Snowshoe Therapy

In January 2004, shortly after turning 60, my husband Chuck and I went snowshoeing for the first time. He could barely walk on flat ground while I have always been a die-hard indoor person. Neither of us was convinced we could do it.

A complex-compound ankle fracture in 1977 curtailed Chuck’s cross-country skiing, leaving him to focus on cycling. Thirty years of riding thousands of miles each year in the mountains and foothills kept him in great condition through three seasons, but Colorado winters are simply not conducive to cycling.

With a rigid right ankle, poor balance and barely any cushion on the ball of his foot, walking had become a painful activity. Doctors recommended joint replacement or joint fusion; he should not walk more than a mile. His uneven gait foretold a future of severe hip and back problems. Medication and physical therapy only provided marginal relief.

A snowshoe demo day in Rocky Mountain National Park prompted us to give it a try. We could check things out without the expense of renting. Chuck agreed because he thought I really wanted to try it.

His instructions that day were for me to go with a friend and not worry about how he was faring. After selecting snowshoes and starting up a packed trail, things were looking bleak. Chuck was not having fun; every step was painful. We decided to try other snowshoes.

After examining several types, he discovered Tubbs snowshoes with a binding pivot bar at the ball of the foot, which allowed foot rotation even with a rigid ankle. Next thing we knew, Chuck was practically running up the hill in the powder. We could hardly keep up with him; he spent the rest of the day tearing up the snow, grinning from ear to ear. Not bad for someone who could hardly walk.

The next day, we ordered snowshoes and anxiously awaited their delivery. Over the next four months we went snowshoeing at least once a week. Chuck could hardly walk across the parking lot, but once he hit the snow there was no stopping him. The packed trail was difficult, but he moved easily in the powder.

Without medical confirmation, we have concluded that Chuck’s ankle problems are in the soft tissue–not arthritis or bone chips. With no physical therapy after his injury, rehabilitation came from his day-to-day activity. Since cycling was his exercise of choice, his muscles were most attuned to that. It’s my pet theory that developing his cycling muscles sacrificed his walking muscles.

By using the pivot on the snowshoe to rotate his ankle, Chuck began rebuilding weakened walking muscles. He now has muscle on the ball of his foot, and each step is less painful. The more he went snowshoeing, the easier walking became and his balance improved. Now if he stumbles he no longer ends up in a heap. Increased core strength followed better balance.

Some days he started out on pain medication; then he only needed it after three or four hours on the snow. Endorphins became his medication of choice. When Coxx-2 drugs were pulled from the shelves, he opted not to try a replacement.

I am not a trained medical person, nor am I advocating substituting snowshoeing for medical treatment. I doubt that snowshoeing is an approved form of alternative medicine, but when traditional solutions fail, color outside the box!. Nothing we did seemed to harm Chuck’s foot, so just maybe we could improve things.

Listening to his uneven gait and knowing how difficult it was to walk was painful for me, but I knew it was important to keep trying. His gait is now balanced and he usually walks pain-free.

Last winter we went out 27 times, and eagerly await enough snow this year. The only limitation is my recovery time. Chuck has the conditioning base of the Energizer Bunny. Staying inside is a thing of the past for me; it can’t begin to compare to standing in the middle of Nymph Lake, temperature 20 degrees, in a howling wind.

Off-season we have progressed from snowshoeing to hiking with poles. The poles provide four-wheel drive on the trails. After years of wishing he could get off his bike and walk in the forest, Chuck can snowshoe four hours at a stretch or hike five or six miles without pain. Two years ago, he had a handicap parking permit for the bad days. He doesn’t take his walking for granted; we constantly marvel at how far he has progressed. We had no idea what benefits we would reap from that demo day.