Last Updated on December 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 only a few tales of people who didn’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 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.
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My Inca Trail Training Schedule
- 2X week physical therapy due to a weird knee issue called a luxating patella. (Before you trek, talk to your doctor – more on this below.)
- 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
Without this prep, I would now be tending llamas somewhere along the route! (I’m joking, of course!) It was really hard for me, but I’m not a naturally athletic person. I struggled more than anyone else in my group, so chances are you will do just fine.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Based on how difficult I found the hike and what I’ve learned since then, I would exchange some of the days of cardio with this:
- 2-3X week high intensity interval training (HIIT) 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.
HIIT is also great because you can do it from anywhere and you don’t need much, if any, equipment. Check out more on HIIT including some sample workouts here.
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 long practice hikes to prepare for hiking to Machu Picchu, and I 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 several times. Yes, I might have looked like a weirdo, but no one seemed to notice.
Check in with Your Doctor
Before you start training for the Inca Trail trek, I recommend talking to your doctor about your health history and the demands of the trek. I made an appointment and let them know ahead of time the reason why I was coming in.
At my appointment, we talked over my medical history and about the trail. 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, but it was good to talk things through with my doctor.
I also got a referral to really great physical therapists about my knee. Even with several months of therapy, I ended up using a knee brace for the trek. But the exercises from PT definitely made a difference.
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
I recommend to start training as soon as you book your hike! 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). But this gives you time to start training and also decide on what gear to bring.
I think 4-6 months should be more than enough for people who don’t have a regular exercise regimen. If you already exercise regularly, just add in some practice hikes and HIIT to your schedule.
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 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 I stand by my decision! I did accept her thoughtful gift of a “Shewee.”)
Altitude Sickness While Hiking the Inca Trail
REAL TALK, FRIENDS: In hiking the Inca trail, you’re going to be hiking and sleeping at altitudes of 4200m for several days. That’s more than 2.5 miles above sea level, which can cause problems with altitude sickness.
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.
Mild altitude sickness is also called acute mountain sickness (AMS). It’s something you shouldn’t push through if your symptoms worsen.
Symptoms include headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, sleep disturbance, skin discoloration, and swelling of the hands, feet or face. These symptoms can progress, so if you feel unwell during the trek, notify your guides and monitor your symptoms carefully.
Acute altitude sickness can lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in your lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain). If left untreated, these can be fatal.
Trekking with a friend? Be sure they know the symptoms too, and that you look out for one another.
OK, GOOD TALK!
Acclimating Altitude in Cusco
It’s recommended to spend at least 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.