Treks to Machu Picchu vary in difficulty and length, but all require a basic level of fitness.
On the Classic 4D/3N Inca trail you will average 12km (7 miles) a day, and will need the endurance to trek over 4,000m passes where the altitude makes the going tough, and Inca stone stairs take a battering on your legs.
In this training for Machu Picchu article we outline the four things you can do to be perfectly prepared for your trek.
Training for Machu Picchu
Aerobic training, or cardiovascular training, refers to activities that use oxygen to adequately meet the demands of exercise through aerobic metabolism, and should be the focus of your training programme for Machu Picchu.
The types of aerobic exercises include light-to-moderate intensity activities like long-distance running, swimming, cycling and brisk long-distance walking.
These activities help build your cardiovascular system, which is key for treks to Machu Picchu, as a strong cardiovascular system is much better at processing oxygen.
Aerobic activities differ from anaerobic training that focuses on high-intensity exercises like heavy weightlifting and sprinting.
High-intensity training uses anaerobic metabolism (without oxygen) to supplement the energy demands on the aerobic system, and only puts strain on the cardiovascular system.
In terms of an aerobic training programme we recommend keeping it simple. If you are relatively unfit we suggest starting a training regime 3-6 months before your trek where you focus on one or two cardiovascular exercises like running or swimming.
The intensity of your work out should be light-to-moderate, but the duration should be relatively prolonged.
For example, if you choose to focus on jogging, then you should aim to run 3-4 times a week, covering 5km-10km at a time. Intensity should be consistent so that you feel like you have had a proper workout, but you should not be completely out of breath.
If you find you are out of breath you are pushing yourself too hard, reduce distance and intensity until you get to a comfortable pace and slowly build up your endurance.
For really fit individuals we recommend you just maintain your training regime. One month before your trek you can increase duration of your exercise but not intensity.
Please note, there is a flip side to having a strong cardiovascular system, as the fitter you are the harder you can push yourself on your Machu Picchu trek.
This is a mistake as exertion at high altitude is a key driver of altitude sickness. Make sure you go slowly on your trek, particularly on the ascents up and over passes. Breathe deep into your lungs and do not over exert yourself.
You want your strong cardiovascular system to support you at high altitude, you do not want to strain the system.
Leg and Upper Body Training
Along with aerobic exercises it is important to do strength training for your legs and upper body. In terms of legs we suggest you focus on four exercises:
- Lightweight squats
- Lying leg curls
- Step aerobics – this is particularly helpful for the Inca Trail that consists of 1,000s of steps!
With regards to your upper body, you should focus on strengthening your core (stomach and back muscles) and your shoulders.
You are not trying to get ripped muscle, but instead build strength. This is important as you will be carrying a pack throughout the trek, so you will need the upper body strength.
Here are a few light to mid weight exercises to focus on:
- Kettle-bell rows and swings
- Shoulder presses
- Back and shoulder flies
Hiking is a unique activity that is difficult to train for properly if you don’t do any practice hikes.
A long walk along a beach or a river path, is very different to high altitude trekking that traverses big passes and rocky terrain that constantly undulates.
We recommend doing at least two long-distance (10km) mountain hikes in your home country before you undertake your Machu Picchu trek.
On these hikes you will want to find terrain that is rocky and undulates. You will also want to carry a light pack.
If you are planning to do an unsupported trek we recommend you do a number of backcountry camping excursions, carrying all your gear, including tent, sleeping bag and food.
This will give you a good sense of what to expect in Peru as well as help in breaking in your hiking boots.
The latter point is very important. Do not arrive in Cusco with brand new boots. You will undoubtedly get sore feet, blisters and potentially lost nails.
Your feet are what gets you to Machu Picchu so make sure your boots are good quality and well broken in. See our Ultimate Packing List for advice on what to look for in a pair of hiking boots.
Top tip: If you have long toe-nails make sure you cut them as far back as you can. This will help prevent bruising, painful toes and lost toe-nails.
Training for Machu Picchu is as much about your physical endurance as it is about your mental stamina.
There will be points where the trek is particularly tough, usually on the trails up to high passes. Despite tired legs and sore bodies you will need to be able to dig deep to push yourself up and over passes.
Make sure you have a good attitude before coming to Cusco. Prepare yourself mentally for a proper challenge.
If you have never pushed your body hard before, try do an organised fun run (i.e. half marathon) or competitive triathlon in your home country before you arrive. This will give you a sense of pushing your body really hard in an activity that has a definite end.
Treks to Machu Picchu are not extremely tough, and in fact most people of various ages and fitness levels can complete them, but if you are someone who is concerned about your ability to complete the trek then working on your mental stamina, whilst improving your physical endurance, will make all the difference.
Focus on these four Machu Picchu training activities and you will no doubt have an incredible time trekking to one of the world’s most impressive and mysterious archeological sites.
References: (1) Personal experience, (2) Summit Success: Training for Hiking, Mountaineering, and Peak Bagging, (3) Muscle and Fitness