How in the World Do You Train for a Snowshoe Marathon?

Ultramarathon runners might have a new frontier of challenges. Snowshoe marathons have arrived.

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Ultrarunners might have their next frontier.

This year, for the first time, the U.S. Snowshoe National Championship, which is organized by the U.S. Snowshoe Association (U.S.S.S.A.), will feature a marathon-length distance. Due to the slower, more difficult nature of running with snowshoes, the snowshoe marathon will effectively require the effort of an ultra-distance trail run.

2015 was the first year a half-marathon event was included at U.S.S.S.A. Nationals. Previously, the races were limited to a 10K race for senior men and women, and a 5K race for juniors.

A snowshoe marathon is not unprecedented. Tom Sobal of Leadville, Colorado, holds what is believed to be the world record in the event, with a time of 3:06:17. (That the current road-marathon world record is more than an hour faster should clue you in to just how hard snowshoe racing can be.)

Still, many runners will find it an unfamiliar challenge, and wonder how much, exactly, training for a snowshoe race differs from training for any running race. Should you emphasize speed, training in only your running shoes until race day? Or should you focus on strength, training primarily in the clunkiest thing you can find? Or something in between?

We asked a few very fast American snowshoe racers—all accomplished runners in regular shoes, too—what they thought.

How Often?

Because snowshoes add weight, and because their width forces a slightly wider running stance to avoid clipping your ankles, you should devote some of your training specifically to snowshoeing. But how much?

Some people spend most or all of their time training in snowshoes, which is probably too much, says 2015 U.S.S.S.A. National Champion Scott Gall, 41, of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“They [get] strong, but slow,” he says, adding that he aims to spend about 30 percent of his training time on snowshoes. “If I run seven days a week, I will snowshoe two or three of those days.”

“I typically will run two times each week on snowshoes, from 40 minutes to an hour,” says Kelly Mortensen, 44, of Saint Paul, Minnesota, the 2009 U.S.S.S.A. runner-up. “I go more off time than distance, but my effort on snowshoes is much harder than just running easy on the roads.

“My 10K time racing on snowshoes is roughly 45 to 52 minutes depending on the course, snow and terrain,” he adds. (For context, he has a road 10K time of 32:30—as a master.) “I figure if I can get in about that time or slightly more on snowshoes on an easy day, I am good for the race.”

What If There’s No Snow?

Two-time U.S.S.S.A. National Champion Eric Hartmark, 37, of Duluth, Minnesota, says the percentage of training time in snowshoes depends heavily on the weather. Obviously, if you live where there is no snow, or have an unusually warm winter, it is more difficult to do much running on the boards.

“There have been winters where the first time I stepped into snowshoes was at the [National Championship], because there was no snow at all in Duluth,” says Hartmark, who has three additional podium finishes (five total) at U.S.S.S.A. Nationals and has finished as high as second at the International Snowshoe Federation World Championship. “So, for those years, I did 100 percent of my training in running shoes. Some years, I have probably done around 70 percent of my training on snowshoes, and other years, maybe around 20 percent.”

Gall also laments the variable weather’s impact on well-laid training plans. “Sometimes the snow conditions aren’t conducive to snowshoeing, and I might not get a ton of time on the snowshoes except for races,” he says. He makes do. Running hills—both structured hill repeats and longer runs on hilly routes—”are the number-one focus for gaining the strength and endurance for snowshoeing. The rest of the plan is similar to any other training plan for endurance racing.”

What Workouts Should I Do in Snowshoes?

The simplest way to incorporate snowshoeing into your training is to wear snowshoes for simple base-building or recovery days, when you might not otherwise be too concerned about distance or a specific workout. That will get you accustomed to the slightly different pace and stride required with snowshoes, an important step before adding intensity or distance.

Eventually, though, you’ll want to start wearing them during some workouts and long runs in order to race your best. Once comfortable in snowshoes, you can simply add them to planned running workouts—as long as you adjust your expectations of distance and pace to reflect the slower, heavier nature of moving with the boards on your feet, as well as running through the snow.

Gall likes to do a two-week training rotation in which he wears snowshoes for one easy or normal run; one workout, such as intervals, or possibly an up-tempo run; and the first half of a long run.

“Snowshoeing is hard enough without doing it for the second half of a long run,” he says, only half-joking. “The other runs and workout days will be regular running so that I continue to stay as fast as possible, but also allow myself to acclimate more to the workload of racing snowshoes.”

Snow allowing, Hartmark says he will do one or two snowshoe workouts in a given week—though some weeks he’ll do none—and that he typically keeps his long runs on the road, with just running shoes. When he does do a long run in snowshoes, he says, it isn’t “nearly as many miles as a long run on the roads.” A former professional runner with the elite Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, he says he considers 10 to 13 miles a long run in snowshoes.

On the other hand, Mortensen eschews snowshoes for all but his easier runs. “I’m not sure that hinders my snowshoe racing ability,” he says, “I find that if I can just be the fittest I can be running, that it translates into a fast snowshoe time.” At the same time, he notes that Sobal was doing intervals, tempo runs and long runs in snowshoes while setting his world records.

Can I Start on No Training?

If—because of weather or other constraints—you are unable to do much training specifically in snowshoes, Gall says any decently fit runner, “as long as they like adventure,” should still be able to hop into a snowshoe race and do pretty well. Just be prepared for things to hurt a little worse than usual.

“When you strap things to your feet and then run, your heart rate and exertion naturally increase, so people should know that the first 10 minutes of any snowshoe will really get the heart rate up,” he says. “After that initial blast, most people acclimate quite well and get the hang of it quickly. The pace is slower but the effort greater.

“It’s a fast learning curve, great exercise and super fun,” he continues. Plus, he says, it’s a way for runners “to enjoy the great outdoors, even in the dead of winter.”

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