Inca Trail Training Tips … in hindsight.

A multi-day hike and proper physical fitness go hand in hand…at least that is how it should be.  However, for me that was not exactly the case. Fresh off a break-up, I booked a solo trip to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. It was what I had to do for myself at that point in my life, even if it meant not training properly ahead of time.

The Inca Trail has consistent breathtaking views and also leads to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. In total, the hike is 4 days long, averaging about 6.5 miles daily. The terrain consists of a wide range of altitudes, with multiple ascents and descents. The highest peak is Dead Woman’s Pass, which is an astounding 13,828 ft (4,215m).

In order to make a difficult hike an enjoyable endeavor, I want to lay out some key preparation techniques that I wish I did before my multi-day hike on the Inca Trail.

Physical Fitness

Generally, you should start training your body 8 weeks (or more) in advance in order to be sure your body is ready, and to leave a recovery week prior to the trip. I wish I took the time to train my body beforehand because it could have made many of my post-hike symptoms, like having super sore muscles, less intensive. In order to not make the same mistake I made, here are some helpful training techniques and areas to focus on when training before your big hike.

Tabata-Style Workouts

If you have the opportunity to experience high altitudes prior to your trip, you’ll know how your body reacts to oxygen deprivation. On the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Hike another dozen steps, stop and recover., and repeat hundreds of times. Learn to manage your body (and mind!) recovery to high intensity with Tabata workouts.

Standard Tabata workouts are only 4 minutes long (can be done longer if desired), but if done correctly they can be incredibly effective in fat burning, muscle growth and endurance. With this, each workout is timed for 20 seconds, and then you rest 10 seconds. You repeat this routine 8 times. Some typical workout moves for this include push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers and squats. There has even been research that high-intensity workouts are more beneficial than hour long moderate/low intensity workouts.

Leg Strengthening

If I wasn’t stopping to catch my breath, I was stopping because of the burning in my legs, wishing I had focused on muscular strength and endurance. Some of the best ways to increase stamina and muscle in your legs include:

Squats – Implementing squats in your workout routine is perfect for targeting your lower body and leg muscles. Squatting focuses on the large muscles of the legs which are your glutes, hamstrings and quads. As you become more advanced with this, you can add a kettle bell or dumbbells for more tension. In addition, to make the workout more dynamic, you can do jumping squats to add in cardio at the same time and quickly simulate the struggle to breathe.

Lunges – Lunges are another great exercise for hiking. They help strengthen your main leg muscles and stabilize core muscles. Because hiking terrains can have drastic descents, try doing downhill lunges to prepare your quads for those situations.  My knee-jarring descent from Dead Woman’s Pass would have been much easier to handle if I have practiced this ahead of time. This is also why it’s a great idea to use hiking poles!

Step Ups – Using a set of stairs nearby or using a stair stepper at the gym will help not only cardiovascular improvements, but prepare your legs for the uphill climb and the occasions where you are ascending from one large rock to another. This technique targets your quads and glutes. You can also go down the stairs as a way of preparing for the downhills.

Core Strength

Believe it or not, your core strength plays a very important role when it comes to hiking. Abdominal and back muscles are what give you your balance and keep your stable.  You will most likely have a backpack filled with necessary gear during your hike, so having a strong core will make lugging this around much easier. Ways to improve and build up those essential core muscles and shoulders include crunches, planks, push-ups and bridges. Practice working out with your backpack to get accustomed to how effective your harness system is in keeping the weight on your hips and not shifting around.

Practice Hikes

You shouldn’t take an exam without taking a couple practice tests first. One of the best ways to prepare for a multi-day long hike is to practice with smaller, yet challenging hikes. Doing these things will not only shed light on areas of your physical fitness that you need to improve on, but also show you what to expect. Take note of everything your body and mind tells you, including how often you need to consume calories and water.

Stretching

If you want to prevent the after effects of an intense workout, such as soreness and stiffness, stretching is the solution. Building muscle and stamina is important, but you cannot forget about stretching.  Stretching before and after each workout helps your body become more flexible and prevents exercise related injuries. Stretching also cools down your body and simultaneously breaks down some of the built-up lactic acid that forms during the workout. At camp each night, you will have plenty of opportunity to stretch while admiring the beauty of the Andes.

Additional Hiking Preparation

Take Care of Your Feet

Your feet are going to be going through a lot, especially on a hike that is days long. Make sure you get light-weight hiking shoes that can handle the terrain and break them in well beforehand.  Brand new boots will only hurt your feet in the long run verses boots that have been used a bit. Being a novice to hikes of this magnitude, I purchased a pair of leather hiking boots, and while fancy, they were extremely heavy over the journey and blistered my feet considerably. Unless you are carry a full-size backpacker’s pack, you are better suited with lightweight synthetic hiking shoes.

Get Lighter Gear

One of my biggest mistakes was the weight of the boots I used for my hike.  They did their purpose, but my leather boots were way too heavy. The lighter your boots are the easier it will be to hike long distances.

In addition, find a backpack with a hip belt and learn to pack light. You will be carrying water for the whole day in your pack, in addition to everything else. I further overloaded my pack with a 1L glass bottle of rum purchased from a trail vendor on Day 1. Though fun to share with fellow trail mates, it certainly added to muscle spasms in my back each night.

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation is just as important as physically preparing. Majority of what you will go through is going to test you mentally. You need to train your mind to handle obstacles and hard situations with motivation. Between exhaustion, soreness, fatigue and even hunger, you need to be mentally prepared to feel all of that and keep pushing forward. You can practice this by setting personal goals for yourself to spark motivation.  Visualize what success is for you and do what it takes to achieve your goals. In addition, positivity and keeping your sense of humor even during the worst of days will help you get through it as well.

Having developed altitude sickness on Day 3, I was a bit of a mess, but I was able to finish from pure determination and willpower and made the arrival at the Sun Gate all the more sweet. I have no doubt that I would have been in a much better state to take this hike on if I trained properly.

Overall, the entire experience was incredible and I am certainly glad I did it.  It was something that I needed to do for my own personal growth and I have no regrets … other than not doing enough squats beforehand. 

Hiked 42km, climbed to 4200m,
Lost 6lbs, found myself.