit for your trek! The universal truth for any strenuous endurance activity is that the more physically fit you are for the event the more enjoyable the event will be. Being in ‘tip-top’ shape while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro will allow you to enjoy the stunning scenery and truly soak up the whole experience instead of struggling with the physical challenges of the climb.
Only have a few weeks to train for your climb? Don’t despair, even a few weeks of focused and specific training can make a difference in improving your physical condition and enhance your overall climb experience. If you have more than a few weeks to train, you can adopt a more comprehensive and progressive plan to get in peak shape for your climb.
The below 10 tips are meant to provide a framework for structuring your training plan to conquer Kilimanjaro. Since each person’s physical condition is unique, you’ll have to tailor your training plan based your individual requirements., As with any strenuous physical activity, make sure you first consult your doctor and include your doctor when planning your training regimen. These tips are not meant to replace any professional medical advice.
1. Establish a baseline - How fit are you? Before creating your training plan, engage in an honest assessment of your current fitness level. How often do you currently work out? How often do you currently hike? How many miles can you hike before feeling tired?
Your current fitness level will be the top influencer in establishing how to structure your training plan. Already an avid runner? GREAT! You can likely progress past the foundational training around building strong cardio and focus more on incline training and high altitude training
Establish a baseline against which you can measure and rack progression and improvement over time. A mentor of mine has a favorite quote, “You can’t improve what you are not measuring”. Once you establish a starting point you can then start measuring your progression and see results!
2. Start Training Early – While there is no hard and fast rule for how much time it takes to train for Mount Kilimanjaro, three months is a comfortable amount of time to train that is typically sufficient for most climbers that are in relatively good shape. Starting your training early ensures that you have time to progress gradually in your training without feeling rushed. Training early also affords the benefit of reducing any anxiety of questioning if you are ‘ready’ for the climb.
As with any training plan, much of it will be depending on your starting point going back to Tip #1. If you rarely engage in physical activity you may need to start training further in advance and if you are already very fit you can opt for a shorter training window.
3. Talk to others - During the process of establishing your training strategy definitely talk to others
- As stated at the beginning of this blog post, speak to your doctor about your training goals and ensure that your doctor provides his/her input on your training plan.
- Have friends that have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro that are in similar physical condition as you? Ask them for advice on how they trained and what worked or didn’t work for them.
- Consider consulting a physical trainer to help you create a custom training plan that is focused on getting you ready for your climb. A good trainer will be trained in sports physiology, nutrition and injury prevention and can help develop a balanced plan that takes into account your current physical condition to get you physically ready for your climb.
4. Train smart and not just hard - Training hard is important, however don’t blindly just focus on increasing load over the weeks only focusing on cardio and hiking workouts. Functional strength is equally important in developing your overall fitness for your climb. Plyometric workouts are a great way to develop functional strength and cardio and typically allow you to achieve great gains in less time than traditional training.
5. Train progressively – Gradually build up your training load over time first focusing on building your core strength and increasing load and hiking mileage over time. Progressive training allows you to develop physical fitness building blocks for your climb as well as help reduce your chances for injury while training.
6. Train with proper load – While you want to ensure that you train progressively over time with a focus on injury prevention, ensure that ultimately you train with increasing load (duration & intensity) to simulate hiking durations, and elevation gain on Kilimanjaro. Standard Mount Kilimanjaro climbs range anywhere from 5-8 days in duration and each day you will average 6-8 hours a day of hiking for 6-10 miles with elevation 2000 ft to 4000 ft of elevation gain. So make sure your training plan includes training against an incline and that you eventually get to a point where you are carrying a backpack with 15 – 25 pounds of weight while training against the incline. This is the best way to simulate what you will feel as you gain elevation on Kilimanjaro..
7. Be creative with your training options – Don’t have access to quality hikes or hills nearby? Use a stair climber machine at the gym. No access to a stair climber? Walk the stairs repeatedly at a building over and over again. My friend who joined me on my Mount Kilimanjaro climb had limited training options as she was traveling during the week for work. She improvised and climbed the stairs of the Westin hotel that she was staying at over and over again to prepare herself for the climb and it worked, she made it to Uhuru Peak!
8. Train at high altitudes – The top reason for not reaching the summit is actually not due to a lack of physical fitness. Most people that embark on a Kilimanjaro climb understand its physical challenge and train for it. Most of the time, the reason for not reaching the Uhuru Peak is altitude sickness. There are several examples of Pro Athletes such as NFL player Ray Lewis and Tennis Pro, Martina Navatilova failing to reach the top of Kilimanjaro despite their elite physical condition. Altitude sickness can affect anyone and is largely dependent on how one’s body responds to being at high altitudes. While much of how your body responds to high altitude is genetic there is something you can do about it and that is engaging in high altitude during your training to get your body used to it!
The summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is at an epic 19, 341 ft above sea level. When possible, go on hikes where you can be exposed to high altitude (above 10,000 ft). In California I have several options of peaks that I can hike that are fairly accessible such as Mt, Shasta (14,180 ft), Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft) which are excellent prep climbs prior to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Colorado has a whopping 58 peaks that are over 14,000 ft. If you don’t have a 14er near you, any high mountain you can climb will help.
9. Train your mind - Don’t just train your body, training your mind is just as important as training your body. Mentally prepare for the challenge by going on long and tough hikes that will push your boundaries. Mentally accepting that it will be a tough climb at certain points and setting yourself up with the mental attitude and fortitude to push through the tough moments will go a long way on your Kilimanjaro climb. Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge. This is especially true on the final summit push to the peak. On that final hike to Uhuru Peak, it all comes together: you’ll experience the highest of altitudes, the steepest ascent and the longest hike.
10. Putting it all together – Lastly and most importantly is taking all of the above tips and putting it all together into a comprehensive and cohesive plan that’s tailored for you! Based on the above inputs it important to choose a plan that works with your current physical condition, the time you have available to train each week and the remaining time you have before you start your climb. It’s very important to be realistic but also aggressive. I recommend not overcommitting to an overly ambitious training plan that will only leave you fatigued and stressed each week. Your training plan should work around your current lifestyle and not the other way around. A well developed training plan should be enjoyable and allow for some fun long hikes on the weekends.
The above tips are meant to help you plan your training for Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here at VentureFar we in the process of working with top physical trainers to develop training guides that can be used as templates to help you design your training plan. Check back for updates!
Good luck on your training for Mount Kilimanjaro!