Have you heard the saying, "if you can walk, you can snowshoe"? It's true. Snowshoeing is easy, and yet it can provide a better workout than almost any sport. At an intense level, snowshoe training can improve your fitness even more than running.
Whether you opt for a walk in the woods, a run on packed trails, or a hike through fresh powder, snowshoeing is a great way to enjoy the snow this winter. Head for a hiking trail, golf course, snowshoe trail at a ski resort, or anywhere with at least six inches of snow—and go!
"Even if you snowshoe slowly—about two miles per hour—your caloric expenditure will be about eight calories per minute, or 480 calories per hour," says Declan Connolly, PhD, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Vermont. If you step up the pace to three miles per hour, Connolly says, you can burn up to 1,000 calories in an hour. Caloric consumption, however, is not the only benefit of snowshoeing.
Connolly and his colleagues have conducted a number of studies in the past few years to test the effects of a snowshoe workout. In addition to burning a ton of calories, they found that snowshoeing leads to significant improvements in workout time to exhaustion and VO2 Max (maximum lung capacity). In fact, athletes completing a snowshoe training program showed greater improvement in VO2 Max than athletes who completed a similar running program.
So what does this mean to you? Bottom line: If you strap on a pair of snowshoes and hit the trails, you are going to get a killer workout.
Thoughts of VO2 Max are not likely to get you out on snowshoes when you're spending a weekend in the mountains or contemplating leaving your warm bed. Luckily, there's much more to snowshoeing.
"I love the trails, the forest, and exploring beautiful places," says Danelle Ballangee, one of the top snowshoe athletes in the United States. "Snowshoeing is so peaceful and quiet, and you can go anywhere." Ballangee, who has been undefeated in women's snowshoe racing for three seasons, is a top multisport athlete. USA Track & Field named her 1999 mountain runner of the year, 1997 duathlete of the year, and 1996 multisport athlete of the ear. She has completed the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon five times, qualified for the Olympic Trials, and competed in the Eco-Challenge. But snowshoeing has become her favorite sport.
"When I started, snowshoeing was something I did to keep in shape during the winter," Ballangee says. "Now, I train in the summer to get in shape for snowshoe racing." For all athletes, she says, snowshoeing "is a great way to cross train and improve fitness." Snowshoeing is the most important part of Ballangee's workout routine, which also includes running, cycling, cross-country skiing, paddling, and weight training.
Ballangee measures her snowshoe workouts by time rather than distance. She explains that when you are breaking trail in deep powder, you won't go fast or far, but you'll be working hard. On packed trails, you can pick up the pace and log some serious mileage.
Unlike many winter sports, snowshoeing does not require that you go broke buying equipment. "All you need are snowshoes and warm clothes," Ballangee says. "You can wear an old pair of tennis shoes—I put Scotchguard on mine and wear wool blend or synthetic socks." That's fine for shorter jaunts. Ballangee reminds snowshoers planning longer hikes, "If you'll be out for longer than two hours, you need a bulky, Gore-tex, shoe or boot and heavier socks."
With recent improvements in snowshoe technology, there is no one best kind of snowshoe, Ballangee says. She explains that many different models work for running and walking, and individual preference is important. Try out different kinds of snowshoes and see which work best for what you want to do.
Ballangee has one more important tip for beginners: Don't try too hard. "Snowshoeing really is just like walking or running. You don't need to do much that's different," she explains. "It might feel funny for the first few steps, but keep a natural stride and you'll get the hang of it quickly."
Snowshoeing is "low-impact, so there is much less muscle damage than road running," Connolly says. Ballangee adds, "You don't get the long-term repetitive injuries that you see in running or cycling, because every step is a little different."
Still, there are steps you can take to make snowshoeing even safer. "Get a light cardiovascular warm-up, either inside or outside, and take time to stretch," advises Cheryl Reed, ATC, LAT. Starting with a warm-up is important with all sports, but it is particularly important when you are exercising in cold weather, Reed explains.
Reed also recommends that beginners "don't go out for an hour or more at a time right away. Build up your ability, and develop strength and flexibility in your lower body."
"Flexibility is very important," Ballangee agrees. "You may post hole (ie, your snowshoe may suddenly sink into deep powder) and then you'll really have to work your hip flexors and butt muscles. Make sure you stretch those." Another place you might feel the burn is in your calf muscles. Ballangee advises that you don't run or walk on your toes for longer than short sprints or hill climbs. Think about strengthening and stretching your ankle muscles, too.
Snowshoeing is a non-contact sport, but branches and twigs don't know that. If you run into them, they might poke you in the eye, so be careful. Ballangee wears glasses when she's running a trail she doesn't know well.
A warm-up won't do much good if you are not properly dressed. "Wear high-tech fibers to wick away moisture" next to your skin, says Ballangee. You may work up quite a sweat, which can make you cold. To keep moisture from the outside on the outside, Ballangee recommends wearing a waterproof shell and pants "so the snow falls off."
If the weather is especially cold, Reed suggests wearing "lots of layers." She also reminds you to "wear a hat and gloves (not cotton)." Feet are prone to cold, so Ballangee stresses the importance of a wool blend or neoprene sock.
In cold weather, frostbite and hypothermia are potential dangers. "Be aware of your body at all times," Ballangee says. Snowshoeing can keep you warm, but "if you get lost or you're out for a long time, you can run into trouble," she adds. Go on familiar trails and let someone know where you are. If you're exploring a new area, get a map and go with a buddy or a group.