How to Keep Training Hard in Snow
The best workouts to do when it’s rough sledding on the roads.
BY SCOTT DOUGLAS
FEB 19, 2021
Runners like a winter wonderland as much as anyone. Who doesn’t find an easy run amid freshly fallen snow to be a peak experience?
That attitude starts to change around day three of flailing about on snowy roads, with the resultant muscle strains and compromised training plans. Then many runners start wondering, ”How am I supposed to get anything done in these conditions?”
The answer: Prioritize your key workouts on the basis of which can best be done in snow, and spend a little extra time tending to body parts that work harder than usual in such conditions.
Do you need more workouts for snow runs?
1. Nah, I just go easy and enjoy it.
2. Yeah! I’m still training!
Slip Sliding Away
First, it’s helpful to understand why running in the snow can be more difficult.
Hard-packed snow, such as that remaining on roads after plowing, “places increased load on the smaller muscles of the feet,” says Runner’s World+ member Daniel Frey, D.P.T., a physical therapist and competitive runner in Portland, Maine. “They have to stabilize more through grasping inside the shoe to minimize the risk of slipping. Harder snow also forces the foot to land more out of line each step, similar to trail running.”
In addition, says Frey, calf muscles have to work harder because you can’t push off normally. “With every stride there is often a little more slip backward of the foot before it leaves the ground,” he says.
Your hips, glutes, and lower back are also likely to tire more quickly in the snow, because of the need to stabilize yourself on uneven ground. In high snow, your hip flexors work overtime because of the necessary exaggerated knee lift.
Any form quirks you have are likely to be exaggerated in snow. For example, if you have a long ground contact time, your feet trail farther behind you than is ideal. They’ll do so even more on snow as you slip slightly with each step, causing increased strain on your upper hamstrings.
All of the above happens even at easy paces. When you try to do hard workouts on snow, your hips and core will be taxed even more. “Due to the limited ability to push off, the iliopsoas [the major hip flexor at the top front of your legs] must work harder to pull the leg off the ground rather than push it off the ground,” says Frey. “This will often cause a runner’s stride to shorten, resulting in a higher cadence” than usual at a given pace.
Devices such as Stabilicers, YakTrax, or small screws inserted in the bottom of running shoes can help you get better traction, and thereby lessen the changes to your running form.
Work to Be Done
If you have races coming up, you can’t put serious training on hold until the spring. Jay Johnson, a coach in Boulder, Colorado, advises thinking about the main types of hard workouts runners typically do as a continuum, from sprints to marathon-pace work, and focusing on the longer, slower end of that spectrum.
“I’m a very conservative coach when it comes to running on the snow,” Johnson says. “An absolute no to speed development [short repeats at 800-meter race pace or faster] and no to 1500-meter pace, but starting to say yes to 5K pace work and strides. The most intense workout I would assign would be fartleks where the ‘on’ portion is 10K pace or slower.
U.S. road 5K record holder Ben True follows a similar approach during the parts of the winter when he hasn’t escaped New England for warmer conditions in the South.
“I tend to stick to long tempos and fartleks,” True says. “I avoid the fastest types of intervals and strides, as I feel those are the most likely to risk injury with slipping on hidden ice.”
Note that the types of workouts Johnson and True mention are based more on feel than precision. Hard workouts on snowy roads aren’t the time to obsess about what your GPS watch says; instead, go by effort. The table below gives some examples of converting standard workouts to snow-season alternatives.
If you train by heart rate, you probably know the heart rate that corresponds to various race paces in good conditions. Aim for those ranges when doing guesstimated workouts like the ones above. Even without monitoring your heart rate, you probably know what your breathing and other sensory cues at 5K or half-marathon pace feels like after a few minutes. Aim for the appropriate effort level, and don’t worry if the surrounding scenery is passing by more slowly than usual.
Instead of: Mile repeats
Do: Repeats of 5:00 to 7:00 at 10K effort
Instead of: 4-mile tempo run
Do: 25 to 35 minutes at half marathon effort
Instead of: 6- to 10-mile rhythm run
Do: 40 to 60 minutes at marathon effort
As for long runs, if your goal is mostly accumulating time on your feet, running on snow shouldn’t be a hindrance. Run your normal route and don’t worry that you’re slower, or, if you’re feeling a little beat up from previous days, run for the duration of your standard long run on a slightly shorter course.
A key exception is if you’re getting ready for a spring marathon and face snowy roads when it’s time for a key long run, such as one with the last several miles at goal pace. If possible, do the faster part of those long runs on a treadmill or via multiple loops of a short, cleared stretch of road.
During periods when you’re mostly running on snow, spend a few extra minutes a day on overworked body parts.
Johnson advises working on hip mobility postrun. “You could go through a routine like Myrtl twice,” he says.
True says that, because of the tendency to slip when running in snow, he pays special attention to stabilizing muscles, including the peroneals (which run along the outside of your lower leg and ankle), hip flexors, and lower back.
If possible, Frey recommends, try not to go more than a few days without going through a fuller range of motion than is possible when running on snow. “Try to plan a route that may have some bare roads.,” he says. “Even if this is just an occasional mile or so, it will give your legs a needed reprieve.”
If you’re unable to find longer stretches of dry roads, supplement your running with form work, either during or after your run. “This can be done in a basement, garage, or maybe a dry parking lot along the route,” Frey says. He recommends:
• Striders, focusing on opening up your legs.
• High knees, butt kicks, and skipping, focusing on core activation and standing tall.
• Carioca and/or a lateral shuffle to help maintain lateral strength.
See how to do these and other drills here.
Finally, if you’re faced with weeks on end of making do in snowy conditions, keep the most important element of racing well—your head—in the right place.
“Shift your thinking to a track athlete who is trying to run well at the U.S. championships in June,” says Johnson. “If you made June racing your goal, then you wouldn’t be stressed about missing a workout or doing an easy run on the treadmill.”
—This story was originally published in 2016.