Snowshoe Running and Racing 101

Here's a fun and unique way to stay fit and motivated through the winter months

Why, on earth, would someone want to run (much less, race) with odd-shaped metal contraptions attached to their feet? Because snowshoe running and racing makes you damn fit, for one thing. It also allows those who live in snowy climates to stay off the treadmill and run a race outside in winter months, and offers up a new perspective on trails and routes usually run in dry months.

Add to all that the fact that the greater surface area of a snowshoe softens the blow of every running step, and you’ve got a low-impact form of running that is easier on the joints than even running on a soft trail (and it kicks the snot out of the hard impact of road running).

And, not to fear, in today’s market of outdoor gear, there is a plethora of snowshoes made specifically for running. Long gone are the days of trying to run in large, clunky snowshoes intended for hiking. Running-specific snowshoes are small, lightweight, and tapered to allow for an almost natural running stride. They’re made out of lightweight materials and equipped with snow-grabbing crampon teeth underfoot, and they attach to your running shoes with webbing that cinches down snugly around any size feet.

Taking things up a notch from snowshoe running on your own or with friends (or dogs, who couldn’t be happier chasing their owners through the snow or breaking trail), is snowshoe racing.

Races vary in length but generally stick to 5K or 10K distances, and take place at Nordic centers and ski resorts. (Do a web search for snowshoe races in your area or go to the United States Snowshoe Racing Association site.) Races are festive affairs, often with free warm drinks and snacks waiting at the finish line, award ceremonies and raffle prizes. Snowshoe race directors entice entrants with fun atmospheres, and they’re smart to do so, because racing on snowshoes can hurt. But it’s a hurt-so-good kind of hurt, so get ready for some fun.

Here are tips that will help you enjoy your runs on snowshoes, whether you’re out for a casual fitness run, or entering a race:

1. Dress accordingly.

Since snowshoe running is no easy feat, your body heats up extremely quickly and you can run in freezing temps in nothing more than running tights and a long-sleeve shirt. Like with any outdoor adventure, it’s smart to dress in layers. Consider wearing a lightweight jacket over a long-sleeve shirt, but be prepared to tie the jacket around your waist or stuff it in a small, lightweight pack.

2. Accessorize smartly.

You’ll definitely want to wear gloves, but opt for lightweight, breathable gloves over heavy-duty mittens in all but frigid temps. Wearing a breathable beanie is also wise, as is wearing sunglasses. (The sun’s reflection off of snow is intense.)

3. Avoid fleece.

Snow will kick up from your snowshoes and onto your clothes. Wear fleece of any sort, and the snow sticks to you like it would to a furry dog. You’ll be covered in snow and ice balls, which isn’t very comfortable.

4. Think footwear.

Since snowshoes have traction already built in, you can get away with wearing even road running shoes in the bindings. (If you do wear road running shoes, or even trail running shoes, consider wearing neoprene socks to keep your feet warm.) Some runners prefer Gore-Tex or other waterproof/breathable shoes. But for snowshoe running, avoid wearing boots of any sort.

5. Consider your ankles.

Wear long socks. You definitely don’t want a gap between short socks and the bottom of your tights. (Brr.) Gaiters—either short- or medium-length, do a good job keeping snow out of your shoes.

6. Leave the poles behind.

If you’re out for a snowshoe hike, bring trekking poles or ski poles. If you’re going to be running, you most likely won’t want the poles. To have the best of both worlds, use collapsible poles that can stash away in a backpack or be carried easily in hand when not in use.

7. Seek packed terrain.

Running in the snow is hard enough. You don’t need to break trail in fresh snow for a good workout, and doing so for any length of time will torch your hip flexors (and your energy in general). Seek out fire roads that snowmobiles or other winter vehicles may have packed down for an enjoyable running surface.

8. Be ready to hike/run.

When running on snowshoes, be ready to hike some and run some. Especially when you’re on singletrack trails, like the ones found at Nordic centers, the deep snow—even if it’s packed down—and twisty, turny nature of the trails will likely require some hiking.

9. In a race, get the hole shot.

Most snowshoe races start out on wide trails or paths, but soon head into singletrack through the woods. Know that it’s extremely difficult to pass other runners when the trail is surrounded by snow, so if you’re hoping to place well in a race, know where the singletrack starts and consider pushing hard to get there for a position you’ll be happy with until the trail pops back out into wider terrain.

10. Have fun!

The very nature of snowshoe running—frolicking through a winter wonderland with ingenious gear strapped to your feet—begs to put a smile on your face. And while you might be suffering from the hard work, especially on a run or race at altitude and in the cold, be sure to enjoy yourself.

Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She writes for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Men's Health and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.