Snowshoe Training

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Excerpts from "A Snowshoe Training Manual" by Barney Klecker

[Published with the generous permission of the author.]

The following article describes my thought on winter training using snowshoes. Since having written this manual a few years ago [actually now 40 years ago], the most important change in snowshoeing has come on the racing scene. My prediction of quality and quantity of races has become reality.

Whether or not you intend to race on snowshoes – which I recommend – the regularly scheduled workout on them will prove hugely beneficial. Snowshoeing is an alternative to cross country skiing, and is a superior workout. It also breaks up the monotony of winter training, and the frustration that often comes from workouts missed due to blizzards or icy conditions.

Runners who live in snowbelt states will usually find about 3 months of adequate to abundant snowfall and cold temperatures. Many northern states runners complain about the climate, and put training on hold during the stretch from December through February. With a snowshoe program, however, the snow and cold can actually work to the runner’s advantage.

Typically, runners residing in the snowbelt may spend time doing speed work indoors. Others may even stop running during the winter. Still others – perhaps most, will try to maintain a base mileage, maintain conditioning so when spring arrives they won’t struggle to get back into racing trim. These latter runners may have peaked at 70 miles per week for an autumn marathon, but see their bases fall to between 30 and 40 miles in the winter with little, if any, speedwork.

The snowshoe workouts are speed workouts, and beyond. They build both lower and upper body strength and endurance.

If runners have learned anything about their sport, it is that there are no shortcuts to success. It all boils down to time and effort. However, we know that certain types of workouts are more apt to produce consistent or improved race results than are others. One of them is snowshoe training.

By combining modest snowshoe training with running during the winter months, it would not be unusual for someone who turned a 3:30 marathon in October to run 2:55 in June. I’ve seen it happen. Similarly, a runner hovering in the low to mid 2:20’s may be able to break 2:18. [Olympic Marathon qualifying time when this was written.] The snowshoe effect from a solid winter’s training will easily last through the following racing season. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that the benefits of snowshoe training and racing may last for years.

My friend, [the late] Bill Andberg, holder of a score of age group records from the half mile upward, had been a snowshoe racing champion during his college years. He did no strenuous exercising for over 30 years, taking up running (again) at the age of 54.  Bill credited his early snowshoe training with providing mental as well as physical toughness.

Certainly my own training was an important factor in my success in both the marathon (2:15) and the ultramarathon (50 mile world record holder).

Snowshoe training is a far more rigorous workout than running. Aerobically, and in terms a body stress, a five-mile run on snowshoes is the equivalent of a 10-mile road run.

A snowshoe program can be easily worked into the base mileage for three classes of runners – elite, competitive, and recreational. The so-called elite runner probably averages at least 75 miles [running] per week, while the competitive runner probably manages between 40 and 75 miles weekly. Anything below that falls into the recreational category, though most typically, this person would run at least 20 miles a week.

You’ll notice that snowshoeing is supplementary and never dominates the runner’s routine. I recommend these schedules even if you should decide to become a competitive snowshoe racer. Snowshoeing puts the body under tremendous stress and I strongly advised against more workouts on the shoes than are presented here.

An elite runner will during an average week, obtain 15 to 20 percent of his/her total mileage on snowshoes, while the competitive and recreational runners will put in between 25 to 40 percent of their total mileage on the shoes. The elite runner may be running about 20 miles a week on snowshoes, and that’s quite a bit, since the snowshoe workout can be compared with a speed workout. During the rest of the year, this runner may only average 5 to 10 percent of the total weekly mileage in speed work. For this or any runner, more, longer workouts on snowshoes are counter-productive, producing stress and increasing the likelihood of injury.

Before starting on snowshoes, however, even a well-conditioned runner needs to take precautions. Most runners have adequate lower body strength, but weak upper bodies. In order to snowshoe successfully, and enjoy the sport, the upper body’s condition should closely match that of the lower body. I recommend some type of circuit training for two or three weeks prior to getting on snowshoes. The circuit can be used in addition to your normal stretching and calisthenics.

The following circuit exercises may be performed on standard weight equipment or a nautilus-type apparatus. Weights should be adjusted to the individual. You’ll get the most benefit with weight you can comfortably handle.

For the upper body, I like bench presses, pull-ups, dips, and curls. The lower body circuit includes leg press, quad curl, hamstring curl, toe extenders, and rowing. I’ll begin the first circuit with 10 repetitions, perform six on the second, and three on the third. I’ll usually increase the weights by about 10 pounds on each successive circuit.

I find circuit training most productive when I alternate upper body exercises with those for the lower body. I’ll stride about 1/10 mile between each exercise, and at the conclusion of the circuit I jog to mile. A full circuit takes me about 11 minutes to complete, not counting the jog, and the entire workout may last between 40 and 45 minutes.

I’ll work this circuit perhaps twice a week for about three to five weeks, beginning in late November, so I’m ready for my snowshoe work to start in January.

If you’ve never worked out on snowshoes before, you should start with a fairly flat course. You need to get used to the snowshoes and the effect the workout has on your body. It might take you two or three weeks to achieve an easy natural rhythm, and now you might look for some hills. Work on driving (hard pumping of arms and legs) up hills and also driving down. Intersperse flat and hilly terrains. Some golf courses are quite suitable for the snowshoer and so are road shoulders, provided salt has not melted most of the snow.

As for the snowshoe technique itself, it’s simple, pretty much like roller skating. To run in snowshoes seems more or less natural, as is regular running. You start slowly, gingerly, letting your feet land where they will.

Concentrate on an effective running style. Strive for economy of movement. Your snowshoe approach should approximate your natural running stride, and should not resemble a legs-apart straddle, which novices often effect. You won’t be able to sustain distance with your legs apart, to say nothing to the immense unnatural pressure you’re putting on your thighs, calves and ankles.

Running style on snowshoes is perhaps of more concern to the athlete than it would be in a typical running workout or race. While maintaining form is beneficial to the runner in any circumstance, it is absolutely vital to the snowshoe racer. A weary racer tends to become sloppy. And when snowshoe racers lose form, they waste energy through excess motion, slow down, and may invite injury.

Since strenuous workouts are tiring, carelessness is often inevitable. It’s well worth investing in a pair of hockey-style ankle guards for protection. I’ve seen racers go without this protection and over the course of a long run produce frightful, livid bruises and abrasions on their ankles. Slight fractures are a distinct possibility too.

You’ll notice as you run in snowshoes that you’re basically doing what you’ve always done when you take to the roads for a training run without snowshoes.

Mostly, don’t become discouraged by your times on snowshoes. They’ll be significantly slower. For example, I once snowshoed the first 38 mile leg of the Yukon Jack race many years ago in about 5 hours. My record for a 50-mile run was 4:51. I was absolutely wasted after that 38 miler and needed help getting to the hotel. But within an hour or so of finishing the 50-mile record, I was ready to eat, and could jog again. You’ll feel the snowshoe effect long after a similar distance effort from normal running would have diminished.

Aside from the purchase of snowshoes, you won’t need added equipment or clothing for your workouts. Your usual winter running gear will serve you well. I wear running shoes rather than boots in my snowshoes, and wool socks. Wool keeps you warm even when wet.

This sport build up body heat much faster than running because you’re working so much harder. Resist the tendency to overdress – even on cold days. You’ll be running slower, so you won’t have as much wind resistance. Consequently, you’ll begin to sweat heavily much earlier in your workout than you would simply running. Try not to stop during these runs, and arrange it so you head into the wind going out, and have a following wind on your return – the same principle as in regular winter running.

I’ve seen skiers and winter runners wearing face masks, but I don’t use one. Lab tests at the University of Wisconsin at Madison proved that air at 40 below zero is warmed to room temperature before it leaves your mouth toward your windpipe and lungs. In the worst of weather you won’t freeze your throat or suffer unduly. You could probably hurt yourself more by swallowing ice cream than running in sub-zero weather. On the other hand, some runners might feel more comfortable by pulling a balaclava over their faces to keep frostbite from cheeks and nose.

How I feel snowshoeing has benefited me most has been the relative ease I can get into anaerobic oxygen debt. This alone makes snowshoeing a much more valuable workout for the runner than cross country skiing. You can get into oxygen debt by picking up your pace only a few seconds per mile.

While snowshoeing has suffered in this country from lack of participation due to a lack of widely disseminated expertise on the sport, it shows every sign of becoming a vital supplementary training tool for the long distance athlete. Races are beginning to emerge now, and I have little doubt that snowshoe races from 10 km to the marathon will become an integral part of the winter sports routine, especially since the benefits to the runner are so significant. Barney Klecker

[Barney’s prophecy, stated four decades ago, is proving to be quite accurate indeed. Many owe him a word of thanks for introducing them to the sport of snowshoeing. He was instrumental in giving an old activity a new and exciting competitive sports life.]

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