Training to hike Mount Kilimanjaro when there are no hills around

Preparing for a huge hike when there are no hills in sight

In this guest post from Jim Roose, he shares how he overcame the challenge of training for Mt Kilimanjaro when there were no hills close by to train on.

12 months ago, I set a goal. Even for a go-getter like me, this one was pretty big. I’d just turned 59 and was finally determined to knock the big one off my bucket list . . .

I was going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain – and I was going to do it before my 60th birthday.

At 19,341 feet (5,895 m) above sea level, I was under no illusions – this was going to challenge me to my physical limits. I’d given myself plenty of time to prepare for it, but there’s just one problem. I don’t live near any challenging trails – in fact, there’s not a hill in sight!

In the end, I didn’t need to worry. I was able to improvise with what I had and just three weeks ago, I made it to the summit of Kilimanjaro – 3 weeks ahead of my 60 birthday!

Over the last 12 months, I’ve come across quite a number of people who have similar grand hiking ambitions, but, like me, don’t have access to any decent hiking trails. That’s why I thought I’d share my experiences of how I prepared for my big adventure. I hope you find it useful.

Strength training for hiking

My first port of call was my local gym.

Why?

Because a stronger hiker is a better hiker.

There are a number of exercises that I did with weights that copy the way that my body moves when I hit the trail. By performing these moves through a full range of motion against a controlled, progressive resistance, I was able to build joint stability, muscular endurance and absolute strength. As a result, I was able to carry more weight for longer without suffering back complaint, power up steep hills without my quads screaming for mercy and to keep going harder for longer when all the people around me were falling by the wayside.

So, the first piece of advice I would give to you when prepping for your big hike is to start a weight training program.

Here are the exercises to perform:

  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Pull Ups
  • Calf Raises

Training the core

I made use of the services of a personal trainer down at the gym and I seriously recommend that you do the same. They will be able to train you in the proper movements that you will need to perform, the proper sets and reps and overall training frequency.

A personal trainer will also help you to appreciate how important it is to train your core for hiking. That’s what my trainer did, anyway. He explained that proper hiking biomechanics requires the coordination of many muscles and joints, either as prime movers, assist muscles, or antagonistic muscles. I learned that the key to these linked movements is the core. This is the central part of the body that comprises the hips, abdominal muscles, deep lateral stabilizing muscles and the spinal extensor muscles.

By strengthening my core, I found out, I was developing my hiking power base. That’s because everything I was doing with my hips, glutes and thighs originated from my core. My trainer (he was really good) directed me to a 2015 study which was published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science which showed that core training will improve posture, give you better balance and proprioception and reduce the risk of shoulder and lower back injury. All these things are critical when taking on a challenge like Kilimanjaro.

The following three core movements were the key moves that allowed me to enhance my functionality, strength and performance, while also improving biomechanics and proprioception.

Reverse crunch

This is a great move to train for proper posterior tilt of the pelvis.

Lie on your back with your hands flat on the floor. Lift your legs up to a 90-degree angle with knees bent. Pull your belly button down to your spine and roll your hips up toward the ceiling. Keep your heels into the glutes throughout the motion, exhale as you roll the knees in to bring them to your chin. Squeeze the lower abdominals and return to the start position.

Maintain a neutral spine throughout – do not arch through the lumbar region

Split stance cable chop

Position yourself on one knee in front of a high cable pulley machine that has a long handle attached. Make sure that your back leg is in line with your knee. Now bring your front foot across to be in line with the back knee. Grab a hold of the bar with a hand at either end.

Perform reps by bringing the bar down in front of your body in a chopping motion. You should only be moving through your shoulders, making sure to get a full extension. Keep the chest out, shoulders back and upper body in alignment.

Kneeling cable crunch

Attach a rope handle to a high pulley on a cable machine. Face the machine, grab the rope and kneel in front of the weight stack. Hold the ropes at the sides of your face with your elbows pointing straight down to the floor.

Crunch your rib cage towards your pelvis without moving any other part of your lower body from its original position. Pause when your elbows approach your knees, then slowly return to the starting position.

Key areas of mobility for hikers

Ankles

When you’re hiking trails, fording rivers and walking on rocks, you are putting your ankles under quite a lot of strain. You are quite likely to find yourself on an unstable platform. This can easily lead to ankle roll, which can result in painful injury. I’m convinced that, if I didn’t do the exercises show here, I would, more than likely, have had an ankle injury.

Here are the two key moves that my trainer had me to do to allow me to increase ankle mobility so I could hit the trail with confidence:

Four-way resistance band stretch

Sit on the floor with your right foot straight out in front of you. Place a resistance band around the mid foot and grasp it with both hands. Stretch the band to full resistance. Now flex the ankle up and down by pointing your toes toward the floor and then pulling them back toward you.

Perform 10 reps and then switch to the left foot.

P.S – This is an easy one to do at one, as you can purchase resistance bands for fairly cheap. Check out my favorite review site for a breakdown of the best resistance bands.

Balance leg lift

Stand alongside a sturdy pole with a short resistance band looped over it. Place your right foot inside the band at the ankle. Step out slightly so that there is tension on the band. Now extend your right foot back 6-8 inches and then back to the start position.

Repeat 10 times on then do the same on the other leg.

Knees

Being a guy who was approaching 60, my knees weren’t in the best shape when I started. I knew that hiking uphill was going to put quadruple the stress on my knees than walking on a staircase of the same incline. Going downhill would provides an even more severe jarring effect on my knees. Add a pack and I knew that I had to take some preventive measures if I was going to avoid patellar problems.

Here is the mobility training that I did to strengthen the knee joint:

Leg extension

This exercise is done on a leg extension machine. Sit on the machine seat and adjust the settings to suit. Place your shins under the roller pads, grasp the handles and push against the shin pads to straighten out your legs. In the fully extended position, squeeze your quads as you hold the contraction for a two second count. Repeat for 12 reps.

Wall sit

Sit with your back against a wall, just as if you were sitting in a chair. Your feet should be shoulder width apart with your legs at right angles and thighs parallel to the ground. Spread your arms out along the wall at shoulder height. Hold this position for 1 minute.

Iliotibial band (IT) stretch

The IT Band is located on the outer thigh from the hip to the knee. Many people have very tight IT bands which place stress on the knee over long distances. To stretch out the IT bands, sit on a chair with both feet flat on the floor and your knees together. Now cross the left leg over the right knee. Place your hands around your left knee and pull gently toward the right shoulder. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Do these 3 times on each leg.

Training for endurance

As a hiker, I’ve learned that endurance makes the difference between an exhilarating multi-day hike and a miserable torture session. In building endurance, I followed a two-pronged approach . . .

  • Longer cardiovascular workouts during the week
  • Longer hikes on the weekend

Cardiovascular workouts

I performed 4 cardio workout sessions per week. Two of those sessions involved long, slow distance cardio at a pace that allowed me to hold a conversation. For those sessions, I used a stair climber (Head over to GarageGymBuilder.com to see a review of the best stair climbers). The stair climber will more directly activate all of the muscle groups that you will be relying on for your big hike than a treadmill or other type of cardio exerciser. Each session should last for 40 minutes.

On my other two days, I should did interval training workouts. I got yourself down to the local sports field, jogged around the perimeter of a football field to get myself warmed up. Then I did some dynamic stretching to prep my muscles for the intense work that was to follow. Then, starting at a corner, I sprinted down one length of the field, going at maximum intensity, and pumping my arms vigorously. Then when I got to the end, I walked the width to get your breath back. When I got to the next length, I sprinted again, working hard to match the intensity of my first sprint. I continued around the field in this manner until I’d done a total of 8 sprints.

Weekend hikes

To build endurance on my weekend hikes, I varied between increasing the load I was carrying in my backpack and increasing the duration of my hike. I didn’t have any challenging trails around me, but I didn’t need them. I walked around the local park and did repeated laps on a running track.

I trained for load by finding a local track that I enjoyed and adding weight to my backpack. I did this by putting tomato cans in my pack. I progressively increased the load over time until the pack weighed 1.5 times my regular pack weight.

Having comfortably worked up to handling the extra pack weight, then I deloaded to my normal backpack weight and focused on increasing the length of time that I was hiking.

I planned a weekend hike every week that involved increasingly longer distances. However, rather than focusing on the distance I was travelling, but the length of time that I was hiking.

If you’re a new hiker, start with a 90-minute trek. Then, add 30 minutes each week. Experienced hikers should begin with 5 hours and add an hour each week.

Over the weeks, you should vary your routine, so that you are mixing it up between increasing the load that you are carrying and the time that you are hiking.

Bringing it all together

Preparing for my big hike was a multi-pronged challenge. By implementing each of the steps that I’ve outlined, training consistently, eating well and keeping positive, I was able to take on the mighty Kilimanjaro, despite there not being a hill in sight – and so can you!

About the author

Jim Roose is a former competitive power lifter who has ventured into different avenues of fitness, including hiking, tennis, and crossfit.

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