Snowshoe Training Without Snow

As fall approaches there are numerous things you can do to physically prepare yourself for the unique demands of snowshoeing, even if you do not have access to snow.

You can also use these training methods during a winter with low snow or if you do not have regular access to snow. Preparing to snowshoe when the weather is sunny and dry may seem ridiculous, but the things you do in advance of winter will help you make the transition to snowshoeing easier and help you enjoy your snowshoeing more.

Many people lump any snowshoeing they do as winter cross training for their more favored activities, like cycling, running, hiking, etc. There are a select few that use the summer activities to cross-train in preparation for snowshoeing. Those that focus on snowshoeing will try to continue to improve their snowshoe specific fitness year round. This may seem excessive to most but noting what the serious snowshoers do in the off-season, and imitating it to a limited extent in the fall, will benefit snowshoers at all levels.

I am not advocating trying to snowshoe year round, but this is entirely possible. Aside from following winter and snow to the opposite hemisphere, it’ss ok to snowshoe without snow in the right conditions. Use an older pair of snowshoes, and/or protect the bottom with a layer of duct tape or liquid rubber shoe repair product like “Shoe Goo.” Find a soft and non-abrasive surface, like thick grass, pine needles, forest duff and or soft sand and go at it. You might consider removing the traction claws or installing a shorter or worn set, if possible. When used with a bit of care most snowshoes are not damaged as much as you might think by such use. You can add hills, dunes and or try moving through four to 12-inch deep water for short periods at a sandy beach to get the same feel as snowshoeing in untracked snow (but beware of the corrosive effects of salt water).

Such strange activity will certainly draw stares and comments from others, but the uninitiated once and still due ridicule nordic skiers on roller skis, runners on roads, and/or cyclists on stationary trainers. You cannot beat the specificity of this type of training for snowshoeing, and you might even meet some other fellow snowshoers or introduce someone new to the sport.

A more conventional way to train for snowshoeing without snow is to continue your regular aerobic activity with some modifications. Given that the limiting factor in almost all snowshoeing is your aerobic endurance, every snowshoer should be working to maintain and improve their aerobic fitness year round with regular hiking, cycling, swimming, running, etc. Weight bearing exercises (walking/running) that emphasize leg endurance will mimic snowshoeing better than the others. Trying to mimic the expected intensity, duration, terrain, altitude, etc., of your expected upcoming snowshoe outings in the fall during your hikes or runs will help. If you anticipate doing some snowshoeing at 8,000-foot elevation for three hours over hills try to duplicate this occasionally in the fall during hikes and runs.

The resistance of soft snow and the added weight of snowshoes will require added strength and power above and beyond walking and running alone. Going up and down hills when walking, running and cycling will help your strength development. Cyclists can push slightly bigger gears to build strength, and can also emphasize pulling up on the pedals and riding out of the saddle to better mimic snowshoeing movements. Runners can seek out softer surfaces such as trails and sand. Wearing those huge heavy training shoes and/or leather backpacking boots while out will also add resistance, which will build strength.

One can also add specific strength work with weights and gym work. Exercises that target the hip flexors and quads are particularly beneficial to snowshoers, but working the calf, butt and hamstring muscles will help also. These can be specific movements with weights that target individual muscles or groups, and/or general movements like squats or lunges that target groups of muscles and also help build balance. You can effectively build strength for snowshoeing using your body weight as resistance with movements like one legged squats, calf raises and lunges.

Snowshoeing requires added upper body and core strength and endurance to counteract the extra weight of the snowshoes and provide added drive and propulsion, whether you use poles or not. Any regular program involving the upper body will benefit your snowshoeing, be it swimming, weights, or even the tried and true pushups, dips, pull ups or shoveling snow or dirt. For the upper body and core the emphasis should be mainly on lighter weights and endurance, with some strength work thrown in. Core exercises like sit-ups, crunches, back extensions, etc., are particularly beneficial to all snowshoers. If you plan on snowshoeing with poles it is a good idea to frequently walk or run with them in advance. Even simple things like occasionally picking up and carrying a tennis ball sized rock in each hand while walking or running can help your upper body for snowshoeing.

The uneven nature of snow requires a bit more balance to snowshoe over than regular movement over smooth terrain. Seeking out uneven trails while out on foot will improve your balance. You can also do a few simple drills at home, like standing on one leg with eyes both open and then closed, to improve your balance for snowshoeing.

Snowshoeing may occasionally require a bit more flexibility than your normal range of motion, especially if you are older, stiff or have some tight joints. Flexibility is generally decreased in the colder ambient temperatures that are encountered snowshoeing. A regular stretching routine can help maintain and enhance flexibility. Emphasis should be placed on the legs, hips and torso. Particular attention should be paid to the Achilles’ tendons and low back. Maintaining flexibility will help prevent injury and may increase your performance and enjoyment.

You can do quite a bit to prepare yourself physically during the “off” season to get ready to snowshoe, even without snow. Given the briefness of winter in some areas, what you do off the snow may have more influence over your snowshoeing than the snowshoeing you actually get to do.

Remember that it generally takes about six weeks for any physiological changes to take place, so start early and keep at it. You should plan on spending at least 80 to 90 percent of your time working on basic aerobic conditioning, with the remaining time spent on the other components of strength, balance, flexibility, etc. Everyone is different so tailor your program to maintain your strong areas and improve your weak ones. Time spent planning and preparing while it is warm will help you enjoy your snowshoeing even more when the snow does finally arrive.

About the author

Tom Sobal

*Known for snowshoeing more miles per year than anyone in the world, Tom Sobal has won more than 130 snowshoe races at distances ranging from one to 100 plus miles. He’s also garnered five World Championship titles in snowshoeing, numerous course records and won races in 12 different states. Tom hold's the world's best time for a 26.2-mile marathon on snowshoes: 3:06:17. Tom is a national advisor to the American Trail Running Association and the U.S. Snowshoe Association. Tom volunteers as a Technical Delegate for snowshoeing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games: Toronto Canada 1997; Anchorage, Alaska 2001 and Nagano, Japan 2005.