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How to train for a 19,000-foot mountain hike—when you live at sea level

Hiking Kilimanjaro
Wanna get here? Here’s how to prepare for a hike to the summit. (Photo Credit: Brandon Scherzberg for


Training for a 5K or even a marathon isn’t easy, but at least there’s a pretty obvious course of action: You run longer and longer distances until, eventually, your body is ready to race.

But what about a hike like Mount Whitney—one of this country’s “Fourteeners” (mountains that are more than 14,000 feet)—or Mount Kilimanjaro? How do you prepare for altitude when you live at sea level?

It’s a question I’m asking, and not just theoretically, because come hell or hell’s blisters, I’m scaling that 19,000-foot African peak (for my 40th birthday—gulp) at the end of the year. So I turned to Ben Hendrickson, a trainer at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers who has prepped clients for the likes of Mount Rainier and Mount Shuksan, and who personally climbed Kilimanjaro a dozen years ago—in five days! (I’ll be doing my hike in nine.) Here’s what he recommends:

First things first—you have to get yourself in really good cardiovascular shape…
“Your ability to go up is related to your ability to handle anything,” says Hendrickson. “The more fit you are, the more you’re going to enjoy it!”

…but flat running won’t cut it. According to Hendrickson, my plan to train on the track at McCarren Park won’t do. It’s important to train on hills, too, whether it’s on a treadmill, or in Central Park. When he was preparing for a hike up Mount Rainier, Hendrickson logged regular two-hour, uphill treadmill walks with a heavy backpack.

Hendrickson's an avid rock and ice climber.
Hendrickson’s an avid rock and ice climber.

Get thee to SoulCycle or Flywheel. Indoor cycling classes not only strengthen the quads and glutes, “they tax the joints in a way that’s pretty similar to the stress of hoisting yourself up a hill,” says Hendrickson. And that matters: Every step on the mountain is the equivalent of one rep of a leg exercise with a low weight (AKA, your pack). In other words, it’s time for me to get on a bike.

Then do even more leg work. Do step-ups and walking lunges. A lot of them! And take the stairs whenever you have the chance. Better yet—run ’em.

Train for terrain. Walk on the beach to prepare for rocky, squishy scree. (Last weekend’s decision to blow off work and go to Coney Island—justified!) And it might seem obvious, but take actual hikes. It’ll help you develop skills on uneven terrain, while learning how to hydrate properly and maintain mental focus.

Get altitude ready. The truth is, even if you’re in amazing shape, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to handle the altitude, but it certainly helps, Hendrickson says. If you’ve got family or friends in Colorado or an equally high-altitude locale (think 5,000 to 9,000 feet), it’s time to give them a call and see if the guest room’s free. Hanging out in the thinner air and taking some hikes can make a huge difference, Hendrickson says. If that’s not a possibility, tack a few extra days onto your trip, giving yourself time at base camp to acclimatize.

And remember: “It’s not about the will to win,” Hendrickson says (paraphrasing Bobby Knight). “It’s about the will to prepare to win.” —Ann Abel