Off-Season Solution

Here's how to cure the winter blues by trying something different: snowshoe running.

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Photo by Brian Solano

Running in snowshoes along a snow-covered path surrounds you with winter’s magic. Thick snow drapes the trees and a fox’s tracks stitch a pattern across a meadow’s white quilt. The ground feels like a soft mattress. The air is stone silent.

While most trail runners wait until the spring thaw to resume training, snowshoeing can jump-start your fitness months earlier. The soft snow also gives your body a break from running’s pounding.

Snowshoe running avoids icy roads and slush-splattering traffic, and lets you tromp along your favorite trails. “You begin the running season not only physically stronger and more fit, but also mentally stronger, knowing you kept up, or even improved your fitness level,” says Danelle Ballengee, 11-time North American Snowshoe Champion and hardcore trail runner.

Get the Right Gear

Your only big expense will be a good pair of snowshoes, which range from $200 to $400 (we’ll review several top models in the February 2009 issue of Trail Runner). While all snowshoes spread your bodyweight over a larger surface area, allowing you to “float” over the snow, running-specific snowshoes are narrower and smaller, have tapered tails that don’t knock your ankles and are made of lightweight but durable aluminum and/or titanium.

A front crampon under your toe and parallel teeth under the decking below the heel provide traction, but the most important feature is an adjustable binding that cinches snugly around your running shoe. (Women with small feet may have trouble finding bindings that fit tightly enough.)

In wet snow, wear wool socks and gaiters to keep your feet dry and warm, and opt for trail-running shoes with a GORE-TEX, eVent or similar waterproof-breathable membrane. Nylon pants prevent kicked-up snow from sticking to your backside. Layer on sweat-wicking clothing, but don’t overdress, as you’ll quickly warm up.

No Lessons Required

If you can run, you can run in snowshoes—with a few adjustments. The primary difference is taking higher steps. “People try too hard when they should use a natural stride,” says Ballengee. “Use the hip flexors to lift the foot rather than pushing off with the lower leg.”

Your pace on snow will be slower than it is on trails because of the snowshoes’ added weight (typically 15 ounces per shoe) and the snow’s resistance. Realize too, that, the deeper the snow, the tougher the workout (see sidebar).

While learning, stick to packed trails. Many Nordic centers have groomed trails specifically for snowshoeing. Focus on balance by using the core muscles to stabilize your weight, especially when you move onto deep, ungroomed snow, where you must pull your foot straight up out of each sinkhole to avoid tripping.

To ascend hills, shift your weight forward onto your toes to engage the front crampon. On steep slopes, kick your toe into the snow to create steps. When descending packed snow, keep your weight centered over the shoe, but in deep snow, relax and lean back, letting the snowshoe slide over the snow like a ski.

Poles can add stability and lessen the strain on your knees on downhills and off-camber traverses, but on most terrain, you’re better off leaving them behind. “Not using poles improves balance and coordination,” says Ballengee. “The snow moves under you, so you constantly adapt by using different muscle groups.”

Stay Safe

When venturing off well-marked trails, be aware of your surroundings because it’s easy to become disoriented when familiar trail markings are snow-buried. And always let others know where you are going and when you expect to return.

Danelle Ballengee’s Winter Workouts

Beginner. Interval workout tunes your technique, builds endurance and familiarizes you with the equipment.

For a total of 30 minutes on a groomed trail, alternate 30 seconds of running (run the downhills and flats but power hike the uphills) with 1 minute of walking. As your fitness improves, extend the workout’s overall time, and swap the intervals, running 1 minute and walking 30 seconds.

Intermediate. Warm up with walking 10 minutes, following by a 40-minute run on packed trails (including a few moderate hills). Keep a steady pace when going uphill and quicken your pace on the downhills. Finish with a 10-minute jog or walk. Once this workout feels comfortable, boost your strength by running through untracked powder for five minutes at a time, building to 20 minutes.

Advanced. Do this workout out-and-back in untracked powder: warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes, then do 10 x 10- to 15-second sprints followed by 1 minute of recovery, either walking or running slowly.

Add some anaerobic-threshold (AT) training (also called lactate-threshold training), keeping your heart rate at AT (15 beats per minute below your maximum) for 20 minutes. At the halfway point, turn around and run back in your tracks, picking up the pace to keep your heart rate high. Top it off with four 30-second hill intervals in powder, then walk for 10 minutes to cool down.

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