Snowshoe Cross-Training for Summer Athletes

Whether you are a runner, cyclist, or triathlete, you are concerned with your performance. Feeling stronger and getting faster are what those many hours of training are all about, right. Well, why not put the winter off-season to good use.

Integrating snowshoe cross-training into your regular routine will make you stronger, faster, and a much more well-rounded athlete when the warmer months roll around - and, you'll have loads of fun in the process!

An ever growing number of summer athletes are turning to snowshoeing as a way to maintain and improve their fitness levels during the off-season.

Snowshoeing offers a high quality, low impact workout that develops many of the same muscle groups as your summer pursuits. Additionally, this winter activity provides a relaxing mental diversion while maintaining, and even improving, aerobic capacity.

Pro triathlete and adventure racer Danelle Ballengee has been supplementing her training with snowshoeing for over a decade. During the winter months, she snowshoes from the door of her Colorado mountain home three or four times each week in place of her typical running and cycling workouts.

And the emphasis is as much on fun as it is on training. Often, Ballengee will pull a sled behind her on hill days, getting the workout on the climb, then sledding back down!

Like Ballengee, triathlete Wes Hobson, cyclist Kimberly Bruckner and runner Sam Wilbur, have all dabbled in snowshoeing as an off-season alternative to their normal routines. In fact a large number of athletes who reside in the northern tier of the country have made the leap to snowshoeing, either competitively or simply as a break from the rut of competitive training.

But unlike triathlon or cycling, the sport of snowshoeing is a relatively inexpensive proposition, and the learning curve can be readily mastered.

Technique Training:

Undoubtedly, the first thing you will notice when you begin running on snowshoes is the work to speed ratio, which is far different than your typical road run. Your feet may spin out on you, you may be reduced to a shuffle, and you'll go anaerobic fairly quickly. Not only will this be frustrating, but it will also strike a major blow to your ego.

Snowshoeing, like swimming, is really a technique-driven sport, and flailing about is fairly normal for first time snowshoers. Learning proper snowshoeing technique, however, is really quite simple and with a little practice you will soon be moving through the snow faster and more gracefully.

The place to begin the learning curve is on a groomed cross country ski trail or snowmobile track. These conditions will be as close to road and trail running as you will encounter most anywhere. The main difference, however, is the shape of your stride. A snowshoeing footplant would be considered overstriding on the road, a serious impediment to going fast.

Snowshoes are designed with a jagged row of teeth, or claws, in the forefoot. These claws only provide traction when your weight is placed over them. By intentionally making your footstrike slightly ahead of your leading knee, you give that claw it's best opportunity to bite into the snow. Likewise, as you progress through the running motion, you will not get the extension of a track runner at the push-off because your weight begins to shift off of the claw system.

For this very reason, heel strikers and marathon runners who practice a stride with less knee lift pick up the mechanics of snowshoeing more readily than your typical sub-fifteen minute 5K runner.

If you fit into the latter group, you may require a longer intro-period to adapt to the snowshoeing style. If, however, you're worried about ruining that sub-five minute per mile form, a set of 10x1minute road repeats at 5K pace once per week will keep your muscle-memory intact.

On the plus-side, snowshoe training will strengthen your hamstrings more that any running program, making you more balanced when springtime rolls around.

Begin your practice of this new stride by warming up easy for 15 minutes, concentrating on footplant and pull through. Experiment with push-off and learn where you begin to loose traction. Once you're adequately warmed up, do a fartlek type of workout. Alternate fast and slow periods, varying intensity so you can feel the difference in push-off at different efforts. You may even discover that less effort yields more speed.

Once you have become proficient at the snowshoe stride, you are ready to move on to actually training on them.

VO2 Max Training:

VO2 Max has long been considered one of the key factors in predicting athletic potential. In simple terms, VO2 Max is a measure of the greatest amount of oxygen your body can process. Increase your VO2 Max and you have increased your ultimate athletic potential.

The Off-and-On workout is a great way to boost your VO2 Max while strengthening those all-important hip flexors. A perfect venue for this type of workout is a groomed cross country ski trail, but a packed snowmobile track is just as good. You may want to return to the same place where you practiced your snowshoe stride.

After a good warm-up on the groomed trails, step Off of the hardpack and do hard efforts of 2-5 minutes in the deep powder. For your recovery, step back On the hardpack for an easy 1-3 minute recovery, hence the name, Off-And-On. If you are using a heart rate monitor (HRM), your hard efforts should be done at 95-98 percent of your maximum heart rate. Just 15-20 minutes of total hard effort is plenty for the Off-And-On workout.

If you are doing this workout with a partner, a fun game is to coordinate your hard effort with their easy one. For athletes of similar ability, one athletes hard effort in deep powder is approximately the same as the others recovery pace on a hard packed surface.

Lactate Threshold Training:

Snowshoeing also lends itself well to lactate threshold (LTHR) training. An increased lactate threshold means that you will be able to perform at a higher level for longer, and that's why we put in so many hours of training, isn't it?

Most athletes are familiar with the concept of a tempo workout. The idea is to maintain a heart rate at or near your lactate threshold for a total of 20-40 minutes during your workout.

The great thing about snowshoeing is the addition of another variable to the training mix. Summer athletes are intimately familiar with incorporating the terrain into their workouts. Some days are hill days and some are meant for the flats.

As a snowshoer, you also have snow conditions to work with. Snowshoeing through deep powder offers a far different experience than doing the same workout on a groomed ski trail, and nothing exemplifies that more than a good LTHR workout. Snowshoeing provides us with several workout options; hardpack, deep powder, or hills.

The hardpack option is a no brainer. On a groomed trail or snowmobile track you simply run as fast as necessary to hit the desired heart rate - then hold it just as you would during a running workout.

Deep powder is a little different, because speed really isn't an issue. In fact, depending on snow depth, you may find yourself alternately walking and running. Ballengee uses the hardpack training as a substitute for running, but compares deep powder snowshoeing to a cycling workout because lifting your snowshoes in the deep powder strengthens many of the same muscle groups as in cycling.

Ballengee also suggests this as a workout for friends of different abilities. The stronger athlete breaks trail in the front, while the other "Drafts" behind, taking advantage of the packed trail.

This is a difficult workout, for sure, but don't get down on yourself if you are forced to walk at some point during this session. Even the world's top snowshoe racers are often reduced to a walk while competing. As long as your heart rate stays in the proper zone, it doesn't matter whether you are walking or running!

Cyclist, personal trainer, and snowshoe convert Erik Skarvan, of Aspen, Colorado, suggests that competitive athletes may prefer to use long hill climbs for their LTHR workouts to satisfy that need to go hard. "Conquering a hill provides that mental satisfaction as well as the physical satisfaction," Skarvan says.

The trick is to find a hill that takes you from 10-40 minutes to run. Using the edge of an alpine ski run tends to be a good choice because the trails are groomed. A hard packed surface certainly makes it easier to run uphill, but you are also very likely to find a well packed trail at a popular hiking area.

Whatever your choice, you are shooting for a total of 20-40 minutes of hard efforts. This can be in the form of a single effort, or several shorter efforts with a 5 minute rest between them, however individual efforts should not be any shorter than 10 minutes in length.


When given the choice between the dank stale air of the weight room and the crisp fresh air of your local park, which one are you going to pick?

For Ballengee, winter strength training is done in deep powder and on hills. She credits her snowshoe training with improved strength and power on the bike.

While deep powder is excellent for strengthening the hip flexors, no winter activity is as good for improving overall strength as a good hill session on snowshoes.

Strength workouts are, by necessity, short intense efforts. You are not trying to develop your aerobic capacity here, but are simply trying to increase your strength and power.

And not only will the effort make your legs stronger - the addition of poles will bring the upper body into play as well.

To use poles, or not to use poles - this is a frequently asked question, and one that holds no clear-cut answer. While it really comes down to your own personal preference, Skarvan offers some guidelines.

"I go back and forth on the whole pole issue," Skarvan admits, "but my background is in cycling so power hiking comes a little more naturally to me. I have noticed that most of the runners prefer to skip the poles, while cyclists are somewhat more comfortable with them."

Either way, the workout is simple - find a steep hill and do intervals on it. Snow conditions are really unimportant, but it is a good idea to break the strength program into three 3-week cycles. Each cycle brings you to a steeper hill, and shortens the length of the climb.

For example, during the first three week, you will train on a moderately steep hill performing 5-7 efforts of two-minutes each.

During the second cycle, you will move on to a steeper hill, dropping the time of each effort to 60-90 seconds, but increasing the total number of efforts to 8-10.

For the third cycle, find the steepest hill you can climb, and perform 15 efforts of 30-45 seconds each.

Between efforts, walk or jog (or sled) back down the hill. A HRM is really unnecessary during strength training; in fact the effort is usually over before your heart rate has stopped climbing.

Whether you follow a rigid pre-season schedule during the winter months, or simply enjoy the time away from hard-core training, incorporating snowshoeing into your winter routine will be both fun and a boost to your performance next season.