Not knowing a thing about the sport and with zero experience, I registered for my first snowshoe race in 2014. The nighttime race required headlamps and promised fun. While careening through the dark woods on rented snowshoes, with my path illuminated only by the light of my headlamp, I knew I had found my people: a hearty bunch who embraced the cold and snowy New Hampshire winters.
Snowshoe running, once an obscure sport, is quickly gaining popularity as an off- season alternative for road and trail runners in snowy regions. Since its inception in 2001, the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) has seen an increase in race participation, especially in the Northeast. The USSSA National Championships rotate regionally each year. “The last time we hosted the national championships in the Northeast in 2014, we had about 400 participants,” says Mark Elmore, director of the USSSA and board member of the World Snowshoe Federation (WSSF), the governing body of the sport. “This year we expect upward of 500 participants.” Last year, the WSSF World Snowshoe Championships were held in the United States in Saranac Lake, N.Y. “It created a great buzz,” Elmore says. “There was a lot of great energy from the community and the athletes.” This year, another championship will return to Saranac Lake, N.Y., as it hosts the North American Snowshoe Championships on Jan. 14, 2018—runners don’t have to qualify for the race, but they do need to be members of the USSSA in order to race.
If getting snowy with your running is intriguing to you, we created a primer to get you safely out on the powder this winter.
Benefits For Running
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 proprioception and 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.
While I jumped into my first snowshoe race blindly, you can easily get started anywhere there’s snow on the ground. I started out on a pair of traditional snowshoes in my backyard, running a few strides to get my bearings. I quickly realized that running-specific snowshoes are made to move. Most running snowshoes are shorter, narrower and made with incredibly light materials that make running slightly easier. 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.
There’s no need for specialty shoes—a pair of waterproof running shoes or duct tape strategically placed over the mesh openings on a pair of road shoes will serve to keep your feet warm and dry during the race.
Finding A Race
Because the sport is relatively new, the relaxed atmosphere of snowshoe racing is inviting to beginners. “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.” The USSSA sanctions races across the United States and provides a detailed list, searchable by region, on its website snowshoerunning.com. Most races range in distance from 5K to 10K and are scheduled for January through the beginning of March, including the USA National Championships, which will be held in Woodford, Vt., March 9–11, 2018. This year’s event will feature the traditional 10K distance in addition to a half-marathon and marathon distance, which were added last year.
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.
Tips For Success
Ditch your road paces. It’s best to leave any expectations of matching even your slowest road paces at home. Run based on perceived effort, which can change based on the snow conditions—fresh powder or mushy melted snow is far harder to run through than a groomed trail.
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. A dry pair of socks and pants goes a long way to keeping you happy post-race.
Follow proper trail etiquette. Seed yourself accordingly at the start. If there’s a faster runner behind you on single-track, step aside and let them pass. Likewise, if you come upon a slower runner, ask nicely to go by, and they should return the favor.