Last Updated on September 15, 2020
Will I Survive the Trek?
The simple answer is yes! Particularly by following a solid Inca Trail training plan, you will survive the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu. There are few people who don’t make it. (My guide only mentioned one, and I’m 99% sure he was kidding). By using a training plan and upping your basic fitness level, you can make the long days of the hike easier and enjoy more of your trek.
My sister Holly was actually the one with the Inca Trail Trek on her bucket list. When she convinced me to do it as a “sisters” trip, I didn’t quite know what I was in for! We booked in June for November, so I had almost 6 months to research, train and prepare for the hike to Machu Picchu
My Inca Trail Training Schedule
- 2X week physical therapy due to a weird knee (luxating patella). If you have any issues like this, see a physical therapist – the targeted exercises really do help.
- 2X week serious Vinyasa yoga class for flexiblity
- 5-6X week cardio training for 1-1.5 hours, alternating between treadmill, elliptical and stair climber
None of this mattered. OK, I’m exaggerating! It did matter. Without this prep, I would now be tending llamas somewhere along the route. But it was honestly the hardest week of my life. Between the altitude (more on that below), bad knees and not doing serious practice hikes, I really struggled. But I made it, and you almost surely can too. And soon afterwards, you might even start feeling proud about it like I did!
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High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Based on how difficult I found the hike and what I’ve learned since then, I would add the following to the plan:
- 2-3X week high intensity interval training for 20-30 minutes, in place of half of the cardio days above. Do HIIT on alternating days or every third day, not back-to-back.
High intensity interval training is a strategy that alternates short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods. HIIT is the concept of performing a short burst of high-intensity exercise followed by a brief rest, repeatedly, until too exhausted to continue.
HIIT sets are short – 20 to 90 seconds – but the idea is that you should push yourself almost to the maximum that you can endure, then rest and start again. This will improve your endurance, which is exactly what you’ll need to improve your fitness for the trek.
Check out more regarding HIIT from Self including some sample workouts.
Practice Hikes in Your Training Plan
If you live in an area where you can get out and do some practice hikes, definitely add this to your regimen! Be sure to wear the shoes you plan to hike in, so you can break them in and be sure they’re a good choice.
I didn’t really do any practice hikes to prepare for hiking to Machu Picchu, and regretted it. Although I worked out a lot in the gym, it still would have helped me to get more experience keeping my footing on uneven trails. Although, I did practice on the treadmill in my hiking boots which didn’t seem to bother anyone!
Visit Your Doctor
Before you start any exercise program, it’s best to consult your doctor. I talked with mine about my knee and got a recommendation for physical therapy. We also talked about the trail itself and the physical demands of the hike. I explained that I would be hiking and sleeping at altitudes up to 4200m above sea level for several days. We discussed altitude sickness and its symptoms, and whether I should take Diamox (a prescription to prevent/reduce altitude sickness). Ultimately I decided against that.
Of course, you should be in good physical condition to make the trek. Also, a disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, only a fellow traveler who survived the trek and lived to blog about it!
When to Start Training for Machu Picchu
Today! You’ll need to register early to be sure to get trail passes (only 500 people are permitted along the trail each day – around 200 trekkers and 300 porters and guides). I recommend that you start your Inca Trail training right away including HIIT and practice hikes. I think 4-6 months should be enough for people with an average level of fitness.
For reference, my baseline physical activity before the trek was on the “below-average” side. I was in my (later!) 30’s and went to a serious yoga class twice a week and the gym occasionally. But I’ve got a desk job, and I’ve never been an athletic person. My sister Holly is an army doctor, which means she has to pass physical testing periodically so she’s in much better shape. However, she didn’t have as much time to train because she was in the middle of her residency. We both faced similar struggles with being at altitude, although she fared a bit better.
My friend Deanna, who had done the trek in college, suggested I buy an elevation training mask. I flatly refused on account of not wanting to look like the supervillain Bane at the gym. (On Day 2 I sort of regretted it, but now I stand by my decision!) I did accept her thoughtful gift of a “Shewee.”
I’ve got tons more Inca Trail packing tips when you’re ready for them!
Altitude Sickness While Hiking the Inca Trail
Altitude sickness is no joke, and it doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It can affect people of all fitness levels and ages. It has to do with your body not being able to process enough oxygen from the air at the higher altitude and resulting pressure. It’s also something you shouldn’t push through if it gets serious.
Symptoms include headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, sleep disturbance, skin discoloration, and swelling of the hands, feet or face. If you feel unwell during the trek, notify your guides and monitor your symptoms carefully. Acute altitude sickness can progress to pulmonary edema (fluid in your lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain). If left untreated, these can be fatal.
It’s recommended to spend 2-3 days in Cusco before your trek to help with acclimatizing to the altitude. We were in Cusco two full days, plus an extra day in Ollantaytambo. There’s plenty to do in both places while you acclimatize.
Luckily, no one in my trek experienced acute sickness. However, in the segment of our larger group that hiked the Quarry Trail, two women had to come down from the mountain and couldn’t continue. I experienced sleeplessness and a little dizziness, but none of the other symptoms.