Whether you’re a trail running buff or a road runner, if you're looking to stoke that competitive fire when the temperature drops and the snow falls, look no further than snowshoe racing. Equal parts lung-busting workout and adventure trek, it's one of the hardest and most satisfying winter activities a runner could ask for. Although it may be the off-season, snowshoe running and racing is a great way to build fitness and cardiovascular endurance, all while enjoying the great outdoors.
Here in the Northland, the sport of snowshoe racing has been gaining a steady following over the past decade. Indeed, the United States Snowshoe Association is even working to get it on the Olympic roster. This means there is no shortage of events to test your skills, as well as top-of-the-line equipment to get you where you’re going. We consulted two top snowshoe athletes to gather tips on everything from technique to gear to get you started.
1. Identify the Best Footwear
Unlike tromping around in boots when you’re snowshoe hiking, racing requires running shoes. “For training I wear Gore-Tex running shoes to keep out the elements like cold, snow, and wind,” says Twin Cities-based athlete, Kelly Mortenson, who has run on three national teams in snowshoe racing and placed as high as second at the U.S. Championships. “For racing, I wear racing flats like I would for a running race because they are just so much lighter.” He also recommends sporting gaiters around your ankles to keep snow out of your shoes. While most races are held on groomed trails, any fresh powder in your shoes can make for a chilly experience.
2. Dress Appropriately
Don’t underestimate how much of a sweat you’ll work up snowshoe running. “I dress exactly how I dress on any normal winter run, with a few occasional exceptions—if it’s inordinately cold and windy, I wear a neck warmer to pull up over my nose and mouth if need be,” says Laurie Lambert, a three-time member of the U.S. National Snowshoe Team and a World Cup Bronze-medalist. Mortenson adds, “For socks, the thicker the better. There are some great brands out there like Smartwool, Darn Tough, or Wigwam that make great long socks to keep your feet warm.”
3. Select your Equipment
A number of companies make great racing snowshoes, including Atlas, Crescent Moon, Dion, Northern Lites, and Redfeather. “Each brand makes ‘racing’ snowshoes and general snowshoes, which are typically a full pound heavier than the racing ones,” explains Mortenson. While they can be difficult to find in stores, Midwest Mountaineering and REI usually keep them in stock, and there are plenty of online shops with great selections.
4. Warm Up
In the same way you might warm up for a road race, you should for a snowshoe race. “I always warm up before races with a slow, light jog and then a few bursts of all-out speed,” says Lambert. “For a normal workout, however, I merely use the snowshoe run itself as the warm-up by starting out very slowly.” Not only will warming up help you skirt injury, it’ll also get your muscles prepared to fire efficiently during competition.
5. Learn Technique
Running on flats feels relatively similar to regular running, except that you have a bit of extra weight on each foot. This simply means that, while your stride may be similar to when you’re road or trail running, the effort is considerably more. Hills are where things can get tricky. “On uphills, my one piece of advice is to make friends with the ascent—don’t fight it and take the hills one step at a time,” says Lambert. Once you’ve summited, the best approach to downhills is to simply let go. “I just let gravity take me and I try to fly down the hills,” says Mortenson. “I have never fallen on a downhill, but the snow is so soft, even if you do take a spill you’re not going to get hurt.”
6. Sign up for a Race
There are races in our region listed on the United States Snowshoe Association calendar, many of which are held in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. If you want to stay closer to home, there are also a number of events here in the Twin Cities, including the Winteriffic Snowshoe Race in Savage, the Twin Cities Snowshoe Shuffle in New Brighton, and the Snowshoe Loppet in Minneapolis. Cutemoose.net is another great resource for finding events near and far.