Training for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu

by Dijana

The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is one of the most underrated treks in the world. Machu Picchu is one of the most mesmerizing attractions in the world and an incredibly popular tourist site in Peru. Thousands of people plan months in advance to go there and experience it. But planning a trip to Machu Picchu is much more than writing down a list of things to carry with you. You will actually have to prepare yourself both physically and mentally before you embark on your Machu Picchu trip! The Salkantay trek is particularly interesting because unlike the Inca Trail, the Peruvian government does not require you to have a permit to trek this trail. The Salkantay trek is more difficult, more scenic and more secluded than the other trails leading upto Machu Picchu.

Woman sitting on a rock with Machu Picchu in the bbackground

Training for your Salkantay trek ensures a good experience

In the high season, thousands of people flock every day to stand between the ruins of the ancient Inca civilizations* . Chances are, you’ve seen nothing but smiling faces on the millions of photos showing the glorious moment of arriving there. However, most of those people have actually hiked for 10-15 kilometers on average per day and have had to cope with the high altitude and the Peruvian climate – not the easiest task!

So it’s safe to say that you’ll need to have at least some basic level of fitness before leaving home and heading to Peru. Drop those packing lists for a moment and read on to learn how to train for your Machu Picchu trip!

Know your trail

Before you actually start with the training, take some time to explore the trail you’ve decided to go on. As you’ve probably realized by now, different trails have a different level of difficulty. The Salkantay trek is a trek with medium difficulty and is more challenging than the more famous Inca Trail.

Tired trekkers rest before reaching Machu Picchu

Tired trekkers rest before reaching Machu Picchu

Pay attention to the duration of your trip as well – did you sign up for a longer, more adventurous trip, or for a shorter trip that will take you straight to the Sun Gate? The time you’re going to spend on the move is key, as it has a direct influence on the level of training you’ll need to do.

For instance, the Short Inca Trail lasts only two days but still requires some basic fitness endurance, though almost anyone can make it with the most basic of preparations. However, let’s say, if you’re going to do the Salkantay Trek which can last upto a week, then, if you’re not fit, you may need at least a few months to prepare as you’ll be moving great distances at higher altitude.

Train the body and the mind

Training for your Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is much more than going for the occasional jog couple of times per week. You’ll need to prepare your body not only to endure longer hikes but to also be strong enough to carry all of that extra weight with you on your back.

That’s why it’s for the best to do a combination of cardio and body strengthening exercises but also go on actual hikes – and besides, those can be a lot more fun, and prepare you for the actual climb physically and mentally. As far as your mind goes, the attitude you have with you is everything!

Cardiovascular exercises

Cardio is the number one thing you’ll want to pay attention to. Absolute beginners should start preparing 3-6 months prior the trip. If you’re one of those people that do more frequent trips to the gym, then you can keep going at the pace you feel most comfortable with, though extend the workout time a month or so before as to improve your endurance.

Even though your hike will be demanding, there’s no need to pass out on the treadmill at the gym five times a week. Besides, if the preparation training is too much to start with, you may be tempted to give up altogether. Instead, you’d want to focus more on light-to-moderate cardio activities that will last longer and help build your cardiovascular systems.

For instance, you could do running, fast-paced walking, swimming or cycling. Focus on doing it regularly – 3-4 times per week would be optimal – and try and keep the same level of intensity throughout the whole workout. Though note that you shouldn’t feel like you’re going to pass out because you can’t breathe – that’s not going to help anyone. Slow down and adjust the pace of the workout. As time goes by, you’ll notice you’ll be getting much fitter and able to endure longer distances which is exactly what you need for your trip.

Hiker on a rock outcropping on the Salkantay Inca trail to Machu Picchu

Train for the Salkantay trek by doing cardio and practice hikes

Going on hikes is another excellent activity regarding cardio and trip preparation. There’s no need to climb Mount Everest ; the local hills will do just fine. Do several hiking trips before leaving for Machu Picchu. If you’re a camping enthusiast, you could even set out on a several-day trip and do your workout in nature. That way, you’ll get more in touch with nature and see for yourself, let’s say, what fast pacing looks like in higher altitudes or how the shoes you’re planning to wear perform on different terrains.

Body strengthening exercises

Having strong muscles will help you a lot on your Machu Picchu hike. Now, I’m not talking about working out to get a six pack, but you will need to have core strength. Your rucksack alone can weigh up to 15kg and you will have to climb thousands of stairs (on the Inca trail); it’s very likely that there’ll be a point during the hike where you might regret not being physically stronger, to say the least.

Because life’s too short for any regrets, focus both on lower and upper body strengthening exercises a few months prior your trip. Work on getting a strong core by doing push-ups, sit-ups, and planks, as this will be helpful for all that backpack carrying. As far as the leg muscles are concerned, a class of step aerobics may be more than welcome, but lunges and squats are also extremely beneficial, so don’t skip those either.

Mental Training and Preparation

All of the cardio in the world can’t help if you don’t set out mentally prepared, whether on a trek to Kilimanjaro or on the Machu Picchu trip. While experienced trekkers might do just fine and know what to expect, beginners might be overwhelmed with the idea and set out with a negative attitude.

woman hiker resting barefoot while trekking upto the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu

The best part of the Salkantay trek are the gorgeous views

If that’s the case with you, replace fear with excitement. Sure, beginners and anyone else who hasn’t done any challenging hikes in the past will need some time to accept the fact that this hike might be a bit more different and more demanding. But that’s not a bad thing – quite the opposite!

Approach the task with a positive mind and accept the oncoming difficulties; see them as challenges that will help build your character further on. Remember that millions have done it – why couldn’t you? Once you’ve reached the top, you’ll feel like you’d be able to do everything in the world!

Pro tip: Before heading to Machu Picchu , sign up for a major event, such as, a marathon or a half-marathon, or maybe even some charitable race, but do it only for fun. Your goal is not to win the first prize (though that’ll be super awesome as well!) but to actually see how much you can push yourself and how your body will react to it. Doing this will also boost your confidence and help you set your mind on the right track for a successful climb!

Once in Peru

No matter the amount of training you’ve done, the high altitude and the change of climate will still have an impact on you. Expect to experience headaches and some altitude sickness until your body adjusts to the new environment.

A watchman's hut on the trail to Machu Picchu via Salkantay

Get to Peru (esp. Cusco) as early as possible to help your body acclimatize

That’s why one of the best advice would be to arrive in Peru as early as your schedule allow it. Opt to spend at least a few days in Cusco, but don’t plan any spectacular or over-tiring activities then. Leave those for after you’re done with your Machu Picchu hike and focus on getting some rest.

You should pay attention to your diet and water intake while you’re there. Skip alcohol and replace it with water, who will be your new best friend up there! Drinking plenty of water (at least 2.5 liters per day) will really make a tremendous difference on how your body copes with the height and it’ll also help with the headaches. Though, it’s safe to say that a Paracetamol here and there will also help relieve the symptoms. As far as the food is concerned, eat and plan your meals so they’ll be full of nutrients and not only packed with empty calories. Leave the cuisine tasting for afterward as you wouldn’t want to hike to Machu Picchu with an upset stomach.

With all of that being said, remember to take your daily dose of Magnesium as well. Magnesium helps relax both the mind and the body. Even though your whole body is very likely to hurt – those thousands of steps aren’t going to climb by themselves – at least it’ll hurt less by taking some Magnesium and you won’t be experiencing some excruciating cramps. Most of the time cramping is caused because of an electrolyte imbalance of potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which are all essential for muscle function. Only a small amount of these minerals are needed and are easy to get in a healthy diet. You can do this by eating trail foods that are high in these minerals like nuts, seeds, dark chocolate and oats. Not only will these give you the required minerals, but are also a good source of energy when hiking. Other foods  spinach, lentils, soy, beans, brown rice, and quinoa

Trekking the Salkantay trail

No one said that the hike to Machu Picchu or the Salkantay trail is going to be an easy one, as it requires both psychical and mental strength. You’ll need to do the following exercises and it’s for the best to start doing them 3-6 months prior your trip:

Once you climb up there and take in that glorious view from the top, it will sure be worth it! Check out some of our other blogs on Machu Picchu here:

*In fact, in 2008 the Peruvian Government and UNESCO agreed upon an upper limit of 2500 people per day to preserve this heritage site. Unfortunately, these limits are rarely followed in practice - Source

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