Snowshoe Running as Cross Training or Between Seasons Training
Interview with Meghan Hicks
Originally published March 8th, 2012
Bryon Powell photo credit
Meghan M. Hicks is a freelance writer, iRunFar.com's Senior Editor, and a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine. When not writing, she enjoys trail running, hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing as means to visit the world's wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her website (link:http://www.meghanmhicks.com/).
Meghan: I have a vague memory of snowshoeing in grade-school gym class. Our gym teacher strapped us into snowshoes (and cross country skis) and we tooled around the school's property. There were a lot of kids and just one gym teacher, so we received minimal instruction. I remember liking snowshoes better than cross-country skis because I didn't fall over in them.
As an adult, I acquired my first pair of snowshoes when I moved to Wyoming to work in Yellowstone National Park in 2005. My main hobbies are running and hiking, and getting a pair of snowshoes allowed me to keep doing this stuff in winter. Snowshoes increase the surface area of your feet. Distributing your body weight over that increased area allows you to stay on top of the snow rather than fall through it. That year, I bought the Atlas Run snowshoes, light enough to run in, too. I used them to hike, run on packed and groomed surfaces and, eventually, to run a couple snowshoe races.
The best part about snowshoeing, I think, goes back to my experience with them in grade school, they don't require a skill set to use. If you're able-bodied, you can snowshoe. Snowshoeing, no matter what kind you're doing, is an aerobic activity. But, the snowshoes themselves, as well as the places they'll take you, add a fun/an adventure factor that you don't automatically get out of just running or walking.
I've previously worked as a snowshoe guide, taking people of all ages out on snowshoe hikes. Kids are great snowshoers. We strap them into kid-sized snowshoes and they just zoom, begging for their parents to keep up. Some snowshoe racing events have kid races, where kids "run" a short distance in snowshoes. I put the word "run" in quotes because, if you've ever tried running in snowshoes, it's challenging from both an aerobic and muscle-strength standpoint. And that's for us adults! Kids can run in snowshoes over pretty short distances. Distance doesn't matter to them, though, because they love it.
Bryon Powell photo credit
Mick: Do you have any advice for selecting equipment?
Meghan: Luckily, snowshoes are made with adjustable buckling systems, which fasten the snowshoes to shoes or winter boots. Because of this, parents can buy kids a pair of snowshoes that they won't grow out of for a long time. I'm partial to snowshoes made by Atlas. If I were a parent of a kid in grade or middle school, I'd purchase them one of Atlas' kids models (They have gender-specific models.). If my child was high-school age, I'd probably buy him or her one of the adult models. Atlas has a couple snowshoe made specifically for running, so perhaps I'd buy one of those if my child
expressed interest in specifically running in snowshoes, as opposed to hiking.
Mick: Do you wear special shoes? Boots? Can you wear your running shoes?
Meghan: There are a couple ways you can go with footwear in snowshoeing. The goal, of course, is to keep your feet warm and dry.
If you plan to strictly hike/walk in snowshoes, I’d recommend waterproof snow or hiking boots with a knee-high waterproof gator. With this set-up, you’re pretty bulletproof from all things cold and wet.
For snowshoe running, I recommend using a running shoe with some sort of waterproof membrane, Gore-Tex or the like. Even if you’re traveling on a packed-snow surface, you’ll be flinging snow around as you run and waterproof shoes will help keep your feet dry. If you think you’ll be running in loose snow, add on a gaiter, either shin-high or knee-high, to ensure your feet stay dry.
Mick: Do you use ski poles?
Meghan: For snowshoe running, I wouldn’t use ski poles. You’ll probably find that they’ll be a bit of a nuisance to your forward progress.
Snowshoe hiking/walking, on the other hand, is often made a lot easier with poles. You can use hiking poles or ski poles, as either will do the trick.
Mick: Do you wear special clothing?
Meghan: If you plan to snowshoe run, dress as if you are going out for a winter run on bare ground. Layer up and wear clothing that wicks heat and sweat away from your body. You’ll find that snowshoe running is decent work and you’ll be working up a sweat!
In winter, I’ll typically wear a thin wool base layer with a half zip shirt and either a nylon windbreaker or a thicker softshell jacket, depending on temperatures. I wear a stocking cap and gloves, and I always bring an extra pair of mittens to slip on over my gloves if my fingers start getting cold. On the really, really cold winter days, I’ll add a midlayer, too, a thick wool half-zip shirt.
Mick: How many minutes might be good to start with?
Meghan: To be honest, I'd be surprised if any kid could run in snowshoes for more than a minute or so their first few times out. It's hard work! I'd recommend parents take kids on, say, a 30 minute to one-hour snowshoe hike, depending on their age an enthusiasm, and incorporate a little running/sprinting/play while out there.
Mick: Do you think snowshoe running is lower impact than running? (a lot/a little?).
Meghan: Snowshoe running is definitely lower impact than running on roads or bare dirt. You will feel less pounding in the hips, knees, ankles, and feet.
That said, because you're running over an uneven, snowy surface that gives a little here and there, snowshoe running requires the use of the legs' accessory muscles more so than running on the roads. Some people, after a long snowshoe outing, might say that their hip flexors or their hip adductor muscles are sore. This is totally normal because they are used a lot more in snowshoe running than in normal walking or running.
Mick: What does snowshoe running feel like compared to running? Is your stride/rhythm a lot different than running on roads or trails? Is there much difference in your stride rate/strides per minute?
Meghan: As compared to regular running, snowshoe running is, at first, harder! You'll notice that your heart rate is pretty high while snowshoe running at a slow pace. Good news, though! Your body gets used to it. If you keep going out on snowshoe-running outings, you'll find that it gets easier and easier.
The biggest difference between snowshoe running and regular running's stride/rhythm is that, in snowshoe running, you take shorter steps and your cadence is higher. As a snowshoe runner, you don't need to regulate this or intentionally run this way, though. Your body just adjusts on its own. Depending on snow conditions, you may find that you do need to intentionally pick your knees up a little higher so that your snowshoes clear the snow with each step.
All of this said, I recommend simply going out there and giving it a shot. Your body will figure things out through a little bit of trial and error. As I said before, snowshoe running is a simple sport that requires a minimal skill set. While it might seem intimidating, I promise it's gobs of fun and your body will adapt quickly!
Mick: Is there a certain amount of snow that is a minimum to run on, in your experience?
Meghan: I'd say eight or more inches of powder snow would cover most obstacles and would be enough snow that having snowshoes would making it easier for traveling. If you're going to be hiking or running on packed snow, only a couple inches of packed snow underfoot is needed, to cover the ground. It might seem funny to walk/run on just a couple inches of packed snow, but, without snowshoes, you might punch through the snow.
Mick: What are the differences between traditional snowshoes and running snowshoes?
Meghan: There isn't much of a fundamental difference between a running and walking snowshoe. Inherently, they are objects that strap onto your shoes and that increase the surface area of your feet so that you stay on top of instead of sinking into the snow.
But, lots of details go into making running snowshoes as light as possible so that you can move faster in them. For instance, lighter and, in some cases, less material is used to compose running snowshoes from their frame, platform, and buckling systems. To see the difference, check out Atlas' models of running snowshoes, as the result of this detail work is a simpler, sleeker snowshoe.
Mick: It seems like putting on a pair of snowshoes can help you get in some exercise on a snowy day where you might otherwise take the day off.
Meghan: Definitely! Snowshoes will, for certain, get you excited about the prospect of going out to run or play in the winter. In addition, snowshoes will take you to places you can't otherwise go in the winter, across the snow anywhere you want to go!