How to Train for a Mountain Hike
Although it is always good to get fit, there’s no need to go overboard with fitness preparations for a climb up Mt Kilimanjaro. Some guidebooks and websites go into a lot of detail about fitness regimes. However, the majority of professionals who have climbed Kilimanjaro think that most of these regimes are unnecessary.
The main reason people fail to reach the summit is due to altitude sickness rather than lack of necessary strength or stamina but the fitter you are, the easier and more enjoyable the trek up Kilimanjaro will be. So, anything you can do in the way of training will only help.
Whatever fitness regime you decide to follow, walking a couple of days per week at an early stage would be a good thing to do. It won’t improve your fitness to a great degree, but it will get you used to walking for more than a few hours at a time, and for more than one day. Wear the clothes you plan to use on Kilimanjaro (particularly your boots and socks) and carry the daypack that you hope to be carrying all the way to the top too.
If you read about or speak to high altitude climbers they all say your mental stamina is just as important as your physical endurance. This is definitely true of Kilimanjaro, particularly on summit night!
TRAINING TO CLIMB
Aerobic training (also known as cardio) uses oxygen to adequately meet the energy demands of exercise via aerobic metabolism. The types of exercise that use aerobic metabolism are generally light-to-moderate intensity activities like long distance jogging, swimming, cycling and walking. This differs from anaerobic exercise like high intensity interval training, weight-lifting and sprinting which uses anaerobic metabolism to supplement the aerobic system due to increased energy demands.
Aerobic exercise builds the cardiovascular system, which is key when training to climb Kilimanjaro, as a strong cardiovascular system will help you process limited oxygen in a more efficient way.
There is a flip side though. The fitter you are, the harder and faster you can push yourself, and the quicker you think you can ascend the mountain. This is a huge mistake!
Going as slowly as possible, even when you are on the lower reaches and feeling great, is key to your success on the mountain. You will hear your porters say ‘Pole Pole’, which means ‘Slowly Slowly’ in Swahili. This is possibly the best advice you will get!
Your body needs time to acclimatize to high altitude and a strong cardiovascular system can help, but not if you have pushed yourself too hard. If you are relatively unfit we recommend starting your training regime as soon as possible, where you focus on long distance walking (5-6 km at least two - three times a week). You can do this on a gym treadmill but remember to set a consistent pace and vary the slope (a slight incline is best).
For relatively fit people who already undertake a fair share of cardiovascular exercise we recommend maintaining your regime until 1 month before your climb. At this point we recommend increasing the duration, but not intensity, of your exercises.
In addition to aerobic exercise, you should also be doing light strength training, particularly for your legs, core and upper body.
Such as the following exercises:
Exercises with jumping movement
Building the strength of your core muscles (stomach and lower back) and upper shoulder muscles is also important as you will be carrying a lightweight pack for up to 6-7 hours a day.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is in fact one long hike. The best way to prepare for a long hike is to do a few yourself. We recommend doing at least two long distance hikes (over 5 hours). If you can do back to back days that would be even better. Doing a few practices hikes as part of your training to climb Kilimanjaro has these benefits:
You get to experience what a 5+ hour hike on difficult terrain feels like, going up and down (for most people going down is often more grueling as your knees and joints can take a battering)
You get to wear-in your boots. There is nothing worse than arriving in Kilimanjaro with unworn-in boots. This can seriously affect your summit attempt as you will get blisters and sore feet early on in your hike.
Often the thing that gets climbers to the top of Kilimanjaro is their mental stamina. There will be times during the summit night that you will want to give up and go back down. Being able to dig deep and pull on your mental reserves is so important.
There are many activities to train your mental stamina. Most require some form of pushing your body to the extreme, or to what you think your limits are, and then pushing through to accomplish your goal.
Long distance cycling or running, particularly marathons and half marathons can do the same thing. This type of activity requires you to draw on mental reserves to get to the finish line. Most people who run marathons will tell you the last mile was all mental strength. If you can get in that state of mind at least once before Kilimanjaro then you will be perfectly prepared for the final push up the slopes. Although, we are not suggesting that everyone should run a marathon before attempting to climb Kilimanjaro.
We truly believe most people – regardless of age or physical condition – can climb Kilimanjaro (within reason, of course!). All one needs to do is ensure their cardiovascular system is firing on all engines and that they have the mental strength to see the hike to the end.