Training for Kilimanjaro

Many to-be Kilimanjaro hikers ask us how to train for the trip to the roof of Africa. This article explains what regimen to follow to make sure that your Kilimanjaro attempt is a success!
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12 April 2017

All you need to know about training for Kilimanjaro


Mount Kilimanjaro is not only the highest point in Africa - it is the highest free-standing mountain in the world! Any climber who attempts to climb Kilimanjaro should prepare mentally and physically with an exercise regime and an understanding of altitude.

Every year an estimated 35,000 or more climbers take on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, statistics show a failure rate of anywhere from 30%, to even as high as 50% of all climbers. Meaning anywhere from a third to a half of all climbers turn back.

Hikers on Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro hiker with a guide

While Kilimanjaro is a ‘walkable mountain’ - meaning there is no need of specialized equipment to reach the top - it does not mean that it is an easy climb. Hikers should be physically fit, but at 19,340 feet (5,895 m), simply being in top physical shape may not be enough. Training for Kilimanjaro is essential for a safe and successful summit.

How to Prepare for High Altitude?

Climbing a mountain is not merely about one’s cardiovascular endurance. Lower saturation of oxygen experienced at higher altitudes have a physical effect on all bodies; even the most athletic. While cardio exercises certainly help prepare the body for the physical activity every hiker will engage in during the climb, aerobic exercise alone cannot fully prepare for the conditions at 19,000 feet/5790 meters.

Oxygen at Various Altitudes

Review the chart below, provided by hypoxico.com that helps explain the oxygen saturation levels at various altitudes:

Altitude (feet) Altitude (meters) Effective Oxygen Percentage Similar Location
Sea Level Sea Level 20.90% New York, USA
2000 609 19.40%
3000 914 18.60% Chamonix, France
4000 1219 17.90% Salt Lake City, USA

Mount Kilimanjaro is at an altitude of 19,341 feet/5,895 meters, meaning that every breath accumulates less than half the amount of oxygen that one breathes at sea level.

Now, those who already reside at higher altitudes are at an advantage. Their bodies have adapted over time to the less saturated oxygen. However, that ‘advantage’ is not necessarily everything - because no one lives at the high altitude of the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. No matter what your normal altitude level, there will be some amount of acclimatization for all hikers.

It is imperative to allow for adequate acclimatization to a successful climb; meaning, don’t try to run up the mountain. Schedule your climb with adequate days to ensure your body is appropriately (and safely!) adjusting to the increased altitude.

Prepare for the altitude of Mount Kilimanjaro by training on a regular basis at least 8 weeks before beginning your climb. Physical exercise is important, and a routine should be at least 4 times a week, and include aerobic exercises, strength training and hiking. Also consider the use of altitude simulators to give you even more of an advantage and help you reach Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak.

Aerobic Training for Kilimanjaro

Every climber should engage in regular aerobic training to prepare for Kilimanjaro. Cardiovascular exercise or simply, ‘cardio’, can be exercises such as running, jogging, cycling, and even aerobic dance classes. Cardio is an effective method of training for climbing Kilimanjaro because it increases heart rate and breathing.

Cardio is not the only exercise to focus on, but it is an important one to get your body in good physical condition. Try to regularly participate in aerobic exercises that simultaneously develop leg muscles to get your legs toned for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Training by cycling or trail running are great options.

Altezza guides passing a running test
Altezza guides passing a physical fitness test

We suggest 3-4 days a week of 40 minutes or more of aerobic exercise to keep the heart and lungs in good shape for the upcoming trek. It doesn’t have to be grueling, even dancing can be effective, as long as it gets your heart rate up!

Strength Training for Hiking the Mount

No one climbs Kilimanjaro by heart alone (physically or metaphorically). Climbers use their legs to get them to the top, so make sure your legs are strong!

Set aside 2 sessions a week for strength training, especially for legs. However, don’t focus only on the legs. Be diverse in your exercises and include back, chest, and arms as well. You will be carrying a day pack during your trek, after all.

Kilimanjaro climbs include 6-8 hour days of ascending hikes for 5 or more days, and a very long final day descending. Your legs need to be ready for this tough climb, so ensure you are getting the muscles toned. The climb up will be a challenge on your calves and hamstrings, while the descent will put your quad muscles to the test.

You aren’t aiming for definition and bulk with this weight training; you want your muscles to be strong and able to endure hours of hiking at a steep incline.

Stretching and Warming Up is a Must

Make sure to always warm up the muscles with light exercise before beginning strength training or targetted aerobic activity. This helps to avoid muscle strains, pulls or even worse - a tear! No point in having to sit out a week or longer recovering from a muscle injury just because of skipping a five-minute warm-up.

Five minutes of brisk walking or a light jog, followed by stretching is not to be missed.

Remember, training is as much a process of caring for your body as it is targeting specific muscles or improving endurance. Push yourself, but respect your body’s boundaries and gradually increase the difficulty of training. Always warm up before a workout, and take time to stretch your muscles after a training session.

Practice Hiking at Altitude

Hands down, the most effective activity to prepare for climbing Kilimanjaro is to hike as much as possible!

Reaching the summit is essentially a very long, multi-day hike at increasingly higher altitudes. Hiking at high altitudes is the best way to prepare your heart and lungs for what’s to come.

The most effective activity to prepare for climbing Kilimanjaro is to hike as much as possible

If you are fortunate to live at or near a higher elevation, take advantage of the hikes in your area. Book a weekend to climb a mountain in your vicinity, or drive up to the highest elevation possible and spend the afternoon walking (or jogging!) around in the reduced oxygen.

You will be developing your leg muscles, participating in aerobic exercise and exposing your lungs to a higher altitude.

Some trekkers climb Mount Meru (4,564 m), in Arusha National Park as preparation for Kilimanjaro. If your time and budget allow, this is a great option!

Simulate High Altitude

Not everyone has the advantage of a mountain in their backyard: if you cannot physically get to a higher altitude to train, you can simulate one. There are several options for selecting altitude simulators, from masks to wear while exercising to transparent tents that cover your bed and operate while you sleep.

Masks

There are oxygen deprivation masks or altitude simulator masks that can be worn either while exercising, or even just while watching television. The idea is that they reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the lungs as a form of preparing for the less saturated oxygen at higher elevations.

Training with masks to prepare of Kilimanjaro is discussed in more detail further on in this article.

Tents

Altitude simulator tents are sold either as a transparent fitting that covers your own bed at home, or a separate actual tent that can be set up on a flat surface in the home. The ‘chamber’ is controlled with a generator that pushes out the regular oxygen of your environment and pumps in less saturated oxygen, mimicking a higher altitude. These products are to be used during sleep or rest, not while exercising, and used for as many hours as possible to help your body adapt to the simulated elevation.

The benefit to sleeping in an altitude simulation tent around your own bed at home is that your body experiences reduced oxygen levels for a prolonged period of time. If you get a full 8-hours of sleep your body experiences the simulated altitude for that duration, it is doubtful anyone can exercise with a mask for a full 8 hours a day!

Tents or bed enclosures are available from Altitude Techa> or Hypoxico. They work by altering the oxygen in your sleeping space to replicate that of a higher altitude. You don’t need to do anything but lay down and sleep, while your body naturally adapts to the mimic-ed elevation. Check out this Gear Junkie reviewa> for more information.

Altitude simulation products require an investment, but could be well worth it if they help you acclimatize more easily to the intense elevation of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mental Stamina - Know Your Limits

It’s in your head

Kilimanjaro is not accomplished in a few days, and your mental attitude going into what may be a week on the mountain is important.

Altezza hiker on Kilimanjaro
Group of Kilimanjaro hikers

Hiking or trekking is just as mental as it is physical. While you may hike with a group, it doesn’t really feel like a ‘team sport’. A great deal of time is spent hiking with just your thoughts to yourself - and those internal thoughts can be incredibly powerful.

Having a positive mental outlook is important for the confidence to reach the top. It will be your own inner voice cheering you on, or, if you’re not focused - negative ideas that bring you down. Make a concerted effort to keep your thoughts positive, either using affirmations on a regular basis, or shutting down negative thought patterns.

Having a positive mental outlook is important for the confidence to reach the top

Training well in advance for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro can put you in a positive mental space, just as much as being physically fit. You can counteract negative self-talk by reminders of all the hard work you put in the weeks before and the hikes you took to prepare for this upcoming trek.

In those early morning hours you are pushing for the final stretch, and are feeling every bit of the challenge to climb the highest mountain in Africa, instead of hearing self-doubt, your inner voice will be urging you on because you worked so hard for this moment.

However, safety is always the first priority. You should never push yourself beyond what the boundaries of health and safety. While feeling ‘winded’ or ‘out of breath’ can be normal at a high altitude, nausea or vomiting, a sudden and extreme headache are symptoms of altitude sickness and should be taken seriously.

Keep this in mind during your training as well as your active climb of Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro Climbing Training Plan

Mountain Hiking Workout Program

The below chart is a guideline only. We suggest working out with this type of training 3 or 4 days a week, at a minimum of 8 weeks before attempting Kilimanjaro.

Warm Up and Stretch 5 minutes
Aerobic Exercise 15 minutes Cycling or jogging
Strength Training 10-12 reps (3 sets) Squats - Leg press - Calf raises - Leg curls
Body-weight Training 25 reps Lunges - Sumo Squats
Aerobic Exercise 20 minutes Stairmaster or Cycling or runing on an incline
Cool Down and Stretch 8 minutes Cycling or jogging
Estimated Total Time 1 hour 10 minutes

Boosting your hiking skills

We recommend hiking outdoors in preparation for your Kilimanjaro climb, unless you are using an altitude simulator mask and are feeling self-conscious, get outdoors!. Don’t let the weather be a deterrent - it might be raining or freezing cold on Kilimanjaro - you are training for the trek.

Try to complete two long hikes per month and shorter hikes every week. Incorporate walking alternately on heels, and then toes to target specific leg muscles. Ensure you walk both uphill and downhill during your hike to prepare your body for the ascending and descending climbs.

If you are hiking outdoors, find an area with diverse terrain that incorporates uphill and downhill climbing naturally. If you’re restrained to a treadmill, ensure each session includes the suggested amount of time walking up and down, respectively.

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3-4 Week 5 Week 6-7 Week 8+
Distance of Hike 2.5 mile (4 km) 5 mile (8 km) 3 mile (4.8 km) 6.5 mile (10 km) 3.5 mile (5.6 km) 7 mile (11 km)
Uphill Walking 20 minutes 30 minutes 15 minutes 30 minutes 30 minutes 1 hour
Downhill Walking 10 minutes 15 minutes 15 minutes 40 minutes 15 minutes 30 minutes
Walk on Heels 3 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes
Walk on Toes 3 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes

Oxygen deprivation training - Mask Workouts

As mentioned above, there are several options for preparing for a higher elevation if you cannot physically get to an increased altitude. One such option is to exercise while wearing an oxygen deprivation mask.

These masks are designed to be worn while exercising to encourage the body to prepare for less oxygen at higher altitudes. A hard run already makes athletes breathless, now, in addition you’re wearing a mask to limit your oxygen intake. Your lungs are going to feel it!

Some climbers utilize this approach to boost their endurance and ‘trick’ their lungs to thinking they are already at a higher altitude, right in the gym.

However, working out with an oxygen deprivation mask is controversial training strategy. For example, this review by Gear Patrol suggests that oxygen deprivation masks are not effective, because working out under such conditions for an hour or so does not help the body to adapt because it does not cause an increased production of red blood cells within the body, which bring oxygen to the muscles. Only actually experiencing high altitude can achieve such.

Alternatively, this article by Hypoxicoa> suggests that while, admittedly, the masks do not replicate altitude in regards to the decreased saturation of oxygen, they do help the lungs to exercise in such a way as to prepare them for the conditions at higher elevations.

Those wishing to train with oxygen deprivation masks should have doctor’s approval and ensure they are following the directions precisely to avoid injury or negative side effects.

Train Without Altitude Simulation

If you aren’t interested in making a financial investment in altitude simulation products, especially as they are under debate; consider focusing solely on your physical condition. In the end, only you can control how well, how often and how seriously you train for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

BASE-jump group approaching the summit area
Sunrise on the slopes of Kilimanjaro

It’s difficult to get motivated to train for climbing Kilimanjaro when you aren’t in in Tanzania. Or, perhaps your trekking group is scattered across the globe. It is winter and you would prefer to avoid the snow and cold.

No more excuses!

Visit Fit For Trips and select one of their Training Programs to help you get motivated and stay on a schedule. They focus specifically on getting you fit for international experiences so you can enjoy your trip to the fullest. When you reach Uhuru Peak you will be glad you did!

FAQ

How Long Should You Train For Kilimanjaro?

We suggest training a minimum of 8 weeks before your scheduled climb, but please note this is the minimum. The sooner you begin training the better your chance of success!

Don’t expect to go from zero to 100 in a few weeks; if you are already fit and include cardiovascular exercise throughout the week, increase the intensity and length at least 4 times per week for targeted training for your Kilimanjaro climb.

If you haven’t been active in some time, begin as soon as possible. Make sure to include aerobic exercise and strength training in your routine, and aim for 4 or more days a week until your Tanzanian adventure begins.

What Is The Best Climbing Workout Routine?

While hiking at high altitudes may be the best workout routine, most schedules don’t allow for 6-hour hikes during the week.

Instead, prospective climbers can aim for 3 gym days a week that include cardio and strength training exercises, and complete 2 longer hikes each month. Throw a weighted pack on during that hike, just for good measure.

Here is a sample workout routine by week, to show how to incorporate strength training, cardio, and hiking each week.

Ideally begin 8-10 weeks prior to the scheduled climb:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8
Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training Aerobic Training
2 sessions 2 sessions 2 sessions 3 sessions 3 sessions 3 sessions 4 sessions 4 sessions
Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training Weight Training
1 session 1 session 1 session 2 sessions 2 sessions 2 sessions 2 sessions 2 sessions
1-2 Hour Hike 3 Hour Hike 1-2 Hour Hike 3-4 Hour Hike 2-3 Hour Hike 3-4 Hour Hike 3-4 Hour Hike 4-5 Hour Hike

How Hard Is It To Climb Kilimanjaro?

This can seem like a trick question.

It IS hard, no doubt - and the challenge is what makes it so awesome! No one would brag about it, frame their certificate of successful climb, or take a photo at the peak unless it was difficult.

But, there are some things every climber can do to increase their chances of success - and some of them have nothing to do with training at all!

The time of year can have an influence on the weather conditions that greatly impact a climb. For example, rainy season in Tanzania is usually from April-early June. This time of year is generally more difficult to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, as you are almost guaranteed to be hiking in rain and mud and be generally wet throughout your climb.

The pleasant weather in January and February, and August through October is usually more favorable for climbing, although rain can happen at any time.

There are seven routes for Kilimanjaro, but they all reach the same summit: Rongai, Machame, Marangu, Lemosho, Shira, Northern Circuit and Umbwe. Routes vary in their direction of ascent, either north or south and differ in technical difficulty. Choosing an easier-rated route, with protection from wind could be an advantage for climbers. Machame and Rongai routes are the most popular: and with good reason, they are considered to have the highest success rates for climbs.

Acclimatizing to the higher altitude is one of the most important factors for a successful climb. Four or five-day treks have the lowest success rates because climbers have little time to acclimatize their bodies to the higher elevation. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a huge undertaking, and trying to speed up the time by cutting a few days short could end in failure. We suggest seven or eight-day climbs to help adapt to the altitude and increase the chance of success.

Can You Climb Kilimanjaro Without Training?

In short, yes.

Many trekkers have reached the summit without prior training. However, thousands of climbers turn back every year without reaching the top.

It’s difficult to get exact figures on success rates for Kilimanjaro climbs. Tour companies want to promote themselves and may show a high percentage of successful climbs, but that could be one member of a group making the climb successfully, and not include other members of a group that abandoned the climb on the final day. Also, they could display assumed successful climb numbers for all of Kilimanjaro, not necessarily how their own company ranks.

Tour companies want to promote themselves and may show a high percentage of successful climbs, but that could be one member of a group making the climb successfully, and not include other members of a group that abandoned the climb on the final day.

For now, it is estimated that anywhere from 30-50% of climbers do not summit Kilimanjaro. This could be from any number of factors due to weather, attempting a difficult route, or altitude sickness.

Certainly, a large number of climbers do not succeed against the tallest mountain in Africa because they did not train for the climb. Trekking Mount Kilimanjaro is an investment of time, money and energy. It is worth it to put in the extra effort to prepare in advance for an amazing experience and not turn back on the last day.

No one can control the weather or predict if it will rain during your climb. Every climber has a choice in how many days and which route to hike for Kilimanjaro. But even more important, each climber has the most influence over their physical condition before beginning this multi-day hike. Training can be the most important factor separating success from failure on Kilimanjaro.

Trekking Mount Kilimanjaro is an investment of time, money and energy. It is worth it to put in the extra effort to prepare in advance for an amazing experience and not turn back on the last day.

Conclusion

Preparing for Kilimanjaro requires a time commitment months before ever boarding a plane or packing a bag.

The challenge is what makes the climb glorious; no one can do it for you, it is hard-earned only by your own sweat and hours of training. Keep the end-goal in mind as you train for Kilimanjaro. Sore muscles, sweat, exhaustion and perhaps even a financial investment in an altitude simulator, may seem overwhelming at first. But, when you stand on the snow-covered Uhuru Peak, breathing in that cold, lower-saturated oxygen on the Roof of Africa, it will all be worth it. You will have achieved summiting the highest mountain in Africa - and you did it all by your own dedication and hard work.

Rating:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dima is a Tanzania-based travel expert with multiple Kilimanjaro hikes under his belt. He contributed his knowledge and skills to many notable expeditions, including Wings of Kilimanjaro 2019, BASE-jump trip with Red Bull, National Geographic trips and many other adventures.

At Altezza Travel Dima is the Kilimanjaro Expeditions Coordinator. Every year he supervises the departure of over 1500 Kilimanjaro trekkers, appoints the guides and makes sure that everything goes as planned before, during and after the expedition.
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