Snowshoe running as a sport is catching on, but is snowshoe running for you? Could you, (would you) lace up a pair of snowshoes, step outside of your comfort zone, enter the great outdoors and sign up for a snowshoe race? Jennifer Pinarski did and she just might have us convinced to try something new this winter.

Embracing Something New

I’m at the start line of the Dion Frontenac Snowshoe Race, surrounded by the natural beauty of the rugged Frontenac Provincial Park in Syndenham, Ontario. It is a perfect January winter’s day: the wind is still, a layer of fluffy snow blankets the Canadian Shield and the temperature hovers just above -10C.

But I’m also surrounded by some intense looking snowshoe athletes, dressed in head-to-toe spandex. Looking very much like triathletes or marathon runners – and from the look of their lean bodies, they’re probably both – a pack of 10 athletes sprint back and forth along the snowy hard packed trail as part of their warm up for the 6.7 kilometer race we’re about to start.

Keeping it Real

I am not sprinting, nor am I wearing (too much) spandex. I’m not even sure I have my snowshoes on correctly. You see, this is my first snowshoe race and I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

Race director Derrick Spafford shouts “go!” and with a few enthusiastic spectators ringing cowbells along the edge of the trail, I do my best to keep up with the back-of-the-pack runners. I do OK, until I trip over my own feet and land awkwardly into a snow bank, laughing as the snow billows up around me and finds its way down the neck of my jacket.

Can A Snowshoe Run Be Fun?

This snowshoe racing thing is harder than it looks – but it’s also the most fun I’ve had on snowshoes in a decade.

One of the fastest growing winter sports in North America, snowshoe racing combines the sports of running and snowshoeing to offer winter warriors a refreshing shakeup of their workout routines. Not everyone at the start line is an elite athlete, with participants ranging from age 11 to age 60 participating. For many, it’s also their first time on snowshoes, too.

“If you can run, you can snowshoe run,” says Spafford. The ultrarunner and coach with Spafford Health and Adventure organizes the popular Dion Ontario Snowshoe Running Series  a calendar of six races stretching from Ganaraska Forest to Cornwall.

And he’s right.

Get the Right Gear

After my initial tumble into the powder, I stay upright for the rest of the race. Much of the credit goes to the snowshoes I’m wearing – the ultralight Dion #121 Racing snowshoes. Decidedly modern, they bear no resemblance to the enormous backcountry snowshoes I use to hike through the bush. At a little over two pounds, these running-specific snowshoes are narrow enough to allow for a nearly natural running gait.

“You may be surprised that you are actually wearing snowshoes with how comfortable and efficient they are. The more time you spend on snowshoes, the more comfortable you will be with them,” notes Spafford.

Many races offer free or low-cost snowshoe rentals to encourage newbies to try out the sport. Expect to spend $200 to $300 in a pair of high-quality running snowshoes, but it’s a worthwhile investment if you fall in love with the sport and plan to race often.

As for clothing and shoes, you can wear the same gear you wear for winter running: a sweat wicking base layer, windproof and waterproof outer layer, merino wool socks and trail running shoes. Gaiters, an optional waterproof ankle covering, can be worn to keep snow out of your shoes.But don’t over dress. “After a few short minutes, you will be working hard and it’s very easy to overheat.”  Spafford cautions. There’s few winter cardio workouts as effective as snowshoe running.

A Little Training Helps

Training for your first snowshoe race is like training for a running race. Ideally, you should train on running snowshoes, but if you don’t have access to running snowshoes, Spafford suggests one or two elliptical or stair climber workouts each week, which target the same muscles you use in snowshoe racing. If you are running on roads or trails rather than indoors, add in sprints and hill repeats, which will help you speed over the course.

 With races coast to coast across Canada (Get Out There Magazine has a comprehensive list), snowshoe running is a fun and affordable way to beat the winter blues – most races cost a fraction of what summertime road running races cost. So switch up your workout routine by strapping on a pair of snowshoes.

I’ll see you at the start line.