Let’s preface this post with a confession I’m sure isn’t that much of a secret around here anymore: I’m not very good at winter. This is surprising considering I grew up in Vermont, the winter wonderland of the East Coast. Vermonters seem to have a love for winter sports engrained in their very beings, with a reputation of such that follows wherever they go. I can’t even tell you how many times, while living in South Carolina, someone would find out I was from Vermont and immediately say “Oh, so you must ski, right?” Every time I replied “No, I don’t ski” I would be met with a confused stare, instantly leaving me with a feeling of guilt, as if I’d forsaken everything Vermont stands for. I might as well denounce maple syrup while I’m at it.
But I’ve learned over the years that adventure is absolutely what you make of it. Since returning to the Green Mountain Sate, I’ve not only learned to embrace the outdoors, but I’ve become passionate about the mountains and their trails. Two years ago, I reluctantly bought a pair of snowshoes and have since forced myself to get outside and put in miles on them. As it turns out, snowshoeing is not only fun, but it can be a killer cross-training option for runners trapped in the wintry tundra. And I’ve noticed a lot of friends in the North East questioning how to get started in the world of snowshoeing, so I’ve put together this post of not only how to start, but why you should incorporate snowshoes into your winter training plan.
Let’s face it: even if the cold weather doesn’t phase you, there are still winter scenarios where running outside isn’t ideal. Icy roads or unplowed trails for example, may make running uncomfortable or even downright dangerous. Though there is a slight learning curve to compensate for the now increased size of your feet, running in sneakers and running on snowshoes are essentially the exact same movement. Therefore, snowshoes give you the ability to tackle trails (and roads, and fields, and anywhere with snow) that might otherwise be impassable in just running sneakers.
That said, the effort put forth to run in snowshoes is significantly more difficult than running unencumbered on the trail or road. The added weight of the snowshoes (approximately 2+/- lbs) combined with the added resistance of the snow not only increases difficulty, but could actually help improve your running. According to a study conducted by the University of Vermont, runners who substituted snowshoeing for running during the winter months actually improved their overall fitness levels (specifically, VO2max or oxygen utilization) compared with those who chose running as their only source of winter training. Further, the studies shoe that snowshoers can burn 420-1000 calories per hour. Why? According to the study “Snowshoeing utilizes major muscle groups which, when combined with a higher metabolic rate in cold weather and the added resistance of moving through snow, results in a higher energy activity.”
As if all of this wasn’t enough to convince you to cross train with snowshoes, you should know this: snowshoeing is actually a low-impact sport. While we all know that the over used threat that “running is bad for your knees” is simply a myth, adding low impact cross training into your workouts is a fantastic way to allow your body to recover, as well as challenge different muscle groups.
Snowshoes: The actual act of snowshoeing isn’t overly difficult to learn, so perhaps the first step is finding the right gear. Now, in the triathlon world, first time sprint racers are always advised to borrow a bike for their first race to see if this is a sport they really want to commit to, before investing a ton of money into a bike (and gear) of their own. While snowshoes only cost the fraction of a triathlon bike, the advice to “test first” still holds true. Visit a local outdoor goods or ski shop and see if they rent snowshoes. Or if you have a friend that owns snowshoes, borrow a pair. Put in your first snowshoe excursion on a pair of rentals to see if this is really a sport you might want to pursue.
When the time comes to invest in your own snowshoes, head to your local sporting goods shop and talk to an expert about your snowshoe needs. Snowshoes are typically sized in inches, and the size you need will be determined by your height and weight. And there are a countless variations to snowshoes that you may or may not want, such as crampon size, ease of getting in and out of bindings, or tapering of the back of the snowshoe. The point of snowshoes in general are to help you “float” on top of the snow instead of sinking down. However, when it comes to running on snowshoes, things change a little. You are going to want a smaller, lightweight, easier to maneuver snowshoe that won’t hinder your running. While running specific snowshoes do exist, they aren’t always necessarily the best option (or worth the investment), depending on how you plan to use your snowshoes. Let an expert help you pick out the right pair.
Boots or sneakers? This is based on personal preference, trail conditions, and how much “running” you plan to do. If I’m on a flat, hardpacked trail, then a pair of water resistant trail sneakers will do. For my first snowshoe 10K race, I wore the Merrell Women’s Proterra Vim Sport Hiking Shoe* (pictured below) and had a stellar experience. If I’m in deeper snow, I’ll opt for a lightweight hiking boot to help keep my feet warm and hopefully dryer. In both cases, waterproof gaiters come in really handy. And while we are discussing feet: keep those toes warm! War, comfortable feet will make or break your snowshoeing experience. Wool socks are not only warm, but have natural waterproof and technical properties. My favorites? Darn Tough wool socks from Vermont, of course.
Clothing & Accessories: Dress just as you would for winter running. Warm, sweat wicking, tech/sport clothing, socks, and accessories. Avoid cotton at all costs, as it doesn’t dry nor help maintain heat when it becomes wet. Though you may feel cold at the start, once your heart rate begins to increase, you will likely warm up as your body temperature begins to increase. Never underestimate the weather, however, and when in doubt, always wear layers. If you are new to snowshoeing, I recommend a thicker glover or mitten. Chances are you may fall a few times, and you want to keep those hands warm.(Obviously, I speak from falling experience here). Lastly, don’t forget hydration!
Start Slow. Snowshoes are slightly awkward at first. While the movement is very similar to that of running, you will change your gait slightly due the now added width and length of the snowshoes on your feet. Your stance will likely be slightly wider than normal, and depending on the snow cover, you may have to raise your knees higher than you would when running on the street. Start slowly by walking. When you are comfortable walking, add a few slow running strides. Because the movements are so similar, the learning curve to running on snowshoes is quick; however, don’t be embarrassed if you slam your ankles or shins on the snowshoes the first few times. Or if you fall.
Start on groomed trails. As mentioned above, the added resistance of deep, heavy snow makes snowshoeing harder on your muscular and cardiovascular system. Start on well packed, groomed trails. When you become more experienced and comfortable with the movement, work your way to ungroomed trails, or even head off trail.
Etiquette note: if you find yourself on a groomed, cross country ski trail, avoid snowshoeing over the top of the ski tracks. Further, if you encounter a skier on the trail, move to the side and give the skier the right of way.
Safety note: If you find yourself on a trail shared by snowmobiles, PAY ATTENTION. They often don’t expect to come around a corner and find themselves face to face with a snowshoer, so regardless of etiquette and who has the “right of way”, if you hear a snowmobile approaching, for your own safety move off of the trail.
Don’t compare distance/speed to your running distances and times. A few years ago I signed up for a snowshoe half marathon, thinking it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I’ve run so many half marathons over the years I’ve honestly lost track. The oversight here being, those races were all on the road. Thankfully this half marathon was on a 10K loop, because after the first brutal 10K, we called it quits…and we were far from the only ones. Point being, snowshoeing is significantly more taxing on your muscles and cardiovascular system. Chances are you will not reach the same speeds or distances with the same effort as you do with road or trail running. A better suggestion is to plan your workout on overall time, such as a 30 or 45 minute excursion, rather than specific distance or pace.
Sign up for a race. Of course, this is not required for snowshoe success, but what better way to encourage “off season” training and prevent the winter blues than signing up for a snowshoe race! The United States Snowshoe Association has a whole list of races categorized by region and state . Looking for something less competitive? Snowshoe company TUBBS holds a “Romp to Stomp” snowshoe series across the country, as a benefit event to help stomp out breast cancer. Personally, Geoff and I will be racing Endurance Society’s Frigus event here in Vermont. The question is…10K or 30K? (Kidding. 10K, Geoff. Don’t panic.)
So there you have it, the basics of snowshoeing for runners, and how to get started. I’ve got nothing against the treadmill, but you can’t beat the great outdoors…so get out there!
Have any snowshoe tips to add? Any questions to ask? Please comment below!
*affiliate links used in this post.