How do I train for the high altitude Kilimanjaro climb?
Note: consult your healthcare professional before undertaking any hike or climb. Nothing in this article, or in any of the information it contains is designed to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any condition. Please consult your healthcare professional before making any changes to your current lifestyle
There are a lot of different opinions when it comes to Kilimanjaro altitude training. The biggest challenge most trekkers face on their Kilimanjaro climb is acclimating to the thinner air they encounter as they climb.
The effects of altitude are the main reason that climbers fail to reach the summit. Altitude is a great equalizer: no matter how physically fit and strong you are, you can still develop acute mountain sickness.
In this article, we are going to focus on strategies you can use to give you the best chance of acclimatization and prepare for Kilimanjaro’s altitude. If fitness preparation is your goal, we’ve got a full training resource here.
Can you train for altitude?
Yes and no.
Unless you live and train at altitude, you can’t replicate what it will be like when you are on the mountain. If you live near some peaks, then do some acclimatization hikes prior to your trek, to give you a better idea of how your body reacts to the thin air above 10,000 ft.
Scheduling an overnight hiking trip in the mountains can give your body a chance to experience the thinner air, and what it’s like exerting yourself.
For many people, that’s not an option.
Many people who climb Kilimanjaro do so with no prior experience of high altitude. No matter how fit, determined or prepared you are, altitude sickness can prevent a successful summit.
Effects of Altitude on your body
See Climbing Kilimanjaro’s complete guide to Kilimanjaro altitude for a more in-depth look at the effects of altitude.
At Kilimanjaro’s summit, there is 49% less oxygen available than at sea-level. Your body needs to adapt in order to compensate for the fact that with every breath, less oxygen is delivered to your muscles and brain.
Altitude Sickness (AMS) is a very real, and dangerous condition. However, many people experience some of the effects of altitude without developing AMS.
Some symptoms you might notice:
- Breathing deeper and faster.
- Higher pulse rate, even when resting.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Headaches and fatigue
What about physical fitness?
Your physical fitness will have no effect on your ability to acclimatize. Your body needs time in order to make the compensatory changes needed to operate in the lower-oxygen environment.
That said, the more you have to exert yourself at altitude, the more difficulty your body may have adapting. So physical fitness can mean the difference between 60% exertion at 14,000 ft or 85% exertion at the same elevation.
According to the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, “sustained physical exertion early in the altitude exposure substantially increases AMS incidence and severity”.
So while being physically “fitter” than others will not increase your body’s ability to acclimatize, it can possibly be the difference between how intense the exertion feels.
Additionally, sometimes athletes who are very fit will tend to move faster, push through their symptoms, and exert themselves more than less fit climbers. The key may be to hike well below your physical limits to help your body adapt, and reduce fatigue.
Altitude Training at Home or at the Gym
Elite athletes have been using “altitude training” to increase their physical performance for many years. Either by going to train in the mountains or by using altitude simulators. Using these techniques as “pre-acclimatization” methods for mountaineering is becoming more popular, with mixed anecdotal reviews, and some encouraging scientific studies.
The main difference between real altitude and simulated altitude is that the air pressure as you go to higher elevations is decreased, this is what lowers the available oxygen.
Since the at home (or gym) systems can’t replicate the low atmospheric pressure, they won’t ever be as effective as actually traveling to, and spending time in the mountains.
See the US Army’s guide to Effectiveness of Preacclimatization Strategies for High-Altitude Exposure.
A Brief Look at Altitude Training Systems
Bear in mind that most people who summit Kilimanjaro successfully have not used any of these systems. Our gradual acclimatization protocol, combined with a slow and steady ascent gives climbers the best chance of avoiding any issues.
Altitude Tents (Sleeping in a Low Oxygen environment)
We’ve all heard athletes talking about getting a competitive edge from the “sleep high, train low” system of sleeping in a low oxygen tent. Introduced by Benjamin Levine and James Stray-Gundersen in 1997, this technique claims to give the athlete the physiological adaptations to a low-oxygen environment (during rest) without compromising training performance (done at sea-level).
You put a special tent around your bed, connect it to a hypoxic generator (the machine mixes nitrogen with oxygen, lowering the amount of available oxygen), and go to sleep. You get up in the morning and go about your normal training practice.
Using the settings on the hypoxic generator, you gradually sleep “higher” over the course of 4-6 weeks prior to your mountaineering trip. The idea is that you gradually get used to the thin air, and your body adjusts.
These systems can be purchased or rented from various providers, such as Hypoxico in the US.
Does it help?
In our opinion, the jury’s out on whether or not it helps you acclimatize. With so many variables, such as your genetic predisposition to acute mountain sickness (AMS), your health and any pre-existing conditions, it’s impossible to state for a fact whether it “works” or not.
According to Hypoxico, who rent and supply these systems, there are many health and athletic benefits to sleeping in a thin air environment.
Read the science: Sleeping in moderate hypoxia at home for prevention of acute mountain sickness (AMS): a placebo-controlled, randomized double-blind study.
Training in an Altitude Chamber (or with a Mask)
Exercising in normobaric hypoxia (low oxygen at sea-level) appears to optimize oxygen delivery to your muscles and organs, reducing fatigue and allowing your body to start making the compensatory changes it needs to perform with less oxygen.
Some of the benefits include:
- Reduced symptoms & incidence of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
- Higher blood-oxygenation levels at altitude
- Greater work tolerance/exercise capacity at altitude
Some gyms in major cities have installed altitude chambers, low-oxygen environments containing treadmills, stationary bikes, and other cardiovascular machines. You go in there and do your normal training program (for Kili you might walk at a steep gradient on a treadmill) and get used to the thin air
Alternatively, you can rent or buy these systems to use at home.
Does it help?
It’s certainly hard work! A workout that you’d normally do with relative ease is made much harder with the decreased oxygen. Your body has to work harder to maintain the oxygen supply to the tissues, resulting in physiological adaptations similar to acclimatization.
There are numerous studies showing the benefits of exercise at simulated altitude:
A note on “Mask Systems”
There is some confusion amongst trainees about so-called “mask systems” for altitude training.
The two main types:
- Mask systems that you use in a gym, or at home, connected to a hypoxic generator that deliver a lower concentration of oxygen by mixing nitrogen into the air, such as these. This system provides the same benefits as exercising in an altitude chamber.
The second type is the cheap device you can buy on Amazon which simply restricts your breathing. There is no evidence to suggest that these products have any benefit at all. If you want to restrict your breathing you can wear a dust-mask or something similar. Don’t waste your time.
Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (at rest)
IHE is a protocol of breathing short bursts of low-oxygen air through a mask, followed by breathing normal air while sitting in a chair.
There are various different protocols, but all of them involve breathing low-oxygen air for around five minutes, whilst monitoring your blood saturation with a pulse oximeter, followed by five minutes breathing normal air. (Times can vary depending on your adaptation).
The idea is that it prompts the body to adapt to hypoxia.
A mask system is connected to a hypoxic generator and you adjust the settings to deliver the % of oxygen you want. Typically, you’d start with reducing the oxygen level to 18%, then down to 15%, and lower still as your body adapts.
It’s important to use a pulse oximeter to monitor your oxygen saturation to ensure it stays in the optimal “training” zone. Consult a professional if you are just getting started.
You can rent or buy these systems and many people extol the benefits on health, body composition, and performance.
Does it help?
Many testimonials from the providers of this equipment report that this method of pre-acclimatization really helps. There are numerous studies showing the benefits of IHE, so we encourage you to do further reading or consult a professional who specializes in this protocol.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Tips
- Climbing Kilimanjaro recommends arriving in Tanzania at least a day or two before your climb. Allow yourself to recover from the traveling, adjust to the time change and get a good rest before you start your climb
- “Pole Pole” is a Swahili word meaning “slowly slowly”, you’ll hear it a lot on your trek from our guides. Take your time on the mountain: don’t hike at the front of the group, conserve your energy no matter how fit you are
- Stay hydrated. The dry air and exertion cause you to dehydrate quickly. Be sure to drink plenty of water and consider an electrolyte additive to keep your minerals in balance. Dehydration significantly impairs physical performance
- Eat carbohydrates. No matter what dietary plan you follow at home, you need those carbs. Studies have shown that a diet high in carbohydrate at altitude will stimulate ventilation and improve blood oxygenation. Adequate carbohydrates keep your muscle glycogen replenished, maintains blood sugar levels during exertion and speeds up recovery.
Consider using Diamox. Please consult your doctor to find out whether this medication is right for you. Read more about diamox here.
Got questions? Climbing Kilimanjaro Team is here to help. Contact us