By Mark Rosenblum (guest blogger for OmniRunner)
When old man winter blows in hard and furious, creating icy roads and huge snowbanks narrowing roadways, what can you do (besides treadmill running)? Running on roads with less traffic still has risks. Seeking out well plowed streets offers limited choices. Well, there’s another choice which is safer, more fun, and gives you a more forgiving surface than running on the roads: snowshoeing!
If you want to get into snowshoeing, you’ll first need to decide which type and model of snowshoe to buy. The majority of snowshoes on the market are designed for either mountain hiking or trail walking. Running in the former is possible but challenging. The latter is fine for starting out. These will cost $100-$200.
However, if you want snowshoes primarily for running training and possibly snowshoe racing, you are better off getting running or racing snowshoes. These will cost $200-$300 for better models.
The good news is that companies are starting to offer more choices every year as this sport catches on. The bad news is that most outdoors specialty retail stores do not carry this type of snowshoe, so you will most likely have to buy online and read up on different options, vs. having an in-store salesperson help you.
Try before you buy
If you have never been snowshoeing before, you will probably want to try it before buying snowshoes. REI rents snowshoes, or you may find a small local retailer that does. Rentals typically will run $10-$20/day. Many XC ski touring centers will also rent snowshoes. A great opportunity to try out different models of snowshoes for free every winter is “Winter Trails Day”, held in several states on different dates in January. Go to www.wintertrails.org for more info. There you can try 3-4 different models in an hour or two and get questions answered.
You are not likely to find racing snowshoe models at these stores or events. However, many races will provide an opportunity to use a racing model provided by a sponsor for an extra $5 – $10. The numbers are often limited so you may need to register early.
If you were buying snowshoes for hiking, you would want to learn about “flotation” and get a snowshoe size based on your weight and type of snow conditions you will encounter.
For snowshoe running and racing, you will want a narrower and lighter snowshoe. The following webpage lists 35 models of racing snowshoes which are ‘legal’ per racing snowshoe regulations: http://www.snowshoeracing.com/legal_size.htm
Here in New England, Dion dominates the market, with their Model 121 being most popular.
One thing you will want to consider is how easy and comfortable it is to fasten your hiking or running shoes to the snowshoes via the bindings, which typically involve some type of leather, rubber, or plastic straps. Dion’s ‘Quick Fit’ binding comprised of flexible VELCRO®-type straps is one of the easier types available.
Other details to consider when trying snowshoes for running is how closely the snowshoe snaps back to your foot, kick back of snow, and weight.
Lastly, while most snowshoe hikers also get a pair of ski or trekking poles, for both balance and leverage, they are not needed for snowshoe running, and are not used for racing.
If just looking looking to get into snowshoeing as cross-training for hiking, hiking shoes are your best option. For running training, consider getting a GORE-TEX® running shoe, especially if you are prone to getting cold feet. See “The best way to enjoy winter running” for some suggestions. Another advantage of these shoes is that they will offer better forefoot protection against binding straps, which may otherwise provide uncomfortable pressure points.
Such shoes are also fine for racing, where you might not mind trading off some extra weight for comfort. At the other end of the spectrum, some racers looking for the lightest weight and comfort have found ways to custom mount a pair of racing flats directly to the webbing of the snowshoe, eliminating the need for bindings.
Gaiters are especially helpful for snowshoe running. This topic was also covered in the blog post mentioned earlier. For most conditions, ankle height gaiters will be your best option. Most models will attach via clips to your laces, and laces or straps under your arch to secure the gaiter. Instead of the latter, some models attach to your heel with a strip of VELCRO®.
You will quickly find out when you do snowshoe running workouts that you will generate more heat than for a corresponding road workout. Thus, an initial guide for what to wear is to dress for about 10 degrees warmer than what you would wear for running. You will quickly find what works best for you. The only other special consideration for snowshoeing is that there is just no avoiding kicking up snow behind you, which can leave a mass of ice crystals clinging to the back of your pants. Slicker materials such as running tights or rain pants will minimize this.
Where to go
If your local golf course is available for winter recreation, you can run with as little as 2” of snow if the ground is well frozen. Avoid running over the greens. A similarly good location is around playing fields at local schools. Rail trails and some woods trails will be fine with about 4-5” of snow, whereas rocky woods trails may need 8” or more before you can get out without risk of damaging your snowshoe crampons or twisting an ankle.
If you go on trails and find cross-country ski tracks present, proper trail etiquette requests snowshoers to avoid stepping in the tracks.
Racing and Race opportunities
If you are a competitive runner and get into snowshoeing, you will probably want to try snowshoe racing at some point. The quality of the snow at the time of the race will be the biggest variable that you will encounter, from very hard to very soft, very smooth to ‘choppy’, and from well packed to fluffy fresh powder.
The conditions obviously will affect how fast you can go. As a result, times are not comparable even for the same race from year-to-year. Under typical racing conditions, expect your times to be anywhere from 50% to 2x (or more) greater than your times for a road race of the same distance.
All that being said, snowshoe races offer runners a fun and interesting experience for racing, quite different from other races. You’ll generally find other runners at snowshoe races, typically those who enjoy cross-country, trail, and mountain races.
Snowshoe races frequently have ‘single-track’ sections: narrow paths in woods where the snow-packed trail is not wide enough for two people to run side-by-side. It is very difficult to pass on these sections. If you sense someone is on your heels and itching to pass you, try to quickly find a good spot to step to the side to let them pass. You will appreciate the same favor when the situation is reversed!
Here in the Northeast, your best sites to learn about race opportunities are:
http://www.granitestatesnowshoeseries.org (NH races)
http://dionwmacsnowshoe.com (NY, VT, and western MA).
Nationwide race information can also be found at http://www.snowshoeracing.com/events.htm .
Snowshoeing with others
Lastly, snowshoeing with others is a great way to keep active during the winter. Having someone guide you through trails, especially at night, is a lot easier than going off by yourself. Also, when there is deep fresh snow, making tracks is a lot easier with a group.
So, whether you are looking to find a safer alternative to running on the roads during the worst winter days, interested in a growing way to stay competitive during the winter, or looking for a fun way to take advantage of winter’s bounty and enjoy the company of friends out in the woods, consider taking up snowshoeing!