Endurance Training in Winter Snow

Running trail early mornings in November at the Afton State Park, Minnesota, a popular route for Twin Cities dirt diggers, one can witness the ski alps making snow over the next valley. Bright lights substitute for the moon, and the snow machines grind out big noise in spitting out their homemade blizzard.

So on our first winter storm of the season, a 6″ – 10″ inch accumulation, one is reminded how quiet Mother Nature is when dumping tons of snow over a span of multiple states . . . gently, quietly, beautifully.

One needs to take advantage of a nice snowfall to prepare for the snowshoe season, and with the proliferation of marathon length distances in snowshoe races, beginning to convert time on dirt trails to snow. Winter snowshoe marathons are the equivalent of summer ultra runs, and these longer distances are becoming popular. Two events come to mind: One on January 19, 2008, the 18th annual Northwood Snowshoe Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, and the March 8th Peak Adventure Snowshoe Marathon in Pittsfield, Vermont. Look for these and other races on the snowshoe schedule at the Snowshoe Magazine website.

Training for these distances should be done with a system I have termed “TOSS,” short for “Time On SnowShoes.” Just like trail endurance running requires actually spending hours training on dirt, if you are going to be prepared for hours on winter trails, you better be practicing on snow . . . when it is available to practice on, of course.

With this in mind, I drove to my favorite local park, Bredesen, in Edina, Minnesota, to practice on a dirt nature trail loop within a fenced boundary to distinguish it from the paved walking paths, complete with a security carousel to keep owners with pets from entering. It meanders in a way that completes a loop under two miles or so, mostly flat, lots of woods, perfect to get some time and distance early in the season.

For the early birds among us, you will understand my joy in hitting the trail at 4:15AM (except the initial getting-out-of-bed part a few minutes past three bells) particularly since the snow is fresh, just a short while after the final flakes stopped falling. It is quiet except for a few plows making the rounds; there are definitely no crowds or no one else around for that matter. One can get in several hours of exercise before daylight — a kind of getting a head start on the distance so the free hours of the day do not get away.

I carry in a soft cooler with several Fuel Belt bottles premixed with Hammer Heed and several Ultimate brand bottles with my E-Fuel electrolyte. Consistently using different bottle types for different mixtures takes away the guess work when grabbing them from the case. Plus, I pack two of my favorite trail sandwich: Turkey on a whole wheat bun (easier to hold than sandwich bread), blanketed by two cheddar cheese slices, mayo.

I set up a plan where I get rewarded with a sandwich every fourth loop. I snowshoe three loops counterclockwise, and then the ‘food’ loop clockwise. This arbitrary system helps me keep up with where I am in my program and the change in direction comes as a kind of reward and ‘change of scenery.’ It is remarkable how different a trail can look when traversed in reverse.

I have adapted a super lightweight Nathan HPL 028 harness (see photo) so I can carry my bottles. I worked with a local seamstress to attach loops of elastic above the standard pockets so that my bottles sit in the pocket and the elastic keeps them secure and upright, but handy. As my route takes me by my portable aid station pretty often, I can change out empties and grab a sandwich when the schedule dictates.

I am wearing a light SportHill jacket in the photo snapped just a few minutes after the run. In the 21 degree weather (and, thankfully, little wind), the liquid stays unfrozen under the outer layer. . . In much colder temperatures, and they will certainly be in this part of the country, I wear a heavier, but thin, North Face jacket. A headband keeps the ears covered . . . anything more in this mild of a day, and I would get hot as snowshoeing generates plenty of heat.

I am wearing the new 2008 light weight Atlas Race model snowshoe, mellow yellow in color with orange footstraps. The new design is so comfortable that it almost felt as if it were not on my foot.

I combine with a light Teva running shoe covered by, of all things, those rubber booties men sometimes use to protect their dress shoes. I find this keeps the snow out of my laces and less likely to find its way to my foot. A knee length Outdoor Research winter gaiter with its belt-like band going under the shoe to hold it in place and a clip to cinch it in place just below the knee but above the calf, is perfect for protecting the lower extremities from gathering snow. It also covers the top of the shoe so there is less chance of snow wetting the sock. Wet, cold feet will stop a session, uh, cold!

Running a 10km time on snow is one thing; spending five hours on the snow, as I did this morning, and staying warm, fed, hydrated, and, importantly, dry is paramount to finishing an endurance practice session or race. Your own preferences will start to make themselves known as you try various combinations to suit your needs. Here are some of my choices.

In choosing clothing, I find Eastern Mountain Sports techwick products great as my shirt choice in this mild temperature. Colder, and I would add a Patagonia thinner, long sleeve underneath. I use the Techwick underwear with Patagonia thermals for the torso. On colder days I have a pair of Craft L3 Protection winter ski pants; today, with the moderate temperature, I used standard Russell Athletic gym pants with pockets. The light weight worked great but snow kicked up in the movement froze to the back of the legs, adding weight over the duration of my practice.

I can store in one pocket my Zip-Lock sandwich bag filled with vitamins, electrolyte capsules, and extra batteries for my Fenix L2P flash light. Although I had it with me, I never clicked it on as the white snow really lightened up the trail even without a moon shining through.

A thin shell glove covered by a pair of Marathon Sports lean wool gloves kept nine of my digits warm. Number two finger on the right hand tried to stay cold and create a challenge but I tucked it away with the middle one, and after awhile it warmed all by itself. Who knows why one finger got cold, but in endurance snowshoeing one is going to be surprised often by various parts or patches of your body suddenly becoming cold, requiring some adjustment so you can continue on and reach your goal.

Around daybreak, a little more than three hours into my session, I started losing my motivation, my feeble mind offering all sorts of very respectable reasons for me to get in the car and drive back to a nice warm home and my favorite comfy chair. I had some caffeine tablets with me and took three over the next hour and a half, perking me right up, remotivating me.

Also helping on my loop course was that each time around, the snow became a little more packed, increasing the enjoyment factor somewhat and probably reducing the effort necessary, too. Since I know the skinny ski folks also use this loop I tried to keep my snowshoe tracks to one side so they could set up their own tracks when cross country skiing the snow.

Finally, five hours into my practice, plenty of daylight now but still cloudy, no sun, I finish. Runners are starting to populate the paved course on the outer edge of the park, plowed clear of snow during one of my early loops on the natural trail path.

A son of “TOSS,” which will help with snowshoe race training, is what I’ll term “Little Toss,” or “time on stair steps.” Unlike Bruce Willis in the original DIE HARD movie, where he promises never to go up in a tall building again if he can only make it out of this jam, those stairs can be a terrific training tool. We need to utilize them.

A recent early morning session in the 20 story office building housing my real life employer’s offices was a perfect example of the kind of training one can accomplish even without snow. 20 floors up, 20 down, 14 round trips equaling 10,000 steps over a little more than two hours gave quite a workout. One step at a time, I’m walking, not running them, not using the hand rails except to keep from tripping (a couple of times my attention wandered too far away from the effort at hand). My goal here was to complete the steps, complete the goal, not race the stairs.

Now done with my snowshoe session, I drink my bottle of Recoverite already premixed and waiting in the car, my after workout standard, while driving home, satisfied that I’ve had a good prepatory snowshoe workout.

To survive and complete a marathon on snow this season, more of these efforts will be de rigueur . . . and with more challenging terrain.

Phillip Gary Smith wrote ULTRA SUPERIOR about the superior trail races and donates all earnings to the superior hiking trail association. visit http://www.ultrasuperior.com for free downloads.

About the author

Phillip Gary Smith

Phillip Gary Smith, Senior Editor, published "The 300-Mile Man" about Roberto Marron's historic doubling of the Tuscobia 150 mile endurance snow run. He publishes "iHarmonizing Competition" on various forms of competition, including drag racing, his favorite motorsport. Earlier, he wrote "HARMONIZING: Keys to Living in the Song of Life" as a manual for life with chapters such as Winning by Losing, Can God Pay Your Visa Bill?, and a young classic story, The Year I Met a Christmas Angel. His book, "Ultra Superior," is the first written on the Superior Trail ultra-distance events. He mixes writing with his profession--the venture capital world--a dying art. He is a creator of CUBE Speakers, a group espousing themes in "HARMONIZING: Keys" in a unique way. Currently, he has two books in the works.
Write to him at Phillip@ultrasuperior.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook @iHarmonizing.