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If you live in a wintry locale (or have a vacation planned to one), you may be wondering how you’ll be able to maintain a running routine through snowdrifts and sub-freezing temperatures.
Snowshoe running used to be an obscure winter sport, but has grown in popularity in the last few years. Runners are finding snowshoe running a great way to maintain fitness and have some fun during the snow-filled months. And snowshoe runners aren’t just heading out for snowy solo runs, snowshoe racing series are cropping up all over the country and there is a National Championship race sponsored by the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA)—although the 2021 race has been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Whether or not competing in the National Championships is your goal, snowshoe racing can be a great way to stay active and have a little fun with your running during the long winter months.
Snowshoe Running Tips for Beginners
Finding the right snowshoes is the first step to a positive snowshoe running experience. Snowshoes specifically designed for running are narrower and lighter than most recreational snowshoes and allow you to hit your stride with relative ease.
Generally, there are three parts to a pair of running snowshoes: the frame, the binding, and the cleat. Some companies will allow you to mix and match, while others sell ready-made combinations.
Most snowshoe makers like Tubbs and Atlas have running snowshoes. Dion Snowshoes of Vermont is the sponsor of the USSSA National Championships and is regarded as the one of the best running snowshoes. Whatever brand you choose, look for a light and narrow frame. Binding type (or the straps) will depend on personal preference, and cleats are tailored to the type of terrain you’ll be running on. For example, larger cleats are better for icy or rocky terrain.
Many snowshoe races offer the option to rent running snowshoes, so if you’re uncertain about your commitment to the sport, you can easily try it out with minimal cost.
Special footwear isn’t totally necessary. Many snowshoe racers opt to wear just a lightweight waterproof sneaker while running. You may want to invest in a pair of gaiters to help keep the snow out and moisture-wicking socks.
Since snowshoe running is such hard work you can plan on working up a good sweat. A good rule of thumb is to dress for the outside temp as if you were going for a road run and then take one layer off the top. Gloves are always a must especially since you may take a tumble or two as you try to run over uneven terrain.
Expect to get wet.
With all the snow that gets kicked up by your own snowshoes and those of other racers, you’ll wind up pretty wet from head to toe once you stop moving. Pro tip: Have a set of warm, dry clothes waiting for you in the car to put on after the race or run.
Get out and practice snowshoe running.
Now that you’re outfitted with the right gear, you may be wondering where to practice your snowshoe skills. If you’re a beginner, you might want to start out with a few loops of a local park or golf course. Once you get a little bit of practice, groomed trails are ideal.
Run by feel.
Snowshoe running is hard work. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your heart rate skyrockets despite a slower pace. You can toss all of your road running paces out the window and focus on running by perceived effort. You can estimate your pace by taking your easy road pace and add one to three minutes per mile depending on the terrain. You should have a slightly wider stance as you move forward, but try to stick to your usual running form as much as you can. And don’t attempt to move backward—you’ll quickly find yourself on your bottom.
Know the trail etiquette.
If you plan on trying out a snowshoe race, you’ll want to know the trail etiquette that comes with the race. Seed yourself at the start according to the pace you think you’ll be running. Some races are on wide, groomed trails where it’s a little easier to pass or be passed. But others are on single track often packed down just a few days prior by the race director. It’s good snowshoe racing etiquette to step aside for a faster runner behind you. If you’ll be sharing the trail with cross-country skiers or snowmobilers, practice good etiquette. Stay alert, keep to the far side of the trail, and avoid the cross-country ski tracks if possible (snowshoe imprints can cause bumps and divots).
What Runners Can Gain from Snowshoe Running
A way to stay fit in the winter.
Snowshoe running’s popularity is due in part to the many benefits it offers to road runners looking to stay in shape through the winter. Not only does snowshoe running build cardiovascular fitness, the exaggerated stride and added weight of the snowshoes also help develop leg strength. “The softer surface is a welcome break to the musculoskeletal systems after months of impacting pavement,” says Chris J. Dunn, exercise physiologist, snowshoe running coach, and former director of the Granite State Snowshoe Series. Running on uneven snowy surfaces also promotes muscle fiber recruitment that can be lacking on the roads. And your sore abs the day after a snowshoe run will attest to the demands it places on your core.
A new perspective.
Often, expectations get in the way of finding joy in things we do, like running. The winter terrain is so varied and difficult and the conditions so different—you could run a certain time on a course one year in three inches of snow and then face 12 inches of snow on the same course the next year—and you cannot possibly translate road paces to snowshoe running. Let go of your expectations, and you’ll open yourself up to finding joy in every challenging aspect of the situation.
Getting comfortable with the unknown.
It can be hard to be the “newbie,” to head into a situation where you don’t feel competent and have no idea how you will do. Becoming uncomfortable with the unknown and embracing the factors that are beyond your control, is truly one of the best ways to discover strength inside yourself that you didn’t know was there. Starting snowshoe running is an opportunity to try something new, ask questions, and become stronger.
Snowshoe running can be uncomfortable and challenging, but ultimately it is a lot of fun. “I was attracted to snowshoe running because of the competitive yet friendly community,” says Amber Ferreira, 2014 national snowshoe champion and professional triathlete. “I remember thinking the sport is so hard, but people make it fun.”
Snowshoe running may not be for everyone—races go on even in subzero temperatures, and you can’t get around the fact that it is really hard work. But if you like a challenge and want to mix up your winter routine, get ready to kick up some snow.