Training for Kilimanjaro & the Trekking Summits

We've all seen overweight celebrities hauling their asses up Kilimanjaro.

That guy who swigs beer down at the pub has apparently been to Everest Base Camp.

Your unfit friend from High School has just been to Machu Picchu​...

So is it really that easy? 

Some people claim that after a few hours walking at the weekends you'll have the physical prowess to get to the summit, or complete a multi-day trek at altitude.

Others say you need to spend endless hours in the gym building massive legs.

As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Fitness for Kilimanjaro

If you are planning a hike up Kilimanjaro, or any long-distance trek - with or without altitude - the first thing to find out is if your doctor agrees that it’s possible. Obviously if you have a medical condition that prevents you from taking strenuous exercise, then you’ll need to choose a different vacation.

  • This training advice is for you if you are going to Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Macchu Picchu, Mt Whitney or any long-distance, supported hike or non-technical summit above 15,000ft.

Plenty of people make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro or reach Everest Base Camp with very questionable fitness.

The difference is not so much whether you can "make it" (this is often more dependent on altitude than fitness) but how enjoyable the hike actually is.

Better fitness levels allow you to end each day tired, but with enough left in the tank for the next day...and the day after. 

Waking up exhausted and sore on Day 2/3/4 is not a great feeling and that's normally the time when people start to wish they'd spent a bit more time in the gym than on the sofa!

How Fit Do I Need to Be?

If your idea of exercise is getting off the couch and going to the fridge, then you may have some work to do.

On the other hand if you spend your life running marathons and competing in IronMan competitions, then you really don't need to read this!

Kilimanjaro is not technical. Not at all. Even the Western Breach is not a technical climb. Nor is any part of the Everest Base Camp trek.

So you won’t need to spend your weekends looking silly in a helmet wielding an ice axe and tripping over ropes.

What these treks really are: a long, hard slog at altitude.​

  • If you can put one foot in front of another - for many hours at a time - you’ll get there.
  • If you don’t mind the rough, steep tracks and your lungs can somehow find enough oxygen - you’ll get there.

Having a good standard of fitness and strength will make your hike a lot more pleasant. Rather than spending your days in a dark cloud of bad temper because your legs hurt you want to be able to appreciate the beauty of the mountainous scenery.

Kilimanjaro fitness and training

The beauty of the landscape

How to Get Fit for the Mountains

Many people opine that since the trekking peaks are essentially a long “walk” that the best training is lots of walking.

Well, that’s only partially true. How much walking can you realistically get in an average week?

Half an hour to the shops and back is not going to do much for your fitness when you'll be hiking for 4-7 hours a day. 

Just as football players don’t spend their entire time playing football to train for a match, nor should you just “do walking” because that’s what you’ll do on your trip.

​Unless of course your commute to the office entails hiking up a steep hill for two hours and back down again. Then you can ignore this advice.

Hiking in the mountains can be hard. The steep, uneven terrain and long hours can be physically taxing.

And that’s without factoring in the altitude. Let's get this straight: altitude sickness can strike anyone, regardless of their physical fitness. 

The last thing you want to feel is “I wish I was fitter”.

So where do I start?

First of all, take a realistic view of your current exercise habits.

Training for Kilimanjaro

Disclaimer: Obviously you should not start a new exercise program without consulting your doctor or healthcare professional first.

If you are new to an exercise routine, it can be a good idea to have a consultation with an experienced personal trainer. A trainer can assess your current fitness levels and any structural imbalances that need to be addressed.​

For any long-distance, multi-day hike at altitude you will need:

  • Endurance: the days are long, and the altitude will make you feel more out of breath than normal. Your cardiovascular fitness needs to be good.
  • Strength: your legs are carrying yourself and your daypack. Uphill. And on the final day (Kilimanjaro), relentlessly uphill. It’s got more in common with weighted walking lunges than a stroll to the shops.
  • Mental Stamina: particularly for the summit of Kilimanjaro, or the last haul to Everest Base Camp. No matter how fit you are, you will need mental endurance to get you to the top.

Anyone in good health, with no medical contra-indications can attempt Kilimanjaro.

Just being “super fit” won’t get you to the summit. Most people who fail, do so because of the altitude. 

But if you are unfit and in poor physical condition it will be more difficult and you will be more at risk of injury.

It’s all about preparation.

How long do I need?

Well this depends entirely on your current exercise habits.

Even if you fall into the “couch potato” group, provided you have no medical conditions, 4-6 months of preparation should be enough.

For some people, 3 months is more than adequate.

For those who do regular exercise and would consider themselves somewhat “fit”, then you may need to simply step it up or add in some of the exercises that you are not currently doing. 

Doing what?

A combination of strength training, interval training and weekend hiking is the best way to prepare for your climb.

And let's not forget about stretching. Keeping your body flexible reduces the risk of injury both on and off the mountain. Never skip the stretch!​

Possibly more important than exactly what you do, it's that with each workout you need to progress.

You need to push yourself to do better in today's workout than you did in yesterday's. Only by doing so, will you improve your fitness and strength.​

Strength Training

strength training for hiking

Strength training that involves:

  • Deadlift variations: to strengthen hamstrings and glutes
  • Squat variations: to strengthen quads and knee stabilizers
  • Lunge variations: both quads and glutes/hams, lunges are particularly good as they build the functional strength you will need on the mountain.
  • Upper body strength: good core strength, back & chest for carrying your daypack. Pull up variations, push ups.

You will notice we prioritize the “multi-joint” lifts, rather than isolation lifts such as bicep curls.

Bodyweight-only alternatives

We don't all enjoy going to a sweaty gym and lifting weights with bodybuilders, so there are plenty of bodyweight alternatives to the above lifts.

These can be done in your home, or outdoors, with minimal equipment:

As you get more advanced, adding some weight to your daypack can be a great way to get used to doing the exercises with added resistance. I don't recommend any type of jumping exercises when carrying weight.

A book I recommend is Frederic Delavier's Strength Training Anatomy Workout. It gives easy to follow workouts for beginner to advanced trainees.

During strength training, instead of being able to rely on aerobic energy systems, your body will use anaerobic systems for the production of energy. This increases lactate in the body.(1)

Resistance training prepares your body by training the “anaerobic energy systems” - those systems that do not rely on oxygen to create energy.

Using short rest periods between exercises will also help with your cardiovascular fitness.

​If you are unfamiliar with strength and resistance training, it is helpful to start a program after consulting a professional trainer.

Cardiovascular Training​

Cardio fitness for hiking

Incorporating a mixture of high-intensity interval-style training and steady-state cardio is a good way of getting the conditioning you need for Kilimanjaro.

Interval-training workouts are great for those days when you are short of time. Steady-state cardio is good for boosting your endurance.

Interval Training

  • ​Running, swimming or cycling using timed intervals
  • Tabata-style high intensity cardio intervals
  • Plyometric workouts
  • Circuit training 

This video gives an idea of a short, high-intensity Tabata-style workout (hint: it's harder than it looks):

Steady State Cardio

In addition to the higher-intensity cardio training, it never hurts to get in some ordinary “steady-state” cardio:

  • Stairmaster 
  • Treadmill - set this to a high incline for best effect
  • Outdoor hiking on uneven ground - much more fun than being shut in a gym!

Your training program does not need to be super-exhausting to be beneficial. You want to get stronger, build up your aerobic capacity but also have fun doing so.

Day & Weekend Hikes

Getting out on some day or overnight treks is essential.

It will help wear-in your boots, familiarize you with your daypack, and give your legs the practice they need.

It's also good for your motivation and mental stamina.

mental stamina for hiking

Finding some local hills and trails that take 5-6 hours to hike will give you a good indication of how your fitness is progressing.

If you can hike 5-6 hours in a day and do it again the next day without feeling fatigued, then you are well on your way to being fit enough.

Incorporating some uphill sections will get your legs used to what they will have to endure on the mountain.

A Note on Tracking Progress

I recommend you get hold of a heart rate monitor, the modern ones keep track of your heart-rate during your workouts and also other stats such as calories burned and distance traveled. 

In addition to this, either use a manual notebook or an app (often there is one associated with the heart rate monitor) to keep track of your progress.

Unless you keep track of weights lifted, distance hiked or intensity of your interval training, it can be hard to know whether or not you are progressing. ​

There's nothing nicer when you are feeling a bit fed-up than to go back and see just how much more you are able to get out of your workouts than when you first began.​

Sample Fitness Program

​Disclaimer: Remember to consult your physician or healthcare professional before starting any exercise program. These programs are to give you an idea for developing your own and are based on the author's opinions and experience.

​There is no real one-size-fits-all training program. We all have different amounts of time available and different starting points.

We've come up with a basic program that you can use to tailor to your own requirements.

  • If you haven't exercised since 1985, start by walking 30 minutes a day and gradually build that up for 1-2 weeks before starting strength or aerobic training.
  • ​Nothing halts an exercise program in it's tracks better than starting off going all-out and being sore, exhausted and demotivated after the first week. Start slowly and build up!

Many people spend ages searching for that "perfect" fitness program. With any program you undertake, you need to make sure that each week you:

  • Increase your strength
  • Increase intensity of your exercise: this can mean longer, more reps, more weight etc

But:​

  • Remember to get adequate rest and recovery - get a good night's sleep!
  • In the two weeks before your climb starts, reduce the intensity of your workouts. You don't want to be burned out before right before your climb!

Recommended equipment: Heart Rate Monitor, solid bench between 6" and 1ft off the ground.

​Before you get started, it's good to have some basic numbers. Your "maximum heart rate" is one of them.

Maximum Heart Rate​

​Using the most basic calculation, your "maximum heart rate" (for a healthy person) is 220-(your age).

So if I'm 43, then my maximum heart rate should be 220-43 = 177.

​When you are doing cardio workouts, you will be wanting to keep your heart rate within a "range". 

For example, if you are a beginner, then you may begin by doing cardio at 60-65% of your Maximum Heart Rate. Using the example above, 60% of 177 would be ~106. 

​Similarly, if I was working at 70% of my maximum heart rate I would shoot for 124bpm.

You would use your heart rate monitor to ensure that you stay within your target range.

​Warm Up

Stretching - both static and dynamic make for a good warm up. If you go straight into strength training without adequate warm-up you risk injury. 

Your warm up should not be strenuous, just some basic exercises to get the blood flowing and stretching to get your muscles ready for the workout. ​

Example: 5 minutes of jogging, swimming, cycling, stairmaster, whatever you enjoy followed by a dynamic stretching routine.​

If you are unsure where to start in a stretching/flexibility routine, then I highly recommend the book Stretch To Win​ which is suitable for both beginners and those with more experience.

​Strength Training

These strength exercises can be done with or without added weight. As you get more experienced, adding weight - even in the form of a weighted daypack - is advisable

Note: try to do the entire circuit without rest, stopping for a rest at the end of each circuit.

To begin with, you may only go through the routine once, but your goal should be to do 4-5 circuits with minimal rest. You can add weights if it's too easy with just your bodyweight.​

Ensure that you keep correct form and don't rush the movements.​

Exercise

No. of Repetitions

Squats

12

Step ups front

12 each leg

Step ups side left and right

12 each side

Walking lunges

20 (10 each leg)

​Squat holds

10-60 second hold

Front lunge

10 each leg

Reverse lunge

10 each leg

Push up

To failure

Plank​

Work up to 60 secs

*If you are unfamiliar with how to do any of these exercises, follow the links to ExRx.net where you will find descriptions and videos.

Cardiovascular Training​

​If you're just starting out, chances are you'll be doing your cardio training on a separate day from your strength training.

Once you get fitter, you can start to add either high-intensity intervals or some steady-state cardio after your strength workout, on the same day. When you are starting out, going for a half-hour walk after strength training can be very beneficial.

​I recommend you use a heart rate monitor to keep track of the intensity of your cardio workouts. 

To start with, doing 30 minutes of aerobic cardio (jogging, stair-master, elliptical - whatever you prefer) at a Maximum Heart Rate of 60-65% three times a week will provide a good base.

If you are already active and have a good base level of fitness, then you could add 20-30 minutes of cardio at 60-65% of your Maximum Heart Rate​ after your strength training.

So an average week's training could look like this:​

Day

Beginner

Intermediate/Advanced

Monday

Strength Training

Strength Training + Cardio 30mins 60%

Tuesday

Cardio 40-45 mins 60% 

Cardio 45 mins 70-75% 

Wednesday

Strength Training

Strength Training + Cardio 30mins 60-65%

Thursday

Cardio

Cardio 45-50mins 70-75%

Friday

Strength Training

Strength Training + Cardio 60-65%

Saturday

Hiking

Full day or overnight hike

Sunday

Rest or light hiking

Rest, yoga, stretching

​For intermediate/advanced folks, the cardio could also be substituted for high intensity interval training for 10-15 minutes.

​If done with sufficient intensity, there is no reason why any day's training program need take more than 1 hour. Half an hour of intense exercise is better than spending two hours sitting on a reclining bicycle.

At the weekends, getting out into the bush and doing some long hikes will prepare you for what your trip will entail.

If time permits, do some half/full day hikes as a substitute for one or two of the workout days.

​What you need to do is increase your capacity. You'll be pleasantly surprised when the amount of 'work' you can do at 60% of your maximum heart rate has increased!

A Note About Nutrition

I don't believe that you need to follow a particular "diet" when training for the mountains. 

Focus on minimally-processed foods:

  • Lean meat, poultry, fish (or vegetarian equivalents)
  • Fruit and Vegetables
  • Nuts, seeds
  • Beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice.
  • Drink plenty of water!

A bad diet WILL hinder your fitness and your progress. You know when you are eating garbage. ​

To Sum Up

  • Strength training 3-4 times a week
  • Cardiovascular training (high intensity & steady state) 3-4 times per week
  • Full day's hiking - as often as time permits, carrying a weighted daypack. 
  • Get adequate rest - make sure you are getting a good night's sleep
  • Don't eat garbage (too often!)

Right. What are we waiting for? Let's get ready to hit the trail. Leave me a comment or question and I'll answer as soon as I'm done hiking!

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