Southerners, you don't know how good you have it! Running on dry ground year-round is something those in northern states can only dream about. If you spend months either chained to a treadmill or slipping and slogging through snow and slush while dodging ice patches, you may consider just getting through a run without falling down a success. But there's a better way!
Many runners in snowy states already know about the small, lightweight snowshoes made specifically for running. While that's a great winter workout option, in this article we take an in-depth look at the other kind of snowshoes--the relatively big, heavy, hiking-type used for going deep into the back country.
To learn about the benefits of this type of snowshoeing, we scoured the research and interviewed two snowshoeing experts. What we found definitely convinced us that snowshoeing is a great way for runners to stay fit in the winter. Here's everything you need to know.
Why You Should Try Snowshoeing
To start, research shows that snowshoeing is a fantastic aerobic workout, both in terms of calorie burn and improved VO2 Max. In fact, one study showed that snowshoeing over flat or variable terrain elicited average heart rates of 75 and 84 percent of maximum, respectively.
Sandy Gregorich, who teaches snowshoeing at Cornell Outdoor Education pointed out another advantage. "It doesn't load the body the way that running does, so it makes for really great cross training," Gregorich says. Essentially, you're getting the same--or even greater--aerobic benefits of running, with just a fraction of the impact and strain.
Of course, snowshoeing is safer than running in another big way, too. "When the footing is bad out there, running in loose snow or on ice is a bad idea," Gregorich says. "On snowshoes, you don't slide. It's such a great way to get out onto the trails, and there's a much smaller learning curve than there is for cross country skiing."
7 Dos and Don'ts
If you're ready to give snowshoeing a try, there are a few things you need to know before you go. We asked Gregorich and Jonathan Moore, Director of Snowshoeing at Weston Ski Track in Weston, Massachusetts, to share their top tips for newbies.
DO: Put Safety First
Snowshoeing into remote areas is one of the most beautiful and peaceful ways to spend a winter day. However, that environment also comes with some inherent risks. "Even if you're going somewhere you've been before in summer, it may be drastically different in the winter," Moore says. "Always tell someone where you're going if you're not planning on being somewhere that trails are patrolled and cleared of travelers each day." In the event that you do get stranded somewhere, it's a good idea to always carry the hiker's "10 Essentials" with you. It's especially important to carry--and drink--plenty of water.
DON'T: Try to Match Running Mileage
If you try anything new, you should be a little bit reserved when you start. Jumping in whole hog and thinking you can do as many miles on snowshoes as you can running--it's just not smart from a training perspective," Gregorich says. While your effort level may be similar to running, your pace will be much slower, so Moore recommends focusing on workout minutes rather than mileage.
DO: Dress in Wicking Layers
As with any cold weather activity, it's important to dress in wicking layers. You'll want to play around with fabric types, thermal ratings and other factors, but a good rule of thumb is to start with a technical T-shirt and layer zippered shirts and jackets on top of that. That way if you get hot, you can open up and ventilate without stopping to take layers off completely. It's really important to think about your whole body and not just your body's core. Bring a couple of layers of gloves and mittens for your hands; wear socks that are warm but won't hold in sweat; wear a wicking Buff or other neck scarf or a full-face mask to protect your face from frostbite, wind and sun. It's a good idea to wear a small backpack to carry your safety items and extra clothing.
Although you'll be out in the cold, you want to avoid dressing too warmly. "I tell my students that if they're warm at the start, they need to strip a layer before we even begin," Moore says. Gregorich echoed this concern: "Wear layers and be ready to take them off because snowshoeing is hot and sweaty!" Sweating too much can put you in double jeopardy--losing too much fluid will cause dehydration, and wet clothing ups your risk for hypothermia.
DO: Start on Hard-packed or Groomed Trails
The notion of forging a path through the woods is certainly romantic, but it's not a smart way to learn the skill of snowshoeing. Instead, practice on groomed or packed trails until you're familiar with the mechanics and your muscles are ready for a bigger challenge. Just be respectful of other users, and don't snowshoe on ski-only trails.
DON'T: Build Mileage Too Quickly
"You want to start slow and add on miles even slower," Gregorich says. Even once you've gotten a little experience under your belt, don't get overconfident and increase mileage too quickly. Because snowshoeing is so energy demanding and because you're out in potentially dangerous conditions, running out of steam miles away from your car or from help could be disastrous. Be conservative with your workout progressions and always think safety first.
DO: Be Mindful of Posture and Form
While the mechanics of snowshoeing are pretty similar to walking and running, there are some important differences, and form issues are compounded with snowshoeing because of the added load at the end of your leg (your boots and snowshoes are much heavier than running shoes). "Keeping the hips forward is important for even weight distribution and crampon engagement of the snowshoe," Moore says. "I tell my students to keep their chin up and to be looking among the trees for birds.
Gregorich had another helpful form tip. "You have to lift your leg up higher, especially compared to distance runners who may be shuffling a lot. If you get a big snow...wow! You have to lift your leg up even higher, then." Gregorich also warned that if you shuffle your feet going downhill, you might find yourself face planting. To be safe, it's a good idea to take a lesson before heading out on your own. Many gear shops and outfitters offer them for free.
The Gear You'll Need to Get Started
Snowshoes: It's best to try these out in person before you buy, but if you're going to purchase a pair online, be sure to use height and weight charts as a size guide.
Hiking Boots: Some boots are made specifically for snowshoeing, but you can definitely get by with a good pair of hikers. Ideally they'll be waterproof, and be sure they are roomy enough for thicker socks.
Gaiters: These are different to running gaiters; they're longer and made of water-proof material similar to rain or snow pants. You'll particularly want these if you're going to wear running shoes, low hikers or other footwear that's not waterproof, as they'll keep snow from getting into your boots or shoes from the top.
Lightweight Waterproof Pants/Snow Pants: An alternative to gaiters, these will not only keep your feet dry, but they'll protect your backside from "tip flip"--the snow that flies from the rear tips of your snowshoes up onto your butt with every step you take.
Trekking Poles: These are nice to have for balance and stability, and really become necessary in deeper snow and/or over hilly terrain.
Sun Protection: Protecting your skin and eyes from the sun is actually more crucial in winter, with the glare off the snow. Some lotions and balms offer two-in-one sun and wind/frostbite protection. When it comes to eyewear, Moore noted that polarized glasses often fail to cut the glare off the ice, so it might be better to bring a non-polarized pair or one of each type.
Insulated Water Bottle/Hydration Tube: Another tip from Moore is to use an insulated water bottle or hydration tube, or tape a hand warmer to your water bottle to prevent your water from freezing.
By following these tips, you can not only get out and enjoy nature, but also maintain your fitness all winter long.
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