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Climbing Kilimanjaro

Training to trek Kilimanjaro is as much about your physical endurance as it is about your mental stamina. The former is important as you will be trekking between 5-10 miles a day for the duration of your climb (which can be up to 9 days if you have booked onto a long route). The ability to draw on physical reserves as your energy depletes is key. However, if you read about or speak to high altitude climbers they will all say that your mental stamina is just as important as your physical endurance. This is definitely true of Kilimanjaro, particularly on summit night!

Here are 3 things you can do to prepare for your trek:

Fitness

Aerobic training

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 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 important when training to trek Kilimanjaro, as a strong cardiovascular system will help you process limited oxygen in a more efficient way. There is a flip side though. The more fit you are, the harder and faster you can push yourself, and the quicker you think you can ascend Kilimanjaro. This is a huge mistake!

Going as slow as possible, even when you are on the lower reaches and feeling great, is key to your success on Kilimanjaro. You will hear your porters say Pole Pole, which means ‘Slow Slow’ 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. A good recent example of how a strong cardiovascular system can be misleading comes from an accomplished Australian marathon runner who collapsed at Stellar Point (5,739 meters) because he had trekked too fast early on in his hike.

If you are relatively unfit I recommend setting yourself a 3 -6 month training regime where you focus on long distance walking/running (6-12 km at least three times a week). You can do this on a treadmill in the gym 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 as part of their normal weekly routine I recommend maintaining your regime until one month before your trek. At this point I recommend increasing the duration, but not intensity of your exercises. Please always consult a doctor before starting an exercise regime that you are not accustomed with.

Hiking

The best way to prepare for a long trek is to do a few hikes yourself. I recommend doing at least two long distance hikes (over 5 hours). If you can do back-to-back days hiking that would be even better. Doing a few practices hikes as part of your Kilimanjaro training has a few benefits:

  • You get to experience what a 5 hour hike on difficult terrain feels like, going up and down (for me down is often more gruelling 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 stymie your summit attempt as you will get blisters and sore feet early on in your hike.

Mental stamina

So often the thing that gets trekkers to the top of Kilimanjaro is there 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. Thankfully there are 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.

We recommend long distance running, particularly marathons, but half marathons can do the same thing if you are not accustomed to running long distance. This type of activity really requires one to draw on their mental reserves to get to the finish line. Most people who run marathons will tell you the last mile was all mental. If you can get in that state of mind at least once before Kilimanjaro then you will be well prepared for the final push up the slopes of Kibo.

WeI 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 till the end.

NOTE: Over and above the importance of improving your fitness for trekking Kilimanjaro is the having the knowledge of how the body acclimatizes to altitude. Please make sure to read information on Acclimatization and Acute Mountain Sickness to understand the physiological dynamics at play.

Nutrition

Eating well on the mountain is important. Your climbing crew will provide you with a variety of food which will meet all of your nutritional requirements. Commonsense prevails, but try get a good mix of food during the day including fruit, vegetables, some protein (meat, fish, eggs) and high carbohydrate food (pasta, bread, rice, porridge). The two things to watch out for are:

Dehydration

You will be exerting yourself every day and therefore losing lots of fluid. Fluid replacement is important! Aim to drink 3-4 liters a day of water mixed with an isotonic or hypotonic solution (which aids water absorption into the blood and body cells). Obviously don’t over hydrate as this can be harmful. Straw colored urine indicates good hydration. Always remember to add water purification tablets.

Important: Just drinking water can result in a rapid fall in plasma sodium concentration which accentuates dehydration. Add a sports drink powder to ensure this doesn’t occur Avoid alcohol and caffeine as much as possible (have hot chocolate instead)

Low blood sugar

Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, causes fatigue and is common during prolonged exercise. To avoid low blood sugar it is important that your body has enough energy stores, especially muscle glycogen (carbohydrates). This means regular intake of balanced meals and snacks. Each meal should include a small amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat Eating a small snack, such as some nuts or an oat bar, during your trek is recommended. However, don’t overdose on sweets as this can result in a spike in your blood sugar.

NOTE: Do not bring pure milk chocolate bars as these will either melt during the day or freeze during the night. Instead take breakfast or oat bars. Meal served by our trekking crew includes fruits, bread rolls, soup, fried chicken, sausages and eggs. Porridge is often served for breakfast, and teas, coffee and hot chocolate are usually provided as well.

Your chances to reach the summit depend on your Tour Operator more than on anything else. Yes, your operator is more important than your fitness level! We not only have the best safety record, we also have the best client success rates.

footwear - Fitness and Nutrition


More Preparation Information:-

Fitness and NutritionVisas, Vaccinations and MedicationsEquipment and Kit ListAcclimatization and Acute Mountain SicknessKilimanjaro Checklist