What does it mean to train your way to reach an improved level of fitness? Essentially you need to push yourself, gradually getting your body to do a bit more than it is used to; to get stronger, to improve your endurance and to shorten the body’s recovery time afterwards. It sounds easy, but it’s hard work.
If you are not accustomed to training, it’s important not to try too much, too soon. Establish a routine, devise a program and take things gradually. Start early, as soon as you have decided to take on Kilimanjaro, and then stick to your program. Even better, take some advice from a fitness instructor. Let them know that you are aiming towards a Kilimanjaro climb, so they can structure a program specifically for your needs.
And remember that away from the gym, or any type of formal exercise, there is plenty you can do on your own. Walking costs nothing and can be done anywhere, so build walking into your daily routine. Build up the distance each time you walk and if you are lucky enough to live near some hills – of any height – use them to get used to climbing and descending. Walking as part of your training is also a great opportunity to check that your boots fit and that they are in good condition. If you can find time, walk good distances on consecutive days, as that is what you will be doing on Kilimanjaro.
There are plenty of different ways of improving your strength and stamina and some climbers will already have a fitness routine. Below, we suggest a number of different types of exercise which can be combined to give you the fitness necessary for your Kilimanjaro climb. Even if you do already exercise regularly, we would ask that you read through these suggestions to ensure that you have a good balance between building strength, increasing your aerobic fitness and improving your stamina. Work hard on these and you’ll have every chance of standing on the Roof of Africa!
A structured, personalized approach to your training
You will probably know from other parts of your life whether you need help to get fit, or whether you have the discipline to devise a program and then follow it on your own. If you need help, there are a number of ways to get it.
The traditional route would be to find a personal trainer. These people often work either directly for or with gyms, so you could contact one through your local gym/fitness centre. Otherwise, a quick search on the internet will provide you with contact details. It is usually less expensive to get the services of a personal trainer who works at a gym, so if you are already a gym member, that is the place to start. And if you don’t want the expense of a personal trainer, many gyms run a variety of group classes, which are lower-cost or even free of charge or included in your gym membership. Classes can include things such as spin (cycling), core stability, yoga, Pilates and much more besides. Group classes mean that you are not training alone, so you have others to motivate you, as well as the expertise of the person running the class.
A more recently developed option is to get a ‘virtual’ personal trainer, and these have become particularly popular to allow people to comply with restrictions imposed during the global pandemic. There are also many types of ‘apps’ designed to help you get fit, meaning that you can exercise without leaving home.
For those who prefer to exercise without any of the above support, it is still a good idea to set yourself objectives and monitor your progress against them. A suitable goal might be to increase the distance each time, or to reduce the time taken to cover the same distance whether you are running, cycling or swimming.
Fitness and exercise: setting realistic goals
But whether you are joining a gym, employing a personal trainer, downloading an exercise ‘app’ or exercising on your own, make sure that any goals that you set are realistic. If you start your chosen program in good time, well before your Kilimanjaro climb, then there is no need to set goals and targets that are too challenging. Work gradually towards them: if you try to achieve too much, too soon, then you will simply become demotivated and set yourself up for failure. And remember, make your exercise program as varied as possible, as simply repeating the same routine will become boring and you are more likely to give up. Core strength, cardiovascular improvements, increasing stamina – make sure your program covers all of these.
Much or your physical preparation for Kilimanjaro will be concentrated on aerobic exercise. Remember that at its core, climbing Kili is a walk – though a very special and very tough one! That means that walking should form a big part of your training and if you can partially replicate the climb by walking up some local hills, then your preparation will be greatly improved. Good aerobic training means that your use of oxygen will be much improved, and you will feel more comfortable once you are up on the mountain.
Variety is important
We have already stressed the importance of variety. Repetition is inevitably at the heart of a lot of exercise, but ‘mixing it up’ is important to ensure that you cover all the essentials. And to ensure that you stay motivated. You may already be engaged in regular sport as part of your everyday life, whether it is contact sports (such as football or hockey), racket sports (such as tennis) or individual pursuits such as swimming, cycling or running. All of these are great exercise options, of course, but have a good look at what you already do, and then choose to do something different – as well as, not instead of, maintaining your normal, everyday chosen activity.
Building up your strength
Building up your strength does not mean that you have to become a musclebound, Olympic standard weightlifter. But it is important in two areas, namely to strengthen your leg muscles and to ensure that you have a strong core. As you will be walking for many hours each day on Kilimanjaro, the importance of having strong legs is obvious and needs no explanation. But climbing nearly 6000 metres will put added strain on your legs, and although your porters will be taking most of your luggage, you will still be carrying your own daypack (maximum 6kgs) and this extra weight also demands strong legs.
There are many tried-and-tested exercises which build leg-strength, and these can be done without the need for any equipment. You can find videos on the internet which will give you instruction on how to perform these. Consider the following exercises: squats, lunges, side lunges, toe-ups and leg extensions.
You are normally advised to do a ‘circuit’ of about 10 repetitions of each of these in succession, then take a rest, then do another circuit. You should do a minimum of three circuits at each session.
For those with robust joints (especially knees), jogging or running is the best cardiovascular exercise you can get. There is no need to have any special equipment, apart from good-quality, supportive shoes, so it is low-cost and you can go straight from your front door! But the downside is that every time you put your foot down with all your bodyweight on it, you are putting a lot of strain on your ankles and knees. If you have any slight weakness in these vital joints, then jogging or running will find it out and therefore you should avoid this otherwise excellent activity.
If that, is you, then you should consider activities which are low or no-impact.
One every good low-impact cardiovascular alternative to jogging or running is swimming. This is an excellent activity in many ways, as it exercises the whole body, with the water doing a great cushioning effect in supporting your bodyweight. It also builds stamina and increases strength in the upper body, as well as the legs. It can be repetitive, and some swimming strokes can put strain on the joints: for example, breaststroke can expose problems in the knee joints. And not everyone likes getting wet!
Cycling is another cardiovascular alternative, very popular though it does have its disadvantages. First of all, you will need a reliable bike, which can be expensive, and secondly you will need somewhere pleasant to cycle. If you live in a city or other built-up area, sharing your route with motor vehicles can take the shine off what might otherwise be a pleasant cycle ride.
With interval training, the clue is very much in the title. The participant engages in periods of high-intensity exercise, with short periods of rest in between. Benefits are huge, though what you gain from this type of exercise depends very much on the balance you strike between the length and intensity of the exercise periods on the one hand, and the length of the rest periods on the other. Sometimes this type of training involves exercising at two different speeds, For example, if your interval training involves running, you might do a short, sharp sprint, followed by a gentle jog, then another sprint, and so on.
Building some circuit-training into your fitness program can strengthen your core, which reduces the possibility of injury or strain to the back, neck and shoulders. Remember that carrying your daypack for hour after hour can put extra pressure on these body parts, so strengthening the relevant muscles around them in advance of your climb, is good advice. If you have a gym instructor or personal trainer, let them design a circuit for you. Otherwise, a good circuit might involve something like:
25 press-ups, 35 sit-ups, 5 dips,5 pull-ups
20 press-ups; 30 sit-ups; 12 dips; 4 pull-ups
15 press-ups; 25 sit-ups; 8 dips; 3 pull-ups.
Try and replicate, as closely as possible, your Kilimanjaro trip. Now obviously you are unlikely to have an iconic mountain of nearly 6000 metres on your doorstep, but there are several ways in which your training can mirror the thing you are actually training for. After all, this is essentially a long-distance, multi-day walk, so if you walk regularly you should think of walking more often, walking longer distances and walking on consecutive days. And if you don’t walk regularly, then now is definitely the time to start. And once you have started, build up the distance and regularity of your walking.
As well as the obvious fitness benefits of regular walking, there are other considerable benefits as well. Look upon your walking as a testing-ground for your equipment, the same equipment that you will be using on the mountain. First and foremost is your footwear, which if it is new, will need breaking in. And if it is not new, your training period is an opportunity to check its condition (Are the soles too worn? Are the laces about to break? Are the seams about to split?) It is far better to identify problems now, rather than halfway up Kili. And for those with new boots, breaking them in is vital, to ensure that you don’t get blisters or other problems. Again, better to find out now, when you can do something about it: there are no shops selling mountain gear on Kilimanjaro!
Walking good distances on consecutive days is important. If you walk for only one day, then take time to recover, this is very different from walking for five or six days without any rest day in between. It’s all about getting used to it.
Walking at altitude
Walking is one thing, walking at high altitude is a different matter. Most of our visitors do not have an opportunity to practise walking at altitude before their Kilimanjaro climb, but if you do live near any significant hills, then you should make good use of them. Altitude sickness does not kick in until you reach around 2500 metres (8000 feet), so it is very unlikely that you will be able to acclimatize in advance. But any sort of climbing up and down will be beneficial, as it will help your muscles to adapt and will get you used to walking at a slow pace.
And certainly, don’t worry if you can’t train at high altitude. Once you are on Kilimanjaro, our expert mountain crews will do everything to help you get accustomed to walking at altitude.
Good boots are essential, you cannot afford to make do with something substandard on a serious climb like Kilimanjaro. Specialist advice from an outdoor or mountain specialist is advisable. Check the fit carefully, walk up and down the shop as much as you can. Ensure that your boots give you adequate support, especially for your ankle. Make sure to ask if they are genuinely waterproof, not just water-resistant – there is an important difference. Gore-Tex is the leading waterproof, breathable footwear material.
Before you buy them, try your boots on at the end of the day, for strangely enough your feet are bigger than they are first thing in the morning. Wear the socks you intend to wear when you do your Kili trek: this will ensure you get the right fit. And remember that a medium-weight boot is best. Heavy boots will feel…well, heavy after a few hours of walking, and it’s these little things that make the difference.
Good diet during preparation and on the mountain
Training is important, but so is taking care of your diet. Two matters to keep on top of are maintaining your energy levels and keeping yourself properly hydrated. Kilimanjaro presents some unusual challenges, because loss of appetite is a common experience amongst climbers on the mountain. This means there is a risk of reduced protein intake, which leads to energy loss. It is crucial to try to overcome the loss of appetite and to keep eating: you will need to maintain your stamina for the climb. Taking on carbohydrates and protein, as well as minerals, before you start your climb, is also a good strategy. Many climbers also use vitamin supplements.
Keeping hydrated, both during your training period and also on the mountain, is absolutely essential. Physical exercise makes greater demands on the body in this respect and replacing lost fluids is a top priority for everyone undertaking a Kilimanjaro climb. Losing fluid can impact negatively on the functioning of the muscles and the functioning of the brain. Without the correct intake of fluids, climbers become tired. But there are other damaging effects if you become dehydrated: severe headaches, muscle pain, stomach pain, heartburn, dizziness/disorientation, becoming irritable or depressed
Water is of course crucial, but many climbers also take approved high energy/sports drinks which have the added benefit of containing electrolytes or extra vitamins. It is a good idea to keep up your fluid levels, drinking before you get thirsty.
Easy Travel’s ‘top tips’ for your Kilimanjaro preparation
We asked our mountain crews for the best advice they could give to prepare for a Kilimanjaro climb. We have covered these in detail elsewhere, but our guides’ advice certainly emphasises the importance of following these. Here’s what these experts said:
Get yourself in shape
Once you have booked your climb, it’s time to get in shape. Start early, building fitness into your daily routine. Leave the car at home and walk or cycle instead. Once you’re on the mountain, you’ll be glad of that extra fitness – your climb will be more enjoyable, that’s for sure.
Practice makes perfect
For a walk, practise walking and for climbing, practise climbing. The more you can do, the better you will be ready for Kilimanjaro. Walk long distances, on consecutive days. Why? Because that’s what you will be doing in Tanzania. Climb a hill, however small, if you can. If not, even going up flights of stairs will help.
Keep it balanced
Read our detailed advice about fitness, above. You need to push yourself, increasing your strength and stamina, but you need to do it gradually. If you go too hard, too early, you will lose your initial enthusiasm and motivation. Increase the length and intensity of your program, as you progress.
Check your gear
Footwear, daypack, walking poles: if you are buying them new, wear them in. If you already have them, check their condition. Walk with them, as part of your training. That’s the best way to see if they are in good condition. And try out the clothes you are going to wear on the mountain, too, everything from top to toe. Yes, socks, underwear – the lot. Does everything fit properly? Now is the time to find out, not when you are halfway up Kilimanjaro.
Practise your hydration and your diet
It may seem strange to suggest practising your eating and drinking, but many people do not drink nearly enough in their everyday life. On Kilimanjaro, keeping hydrated will be super-important, so get into the habit now of drinking more every day. And try out some energy drinks and high-energy snacks, to see which ones are best for you.