Let’s face it: January, February and even March can be some of the toughest months for distance runners. If you’re living in areas where temperatures dip below freezing, the once-pristine roads and trails become cold, blustery nightmares to negotiate—places where the fun-factor is low and the injury potential high. Most of us turn to the treadmill to log our winter miles, but before heading to the gym, consider a better alternative: snowshoe running.
Dr. Heather North of Red Hammer Rehab in Louisville, Colo., is a huge proponent of the sport for her runners. “Snowshoe training is beneficial from the standpoint of working the lungs without stressing the body,” she says. “The lungs are worked since snowshoeing typically involves inclines and exercising at altitude.” North points out that the fact that you are exercising on soft snow as opposed to hard roads is a great way to recover from a high-mileage fall. “You get a workout for the ‘engine’ without taking the ‘vehicle’ itself,” she says. “In other words, you keep your fitness, but allow the body not to be damaged.”
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An added bonus of snowshoe running is that the muscles you’re working are the ones that can help you become more resistant to injury when you return to the roads. Nikki Kimball, a three-time U.S. snowshoe champion, points out that the hips and ankles get a good workout when trudging through soft or deep snow. “The athlete must draw on muscles used to stabilize the lower extremity—those surrounding the hip and ankle—to compensate the resistance of the snow and the uneven landing surface it provides,” she says. “Strengthening stabilizing structures is critical to injury prevention, and snowshoe running targets some of the most common areas of weakness.”
If you’ve never dabbled in snowshoe running before, take note of these important tips to enjoy a great first experience:
1. Fear not. The physical act of snowshoe running doesn’t require any special skills. Kimball says that if you can run, you can snowshoe. The only transition that runners will experience is when it comes to hill climbing—it’s OK to walk up hills that you’d normally be able to summit easily if they weren’t packed with snow. “Mind your heart rate, not the speed you think you should be going,” Kimball says.
2. Rent first. Eric Narcisi, an accomplished snowshoe racer and top-five finisher at the 2014 Granite State Snowshoe Championships says that many races will let you rent snowshoes to try them out. “I highly recommend borrowing or renting some if you can at first since snowshoes can be pretty expensive,” he suggests.
3. Dress for success. What you wear (or don’t wear) can make a big difference out on the snow. As with all things in winter, layering is key. Start out feeling a bit cold as you will generate a lot of body heat once you start going. Pay particular attention to your choice of socks. Kimball recommends neoprene or even covering your normal socks with plastic bags to keep them dry. Also, consider wearing waterproof pants as your trunk and legs will get hit with a lot of kicked up snow along the way.
3 Snowshoe Running Workouts For Beginners
1. Familiarity Run. Leslie O’Dell, a two-time Granite State Snowshoe Series Champion, says to start by finding a flat, groomed trail that’s used for Nordic skiers or snowmobiles. Start with a brisk walk on this trail and then gradually pick up the pace to an easy jog for 30-45 minutes. O’Dell says this workout is all about getting used to the new shoes underneath your feet. “Most snowshoes are pretty narrow but you do have to work on your gait being a little bit wider,” she says.
2. Groomed Hill Repeats. This is a staple workout from Kevin Tilton, a top-10 finisher at the 2012 World Snowshoe Championships. Find a gradual hill that is groomed on the uphill and ungroomed on the downhill and complete 4-6 repeats. “Run the ups hard and float through the powder on the downs,” he suggests. “The downhills won’t have as much impact stress as roads or normal trails and are a lot more fun.” Another alternative is to get a downhill workout by reversing your effort—powering down instead of up during the repeat. Kimball notes that downhill repeats are good for your body’s sense of proprioception. “Your body will develop faster reaction times and better balance strategies when we push it to do so,” she says.
3. Snowshoe Tempo. Treat this one just like you would on the roads. Select a 10K stretch of groomed snow and run it as quickly as possible after a 10-minute warmup. Kimball advises trying to cover the 10K distance in the same time you can run a 15K on the roads. “After returning to the dry trails or pavement, you’ll feel like you are Usain Bolt,” she says.