Since winter typically drapes the mountains in Montana in snow, finding snow-free trails with sustained elevation gain is a challenge from December through April. A couple winter alternatives to running mountain trails are back country skiing and uphill walking on a treadmill.
Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering
I’m not going to elaborate on this much, but climbing (skinning) up a mountain on skis is a low impact strength and cardio workout. If you are a skier, you know what I mean. I you are not, consider adding backcountry or ski mountaineering to your activity list.
Walking Uphill on Treadmill with Weight Vest
Assuming you have access to a treadmill, walking uphill at a steep incline is great way to develop strength and aerobic endurance. Since trail running often incorporates power walking up steep sections, walking up an inclined treadmill has direct carry over to summer mountain running.
My personal favorite is hill repeats on the treadmill while wearing a weight vest. I keep the treadmill speed at a constant 4.5 mph and vary the incline between 0% grade (level) and 15% (or as steep as the particular treadmill will go). Donning a weight vest makes the workout a challenge even when the speed is at a walking pace.
4.5 mph (13:20 minutes per mile) Brisk but Manageable Walking Pace
Walking at 4.5 mph is moving along at a good clip. This speed is manageable for walking but it certainly is not dawdling. It conditions one to walk briskly with purpose – which is often a challenge when encountering steep uphills while running in the mountains. Think about it – an average pace of 4.5 mph for the Ridge Run would yield a blazing time of about 4 and a half hours. So it is moving right along. Since steep mountain trails force you to walk, you might as well get used to walking fast.
The 3 minute Hill
A hard work interval of 3 minutes is associated with conditioning the cardio vascular system and increasing VO2max. At 4.5 mph and 15% grade while wearing a 22lb weight vest, I can manage work intervals of 2 to 5 minutes then have to back the incline down to 0% to recover. If I am out of shape, it only takes about 2 minutes to reach exhaustion with legs tightening and lungs burning. As I get in better shape, I can last at least 5 minutes before I have to lower the incline back to level to catch my breath.
A workout will consist of between 3 to 9 hill repeats of 3 minutes in duration at 15% grade and 3 minutes of recovery at 0% grade.
I’ve found some treadmills feel easier than others – even at the supposed same speed and incline. So there are obvious calibration differences from treadmill to treadmill. Adjust the speed and incline so you can do 3 minutes uphill followed by 3 minutes level at least 3 times in a row.
Walking Uphill is Low Impact allowing Healing while still Building or Maintaining Fitness
An advantage of doing the hill repeats at a walk is that walking is much lower impact than running. This gives the feet, ankles, knees, hips and associated connective tissue a break. You can still get a good workout, but injuries and accumulated damage that you may have sustained over the summer have a chance to heal.
Finding a Weight Vest
Weight Vests vary from affordable to costly for the fancy ones. Mine weighs 22lbs. It is comfortable and works fine for walking. It does bounce a bit while running. Look for one that form fits and weighs about 15% of your body weight. Perhaps you can find a gym or sports center that has weight vests and high incline treadmills as part of their repository of equipment.
An alternative is to load up a back pack with some water bottles. A gallon of water weighs 8lbs.