The Inca Trail is the most famous trek in all of South America, and one of the most spectacular hikes in all the world. The mountain-scape sights along the 26-mile path are extraordinary, not to mention all the settlements, and Inca ruins before reaching the finale at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu mountain.
Although a beautiful and incredibly memorable experience, the trail is extremely arduous and requires proper planning and preparation to get through the steep climbs and long days. I trained for 6 months to get ready for the 4 day trek and found it to be more difficult than expected.
After having successfully navigated the 6-10 hour hikes on the stone trail, I can tell you this adventure requires stamina, endurance, balance and core stability, especially if you’re carrying a pack (I highly recommend just hiring a porter to make the hike more enjoyable). I’ve put this workout routine together to better prepare anyone planning to accomplish this unforgettable feat so that they can focus on the numerous landmarks, flowers, animals, and snowy mountain peaks instead of the exhaustion and body aches. The exercises below are designed to get your muscles & joints prepared. As for the altitude, well, just be sure you spend a few days in Cusco before you start this hike and drink lots of coca tea.
Stairway to heaven – Start with 20 minutes of stairs and over the course of 90 days work up to 45 minute and 60 minute sessions of stair climbing. No need to adjust your speed, just stay at a steady pace to mirror the pace with which you will be climbing stairs on the trail.
You can use a StairMaster at a gym, but you’re better off finding stairs in a building or at a school that you can walk up and walk down since you will need to go both up AND downhill on the trail.
As you get within 45 days of the trek, add at least a 20 lb weight vest, or better yet, pack up the backpack you intend to use on the trek with rocks, bricks or your gear and wear that when you’re climbing. Work up to 30-40 lbs in your pack until the week of your trip – believe me, you will want to be used to the feeling of carrying the extra weight!
Conquer the hill – If you have a steep hill in your area, that will do nicely, if not, any treadmill with an incline setting will also suffice. Walk up and down the hill at a brisk pace for 30-45 minute sessions. On the treadmill, set the incline to level 10 and walk on.
The same notes above about carrying extra weight apply to conquering the hill too.
Leg & Core Strength Exercises (once a week):
In addition to other strength training you are doing, these exercises will help to strengthen the muscles you will be using the most along the trek.
1. Step-Ups – With 10-25LB dumbbells in each hand, step up onto a bench, and slowly step back down with the same leg. If you’re a beginner, forego the weights for the first 4 weeks. Alternate each time you step up, do 15-25 each leg (increasing as the weeks go on). Rest for a few minutes and repeat 2-3 times.
2. Wall Squats – Sit against the wall with knees bent at 90 degrees. Hold for one minute, rest 45 seconds and repeat twice. For an extra challenge, raise one leg at a time for 15 second intervals. Work up to holding the wall squat for 3 minutes (it will burn, but really prepare you for going to the bathroom along the trail).
3. Mountain Climbers – From plank position, use your abs to bring your right knee in toward your chest. When you straighten it back out behind you, kick your left knee in toward your chest. Keep alternating for one minute. Rest for a minute and repeat twice.
4. Alternating arm & Leg raise – Get on your hands and knees. Make sure your back is flat. Raise your right arm in front of you and you straighten your left leg behind you at the same time. Hold for a count of 5 seconds and alternate to the other side. This is a great exercise for your back extensors, which work hard on the trail to hold your day pack. Do 10-15 on each side.
4. Calf Raises – With the ball of your toes on the edge of a stair, drop your heels down and use your calf muscles to press up onto the ball of your foot. Repeat 30 times, rest for 30 seconds and repeat. After 4-6 weeks, add 10-15 lb dumbbells or a 20 lb weight vest.
Balance Exercises (twice a week):
The stone trail is uneven and at times slippery, so having strong ankles and stable balance helps in navigating the pathway, as well as protects you from spraining any joints. Yoga is great in regular practice to help in overall balance, so consider adding that into your routine once per week.
1. Single leg hops – Standing on one leg, hop an inch or two forward, then back, then to the right, then to the left. By jumping in a cross shape, while balancing on one leg, you’ll feel the hip stabilizers firing, as well as your ankle working to direct your movement. Do one minute per leg.
2. Single leg knee lift – Standing on one leg, lift the other knee up toward your chest and slowly lower it back to the ground. Repeat with only one leg 30 times, then switch.
3. Side-to-Side Hops – Standing on the right leg, press off to the left, hopping to the left foot, hop back to the right and quickly hop back and forth like this, almost like a skating motion. Do this for one minute, rest and repeat.
4. Bosu ball squats – Slightly advanced exercise. With the round side of the bosu ball facing down, balance your feet shoulder-width apart on the black/flat side of the bosu ball and do squats. This requires a great deal of balance and is fantastic for the stabilizers in your ankle. Be sure to sit back when you squat so that your knees never go over your ankles. If this feels easy for you, grab 20 LB dumbbells.
Either a trail running type shoe or more sturdy and heavy hiking boots are highly recommended. Whatever you wear, be sure it has been broken in as you DO NOT want to break in new boots on the trail. Rubbing your feet with Vaseline lotion will aid in the avoidance of blisters. You’ll want shoes with some good support and good traction is very important as it can be slippery and steep along the trail, so you want to have good, secure footing.
Recommended Nutritional Supplements:
The Peruvians drink coca tea and chew on coca leaves to help adjust to the altitude, and have for hundreds of years. Buy yourself a bag from a local for 1 sol prior to starting the hike. I also brought nuts, meal replacement shakes and snack bars to keep myself going. You will definitely need snacks to keep yourself properly fueled through the several hour stretches between meals: https://www.advocare.com/02107549/Store/ItemDetail.aspx?itemCode=A3701&id=E
I used both a muscle recovery supplement during my training and during the hike which helped a TON by reducing the length and intensity of muscle soreness: https://www.advocare.com/02107549/Store/ItemDetail.aspx?itemCode=P3201&id=B
I also loved this supplement which helps the body facilitate the use of oxygen. In the thin air of the Andes, I found this to be a great help, especially since I wanted to avoid the potential nausea some experience with altitude medication: https://www.advocare.com/02107549/Store/ItemDetail.aspx?itemCode=A3502&id=E
If you have hiked the Inca Trail, let me know how you trained for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. What were some of the tricks you used to be über prepared?