Runners Reach Higher Fitness Levels on Snowshoes
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Runners Reach Higher Fitness Levels on Snowshoes

Runners Reach Higher Fitness Levels on Snowshoes

by Kathy Murphy

Want to improve your fitness level this winter? Try running in a pair of snowshoes. Using lightweight snowshoes, recreational and competitive runners in the snow belt now have a great winter alternative to winding their way along messy unplowed streets as they look to maintain their fitness levels during this difficult training period.

According to a study conducted by the University of Vermont (UVM), runners who substituted snowshoeing for running during the winter months actually improved their overall fitness levels compared with those who chose running as their only source of winter training.

"Snowshoeing is great training for running because of the similarities of the movement patterns, the added resistance of having the weight of the snowshoe on your feet [approx. 2 lbs/pr], and the low impact nature of the sport," says Ray Browning, technical director for Tubbs Snowshoes and author of Tubbs Winter Fit Program. "Snowshoeing is low impact due to the fact that snow is softer than asphalt or concrete and the construction of the snowshoe acts as a shock absorber for your feet, reducing the typical impact forces associated with running. The physiological benefits are not restricted to runners. Walkers of all abilities will also profit from a winter of snowshoeing. It is also good for runners who are returning from an injury in that they can exercise at higher intensities on snow by walking or running, without having to go as fast on a harder surface, thus reducing their risk of re-injury."

The UVM study examined two groups of runners, one that snowshoed and one that ran. Both worked out for six weeks at the same relative intensity. Subjects completed a six week conditioning program which consisted of exercising for 30 minutes at 75-85% of age-predicted maximum heart rate 3-4 times per week, a total of 18 sessions. Both the snowshoe and run groups exercised in similar conditions and terrain. After the six-week training period, the snowshoeing group had a significantly higher VO2 max (a measurement of the body's ability to deliver oxygen) and an increased capacity for exertion before reaching a period of exhaustion. The results show that snowshoeing is an ideal form of cross training for runners who are looking to improve their running performance.

"The [study] shows that snowshoers increased their VO2 max by 13%, while the running group's VO2 max improved by only 7%," says Browning. "More important, in a test of run time to exhaustion, the snowshoers increased their run time 35%, while runners posted a 22% increase. I have found that a winter of snowshoe training gives me a distinct advantage come spring. I have a great foundation of fitness, have been able to improve my hill running, and even enhanced my leg speed by running downhill on snowshoes. In fact, during my competitive period, I found that my early spring triathlons were some of my best races, even though I had only run once or twice a week, with the rest of the time spent on snowshoes." What this means is that snowshoeing can be used as a highly effective training activity for endurance athletes. In fact, a winter snowshoe exercise program will:
  1. Build an aerobic base through low intensity, long distance snowshoeing (keep your heart rate between 60 and 70% of its maximum rate while snowshoeing to improve your fitness foundation). The easiest way to describe this is to say: Take 220 minus your age to get a rough estimate of your maximum HR. It's a bit rough but functional.
  2. Develop leg strength and power if you incorporate hills and/or training in powder snow into your snowshoeing routine.
  3. Provide an easy way to work on early season high intensity training simply by increasing your speed, and...
  4. Increase upper body endurance and strength through the use of poles while snowshoeing.
Getting Started
Many runners have never snowshoed before and, as with any new activity, the fear of failure sometimes keeps them from trying. However, with new user-friendly bindings and today's lightweight decking and framing materials, the phrase "if you can walk, you can snowshoe" has never been truer. And, if you can run- well, imagine the possibilities.

Once you have mastered the basics, establishing an on-snow fitness program will depend on your present fitness level and the goals you set for yourself. A serious competitive athlete, for example, may snowshoe much more frequently, for a longer duration and at a higher intensity level than someone snowshoeing for fitness and fun. In order to create a program that fits your needs, you'll need to adjust the frequency, duration and intensity of your snowshoe excursions. In general, one to three days on snow per week is ideal for a beginner.

As you start your on-snow fitness program, keep the following tips in mind to get the most from your workouts.
  • Start slow. Spend two to three weeks just getting used to the activity, keeping your intensity level low. "Low intensity" means keeping a pace that allows you to have a conversation while snowshoeing.
  • Use a heart rate monitor that allows you to back off from your maximum heart rate and keeps you from pushing too hard at the outset of your program. Start your training with low intensity efforts (about 55% of maximum heart rate) for medium duration (30 minutes), and build toward 70% of maximum heart rate for longer duration (45 minutes plus).
  • Use time instead of distance to measure duration. Time allows you to better control your workout through changing snow conditions and varied terrain.
  • When your fitness and strength improves, add some faster, higher-intensity efforts to your weekly routine (80-90% of your maximum heart rate). These should be preceded by a 15-minute warm-up and followed by a 5-10-minute cool-down.
A Few Simple Workouts
Instead of dreading winter and the drudgery of sloppy winter workouts, runners who use snowshoes often claim to feel "in harmony with nature" and enjoy a wide range of workouts. World champion snowshoe racer Tom Sobal, who won Alaska's grueling Iditashoe race, regards the following four conditioning suggestions as some of his favorite workouts:

Long, Slow Wander:
"Pick an area or trail to explore, set a time limit for how long you plan to be gone, and move toward whatever target intrigues you. When your time is halfway up, turn around and retrace your tracks." Use this as a low intensity workout for building your aerobic base.

Spectrum Loops:
Snowshoe over any deep snow loop that takes 3-15 minutes to complete the first time around as you break trail. Move at about 80% of your maximum heart rate. After you finish the first loop, rest for 20% of the time it took you to do the loop. For example, if it took you 10 minutes to complete the first loop, rest for two minutes before beginning the second loop. Repeat the loop three to six times, increasing your speed/intensity with each repetition. This workout exposes you to a full spectrum of speeds and snow conditions.

Sled Play:
This excercise is a perfect way to get a complete workout while spending time with your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren. First, pick a good sledding hill - one that takes you 1-5 minutes to climb. Snowshoe up, pulling the kids on a sled. Then race them down. Repeat until the kids are worn out from giggling or you collapse.

Snow Depth Speed Play:
As you snowshoe along on a packed or semipacked trail, periodically "locate" objects off the trail in deep snow - a birch tree, a rock outcropping, a fallen log, etc. Veer off the trail and snowshoe hard and fast until you reach the object. Then go hard and fast back to the trail. Recover by walking easily and repeat again further along the route. For a fun variation, make it a contest: race another person or group to the objects along the way.

An Added Benefit
Once you get hooked on a snowshoeing fitness program, you'll likely gain a new perspective on working out in the winter, but you just might lose something too - namely, those extra pounds you've been carting around. Snowshoeing is a great way to burn calories. It works major muscle groups at relatively high intensities for extended periods of time, which requires a high caloric expenditure. Your metabolic rate increases in cold weather, and the added weight of snowshoes - combined with resistance from moving through snow - results in a greater demand for energy than walking or running.

In fact, snowshoeing can burn up to 45% more calories than walking or running at the same pace. To determine what kind of a workout you can get out of your training, use the chart on the next page to estimate the calories that are burned during different levels of snowshoe activity.

Have you literally been stuck in a winter running rut? On a sunny February day are you trapped on a treadmill in a claustrophobic gym? In the heart of winter, do you try to jog a predetermined path consisting of a few barely cleared sidewalks? Are you tired of spending the majority of your energy on a run postholing a new trail?

If you've answered yes to any of these questions, snowshoes can open up a whole new world for you. Who knows? You might even become such a devotee that you'll take after those diehard snowshoers who turn the sport into an all-season fitness endeavor by sandshoeing. Snowshoes barely sink in sand, and a run along the beach or up the nearest sand dune can provide a thorough workout for your calves and quadriceps.

Wherever and whenever you decide to train, snowshoes can be an essential and welcome addition to your overall fitness regimen. Experience the freedom of off-road adventure, increase your VO2 max, build your endurance, and wake up muscle groups that you never even knew you had. Outdoor workouts will also provide a change of scenery, fresh air, and a new perspective on the well-traveled terrain of summer. Silence, serenity of the outdoors in winter, peaceful time for self reflection are added bonuses.

For information on snowshoes specifically designed for running or fitness training on snow, visit Tubbs' website at or do a simple web search for "snowshoe" - you'll find a surprising number of sites.

Additional Tips
First and foremost, warm, dry feet are essential to having fun in any winter sport. Snowshoeing is no different. Choose waterproof hiking boots with gaiters for good ankle support if you're planning an extended hike in variable or steep terrain or a longer fitness walk.

For a more casual snowshoe outing, insulated pack-style boots, rubber boots or any style of winter footwear will work. Generally, snowshoe bindings will accommodate all styles and sizes of hiking, plastic mountaineering and winter boots for adults and children. Wool socks, with a silk or comparable liner against the foot, will absorb moisture and prevent chilling.

For a snowshoe workout, choose lightweight hiking boots, cross-training trail shoes or running-specific footwear. A slightly larger size than your summer running shoe will enable you to fit an extra layer of socks inside your shoe without blocking circulation to the feet. Also, shoes with a nylon or leather outer provide a bit more warmth than shoes with a mesh outer. Neoprene socks - or liners - over a thin polypropylene sock will also help keep the feet warm and dry. At the least, wear a good ski sock (wool blend) or a sock that wicks away moisture. Do not use cotton socks!

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