For ultra marathon runners in New England, snowshoe running is an ideal complement to a training routine. Because ultra runners have long training cycles, sometimes it’s difficult to avoid training for races during the winter months. But snowshoe running can seem a little intimidating.
In 2018, I’d never even gone walking in snowshoes, much less running. But I borrowed a pair of snowshoes and headed out with my friends into the fresh powder. As our footsteps crunched in the crisp snow, the sound rang through the woods in contrast to the silent and cold air, and it made me wish I had started years before.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was fortunate to be snowshoeing for the first time with some very experienced friends.
But if you don’t have a group of pals who have been doing this for decades, how do you get started?
For those who want to start snowshoe running, it is crucial to pick out the best snowshoes. “Get the smallest you can get away with,” says award-winning snowshoe runner and co-founder of Dion Snowshoes Bob Dion. When he first designed his snowshoes, he wanted to make them as small and narrow as possible. “If you’re running with a large snowshoe, you have to match your stride to that large snowshoe…when we designed ours, the top priority was that the binding made the snowshoe a part of your foot. It’s like having an extra pair of socks on.”
A key to making snowshoe running accessible is to make sure equipment is available at races for people to rent or borrow. Dion advises against feeling like you need to buy snowshoes your first time running. His wife, Denise Dion, also a co-founder of Dion Snowshoes and an award-winning snowshoe runner, suggests that some people are obsessed with having the lightest snowshoe possible, so some designers try to take important elements off the snowshoe to make it more lightweight. But Dion wants to make sure you have the things you need, regardless of weight, to make your foot feel one with the snowshoe.
In addition to having the appropriate equipment, a growth mindset is essential. Sarah Canney, who offers snowshoe running retreats for women through her company Rise.Run.Retreat, advises newcomers to “be prepared to get a little cold and wet, and to be slower than you’re used to. Don’t look at your watch, or you will get discouraged. If you can wrap your head around that and embrace it, you’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Canney, who was the 2020 World Snowshoe Championships Bronze Medalist, suggests wearing waterproof trail running shoes, or duct taping your shoes to seal off the mesh. The drier you stay, the longer you can keep running. Gaiters over your shoes will help keep snow out, and tall socks will protect your ankles from getting banged by the opposite snowshoe. A great pair of tights is essential for snowshoe running. Canney’s favorite option is the Kari Traa Tirill Tight, because it has waterproof paneling across the backside and is wind resistant. This paneling is important because as you run, you kick up a large amount of snow onto the backside of your body. If you’re not properly protected, you’re going to get a pretty chilly behind. It is also recommended to wear running shorts over the top of your leggings. Loose, slippery nylon shorts will help the snow fall off and keep you dry. Top it all off with a vest, a running jacket or raincoat to keep moisture out.
Snowshoe running is a sport that, like ultra running, is highly dependent upon conditions, so your experience can really depend on outside factors. According to Canney, “Some people think snowshoe running is just road running, but on snow. But that’s not the case.”
Because snowshoe running is so dependent upon conditions, the same race may be won in 20 minutes one year, or an hour and a half the next year. In this way, snowshoe running is a great complement to ultra running. The experience an ultra runner has in a race can vary from year to year depending on weather, trail conditions and other factors. It is not easy for an ultra runner to set a target pace for a race, because so many variables factor into that pace. The pace needs to be targeted by effort for both ultra runners and snowshoe runners.
For both Canney and the Dions, this variability is one of the best things about snowshoe running. “With snowshoe running, every race and every season is different,” Canney says. “Because the condition of the snow changes and is so variable, you can’t depend on comparing yourself year over year, or race to race. The snow, the course, and the feel of the course all factor in. In that sense, I’m never really focused on pace. This has allowed me to focus on effort and be in my body and in the moment. This has freed me up to get out of my head, and because of that it’s allowed me to have more success.”
For slower runners, variability of conditions while snowshoe racing can be an added element of fun. While racing on snowshoes, runners tend to get less spread out than on the roads, because due to snow conditions, there is often less difference in pace from the leaders to the back of the pack.
Snowshoe running can help renew a childlike love of winter. Winter doesn’t feel like something to survive, but a season to enjoy. According to Canney, before she discovered snowshoe running in 2014, she loathed winter and complained about it constantly. That year, winter conditions were particularly bad and were negatively affecting Canney’s training. By chance, she saw a listing for a nighttime snowshoe race. With no experience, she went, rented snowshoes and placed third in the race. She fell in love with the sport, and her attitude toward winter changed.
Snowshoe running can add a lot to a training routine for ultra runners. Canney, who is a RRCA and USATF Level One Certified Running Coach, believes that snowshoe running is extremely beneficial for building leg strength, cardiovascular strength and endurance. Leg strength is developed faster, because moving through the snow makes your knee drive higher than normal, and sometimes every snowshoe run can feel like a tempo run because your heart rate gets so high so fast. Bob Dion agrees, “About the best training you can get. Plus, if you fall, it doesn’t hurt because of the soft snow!”
For Canney, running on snowshoes has allowed her to better tap into her athletic potential. “When you’re not caught up in your head, and not calculating pace or thinking about outcome, you can find that state of flow. It’s a pretty elusive state that allows you to be in your body more. I feel like I can get in that space more easily and naturally in snowshoes, and practicing this in snowshoes has allowed me to reach that place easier in trail and mountain running.”
At the end of my conversation with Dion, I asked for his favorite snowshoe running memory. I could hear the smile in his voice as he told me about racing in Western Mass through two feet of fresh snow, with more coming down. Due to the strain of clearing fresh snow, the leaders were only about 100 yards in front of the rest of the field. Any snowshoe runner knows that breaking a fresh trail is a lot harder than cruising along groomed Nordic trails.
At this race, it was so difficult for the front pack, that they started actively taking turns leading the field. The leader would break trail for 30 seconds before moving to the back of the line. As they neared the finish line, almost the entire race field was bunched together in one pack.
The group saw the finish line, and competitive juices kicked in. All racing to be the first one there, the snow kicked up from their shoes created near whiteout conditions. The timing volunteers and photographer could hardly differentiate one runner from another. “I’m not sure how they figured placement out,” laughed Bob, “But that day was a perfect one out in the snow.”