18 December 2014

Snowfall, running, skiing & mountains

This morning we had the first real snowfall of the year in Uppsala. Regretfully, the snow will likely disappear to Christmas as it is going to be warmer and rain already tomorrow. Until then I am really enjoying the shining bright light from the white ground – it has been incredibly dark without snow the past two months. I also very much prefer to run in snow rather than in slippery icy and freezing water as I have been doing during many runs the past weeks. It is not only the traction that is better; there is something about the softness of snow for the feet that is very pleasant. I have previously written about running in snow and sand from a physiological perspective, and even though there are no direct studies on running on snow specifically, I am convinced that it is a good training form just as running on sand. And, it is indeed quite fun, at least during the early winter season when the snow is new.

The first real snow of the season in Uppsala
There are no mountains in Uppsala and when I am in more mountainous terrain, as the coming weekend, I rather ski or go on snowshoes on snow. It is definitively more efficient and also more fun. It is however clearly different and it is interesting to see how much the biomechanics of walking with snowshoes differ from normal overground walking at a similar speed (Browning et al “Biomechanics of walking with snowshoes” Sports Biomech 2012; 11: 73-84). It is more energy demanding with a higher metabolic rate to walk/run on snowshoes, probably as the snowshoeing gait is characterized by a more flexed posture during stance and a greater degree of plantarflexion during swing. This ‘shuffling’ gait suggests foot position is controlled during this novel task and likely contributes to the increased metabolic rate.

Needless to say, also ski mountaineering (Skimo) has a very different biomechanics than walking or running (see for instance Tosi et al “The energy cost of ski mountaineering: effects of speed and ankle loading” J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2009; 49: 25-9; Tosi et al “Energy cost and efficiency of ski mountaineering. A laboratory study” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010; 50:400-6; Duc et al “Physiology of ski mountaineering racing” Int J Sports Med 2011; 32: 856-63; Haselbacher  et al “Effect of ski mountaineering track on foot sole loading pattern” Wilderness Environ Med 2014; 25: 335-9). If snowshoeing is strenuous, ski mountaineering is extremely demanding and requires extremely high energy demands, which sometimes are difficult to fulfill as shown in a new interesting study of athletes competing in the Patrouille des Glaciers racecourses (Praz et al “Energy expenditure of extreme competitive mountaineering skiing” Eur J Appl Physiol 2014; 114: 2201-11). From a physiological perspective I can understand why mountain ultra trail runners such as Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg appear to thrive and benefit so much from ski mountaineering during large parts of the year – it is simply one of the best endurance training forms there is.

Ski mountaineering also makes the middle and high mountains accessible not only during some short summer months, but for a much larger part of the year. I have become more and more interested in spending more time in the mountains also during the winter, and then not only in the pisted slopes but also backcountry, but my problem up until now has been my rather limited technical ski proficiency. While I virtually grew up with running shoes on my feet, it is not until a couple of years ago when I started with downhill skiing. I have greatly benefited from having a son who became interested in downhill skiing already when he was two years old and who now when he is eight is training and racing in alpine skiing (his favorite discipline is super-G), so I am spending a lot of time in the mountains now also during winter with my family, and this season I am hopefully good enough to at least start to train ski mountaineering. In contrast to running it is however a quite expensive sport in that there is so much more equipment needed – leaving the pisted slopes there will be a need of for instance different skis and ski boots and avalanche safety equipment. The latter is something essential as the objective dangers in the mountains during winter is so much higher than during the summer – if there is less than five runners dying each year on summer trails in the world there are over 150 people dying in avalanches in North America and Europe each year (a good recent review about avalanches and evidence-based guidelines about treatment is Brugger et al “Resuscitation of avalanche victims: Evidence-based guidelines of the international commission for mountain emergency medicine (ICAR MEDCOM). Intended for physicians and other advanced life support personnel” Resuscitation 2013; 84: 539-546). However, I am convinced that as with summer mountain trail running the risks can certainly be reduced greatly by proper training and preparations and it will be really fun to start doing this.
 
And, lastly, the mountains are almost more beautiful with snow – I just love the movie "The Ridge" below by Anson Fogel for Camp4 Collective  It was filmed in the Denalin National Park on June 25, utilizing Brain Farm Digital Cinema’s Cineflex technology. Completely amazing.
 
 

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