It’s a lot like running, but it’s nothing like it at all.
Snowshoe racing can be a good way to test conditioning and race fitness during the winter. There are more than 100 snowshoe races scheduled in the U.S. and Canada this winter, most being either 5K or 10K in length.
While snowshoe racing can be a cold-weather thrill for endorphin junkies seeking a mid-winter fix, it’s not easy. Similar to racing on undulating dirt trails , snowshoe racers typically experience high heart rate spikes at slower speeds, which means a higher cardiovascular benefit with less muscular fatigue and breakdown. Even if you avoid starting out too fast, you’ll still find yourself teetering toward the red line.
“It’s a great workout,” says Jared Scott, runner-up in the 2012 U.S. National Snowshoe Championships 10K in Frisco, Colo. “But racing on snowshoes is a lot harder than racing on trails or the roads.”
Running on snowshoes requires a higher leg lift and a wider gait stance than typical running, which, combined with soft, sometimes unstable surfaces, engages more stabilizing muscle groups around the hips and core than road running.
“It’s a lot like running, but it’s nothing like it at all,” Scott says. “It’s a little bit like running in slow motion. Even though snowshoes give you great traction on the snow, it’s still hard to get fast leg turnover and there is more weight on your feet, so everything is a bit slower.”
More than 50 resorts and parks will offer free snowshoeing (and cross country skiing) demos at Winter Trails 2014 on Jan. 11, a free event sponsored by the Snowsports Industries of America.
Snowshoes built for running are smaller and lighter than most hiking or backcountry models, typically 8 x 25 inches in size. Running snowshoes range in price from $149 to $350. Many races, running stores and skiing shops offer inexpensive rentals or free demo models.
Dress as if you’re heading out for a cold-weather run—running tights, base layer, a long-sleeve tech shirt, a lightweight hat, running gloves and a lightweight running jacket or vest. Unless it’s really cold and windy, you might want to ditch the vest or jacket after your warm-up
The course, type of snow and other runners will dictate how fast you can run and where you can pass. Deep snow, singletrack courses and steep climbs and descents mean runners will often have to transition from fast running to power hiking and back again.
There are races scheduled in 21 states this winter. A typical 10K race might take a fast runner 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the terrain. If you’re normally a 45-minute 10K runner, that might mean you’ll be hoofing it over hill and dale for an hour or more, so plan accordingly. The 2014 U.S. snowshoe racing championships will be held on March 1 in Bennington, Vt. (Last year’s national championship attracted runners from 31 different states.) For a list of regional qualifying races and other events, go to www.snowshoeracing.com.
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.