Snowshoeing as a Sport: Health and Exercise

Since the pandemic, people have been forced to turn to ‘socially-distanced’ pastimes – most of them indoors and sedentary. All true – until it snowed and snowshoes caught our eye. Snowshoeing is an affordable, beginner-friendly, healthy activity that allows you to step out of your house whilst following socially distancing. Finding this too good to be true? Read on to know for yourself.

Snowshoeing as a Fitness Exercise

Even before it became the new rage, thanks to the coronavirus, snowshoeing was a popular fitness activity. It first began as a necessary means of transportation across snowy paths and later evolved into an effective workout regimen. It makes for a great fitness exercise because of the following reasons:

Highly Accessible

What makes snowshoeing so popular is its accessibility to all. Because it is a low-impact exercise, it’s equally suitable for all age groups, body types, and strength levels. Not only that, but it’s also great for low-capability groups, such as seniors, convalescents, pregnant women, or those struggling with excessive weight. The snow acts as a buffer between the hard ground and your joints, easing some of the pressure on your joints.

snowshoeing health exercise

Therefore, people who are advised to keep the weight off their knees, hip-joints, and ankles can feel confident picking snowshoeing as a sport in contrast to heavy-impact sports like snowboarding and skiing. Furthermore, individuals can adjust their snowshoeing experience to their own fitness levels; depending on your preferences, you can either take a casual stroll in the park or embark on a steep hike for a major burnout.

For instance, overweight individuals who struggle with stamina or pregnant women who are advised not to engage in strenuous physical activity for extended periods of time can simply choose to hike across a flat, snow-covered surface for a little while. In contrast, young aspiring athletes who are all set to test their strength can choose to trek down a steep hill and take all the detours of a true snowshoeing adventure.

Very Easy

Snowshoeing is also a great fitness routine to try out because it is extremely easy to pick up on. You do not need extensive training or professional certificates – or even one class at your local sports center. Just pick up your snowshoes, layer up, get a bottle of water, and head out in the snow.

However, for trickier paths, like uphill or downhill treks, it is recommended that snowshoers travel in groups and learn properly how to traverse the various terrains. Regardless, this is not an activity with stringent rules. You can learn as you go and have fun as you learn.

Affordable

The fact that anyone can do it does not only refer to the physical aspect of the exercise. Another key factor making the activity widely accessible is the financial side of things. Many sports have become a heritage of sorts – only those who engage in them continue to engage in them. Beginners, or audiences keenly watching from the outside, are often hesitant to take up a new sport because of the jarring cost associated with it. However, snowshoeing poses no such problem.

All you really need to invest in is snowshoes, and the rest is optional. Snowshoeing gear is nothing you will not already own, and even if it needs to be purchased, especially for the purpose, the expense will not break the bank. Snowshoes, trekking poles, winter clothing, and backpacks are all easily available and at low prices. Therefore, beginners and those unsure of whether they will keep up with the sport have no qualms going out and trying it out once.

Immediate Health Benefits of Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is not just another activity that you will try out and abandon in a day or three. This exercise comes with benefits that you can reap almost immediately – and, therefore, get hooked on to.

snowshoeing health benefits

Great Cardio

Like any aerobic workout, snowshoeing also qualifies as a heavy cardiovascular exercise. An hour of the sport will burn approximately 600 calories, on average. This is nearly 45% more calories burnt than the same hour of regular walking or even regular running. The long-term benefits of cardiovascular activities are something to be discussed later; for now, even the immediate gains have us convinced to take out our snowshoes and head out.

Firstly, the physical exertion will immediately cause the heart to pump faster, sending more blood out to the lungs and the muscles. As the lungs get more blood, they are able to breathe better and take in more oxygen. This oxygen, in turn, will be supplied to the brain as well as the muscular cells. The immediate impact of an increased oxygen supply to body cells is a less cluttered brain, the ability to think clearer and feel better.

Alleviates Muscle Soreness

As the muscles get more oxygen, they are able to work themselves more. The sweat produced, as a result, helps flush out toxins from the body and also alleviates any muscle stiffness and soreness. Your body will immediately feel warmer and lighter, and your head clearer. Moreover, as you step out in the outdoors, you also expose yourself to the sun. This encourages the production of Vitamin D in the body, and an hour of exposure will help you meet your daily Vitamin D requirement.

Makes You Feel Better

The winter sun also has a direct impact on the levels of serotonin in the human body: simply put, this means that you can feel calmer just by spending that hour out in the sun as you trek your way across the snow.

Improves Sleep

Yet another immediate health benefit of snowshoeing is better sleep. As the muscles work their way during the day, at night, the body will have higher doses of melatonin present, which promises a night’s sound sleep.

Helps Fight Off the Winter Blues

Snowshoeing is not only about the physical benefits. As people fight the winter blues locked up in their homes, stress relief is direly needed. And snowshoeing is just the answer. Imagine leaving your house to take a leisurely stroll across the snow-covered path, taking a moment to reflect and take in the beauty of the world. Now add to it the weight of your snowshoes and all the negative energy leaving your muscles as they help you tread the snowy terrain.

Not only will the outdoors bust your stress just on their own, but the workout will also help release toxins from the body, all the while releasing happy hormones to bring that smile back on your face. At times, this break is all one needs to get out of the rut and face life’s battles again.

Reduces Stress

Snowshoeing can also reduce stress by offering you a chance to socialize. People often meet up with other snowshoers while on their way out. This social bonding can not only help you put your troubles away, but it can also put your brain at ease. There is substantial research reaffirming that social connections are imperative for good brain health and are directly related to happiness and fulfillment in life.

Long-term Health Benefits of Snowshoeing

Apart from the immediate benefits that a day or two of snowshoeing can promise you, there also exist some long-term gains. All that is asked of you is regularity and dedication.

Mental Health Exercise

Snowshoeing, like any other physical activity, greatly aids with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems that affect people in their day to day lives.

How, you ask?

Firstly, winter blues are a real concern. Most people complain that mental health concerns aggravate as the weather turns colder. In part, that has to do with the fact that most of us restrict ourselves to the indoors in lower temperatures. And there exactly goes the first mental health benefit of snowshoeing: a change of air and a fresh perspective as you spend time outdoors.

snowshoeing mental health

Then comes the fact that an outdoor activity such as snowshoeing offers a challenge to the mind and helps you feel more in control. You get to decide your own pre-workout routine, the gear to use, the terrain to take, the time to spend, and all of these decisions, albeit seemingly inconsequential, help fine-tune the brain.

You will inevitably feel more relaxed as you exercise your inner locus of control. For introverts, this ‘socially-distanced’ activity also presents an opportunity to spend alone to reflect and recharge.

While, for some, snowshoeing is an activity to enjoy alone, for others, it’s a social activity. People can choose to trek as groups and use that time as a social experience. Human connection and bonding help the brain like nothing else. People report feeling happier, more fulfilled, and less worried after having spent time with others, especially while working towards a common goal of engaging in a shared activity.

Cardiovascular Benefits

Stress is not all that snowshoeing kills. It also addresses heart issues and associated problems.

Snowshoeing is an aerobic activity. This means that it really gets the heart pumping as you go. In turn, that increases blood flow to your lungs and muscles, supplying more oxygen to the cells. Oxygen, as is common knowledge, is the primary ingredient in life.

Over time, especially if continued regularly for years, snowshoeing can decrease the likelihood of heart disease. We can also claim that like all other aerobic exercises, snowshoeing, if done regularly, may also result in a healthier, longer life.

Muscular Strength

Apart from the mental and cardiovascular health benefits, snowshoeing is also a great workout for building muscle strength.

Just like in walking or running, the quadriceps are intensely involved in snowshoeing. The only difference is, the workout is at least three times stronger. The hamstrings, glutes, and calves also get a good burn since the legs do a lot of the work, carrying your weight and helping you cover distance.

Moreover, with the right set of pre-workout stretches and training, coupled with the correct posture, the lower back and shoulder muscles are also involved as they take some of the pressure off the legs. This is great news not only for those looking for strength but also for those who want to give their muscles a pump for their summer body preparation. Just know, the secret to building muscle mass is consistency.

Snowshoeing for Losing Weight

Snowshoeing is not only for those who love the outdoors or are sporty. It is also a great choice of activity for people looking for a fun way to lose weight. Unlike fad diets or extreme workouts that are unsustainable in the long run and also extremely unhealthy, snowshoeing will gradually build muscle and burn fat. This makes it a super healthy choice of workout for weight-loss purposes.

A minute of snowshoeing burns 45% more calories than a minute of walking or even running at the same pace. This is due to the added weight of the snowshoes on your feet, the additional resistance provided by layers of snow, and the increased metabolic rate thanks to the low temperatures.

The exact number of calories burnt depends on the individual’s Body Mass Index, the weight of supplies and snowshoeing gear carried, the speed of the trek, the terrain being taken, the temperature, and some more factors.

That being said, a study by the University of Vermont posits that the average snowshoer can burn anywhere from 420-1000 calories per hour of trekking. For most people falling within the average range of body weight and physical activity, this represents a healthy workout.

Pre-Season Training

Being prepared is key to making the most of the snowshoeing season. The earlier you start training, the better shape you will be in once the snow sets in. Not only that, but pre-season training will also prepare your muscles and prevent knee or lower back injuries.

The best time to begin is at least six weeks early. This gives your body enough time to first get limber, explore its full range of motion, and then get comfortable with strenuous exercise. It also helps build stamina and breath control, both of which are important when it comes to an activity such as snowshoeing. Here are some exercises to kick off your preparation with.

Lunges

To develop a stronger and longer stride, it is imperative for the psoas muscles (muscles involved in taking forward steps) to be limber. This move helps with exactly that.

Stand on your left foot and place your right foot about a leg’s length back. Then bend your left knee while lunging down. Make sure your right leg is straight or just slightly bent, and also align your left knee on top of your left ankle. Once you are in the right position, lay both your hands over your left thigh, straighten your shoulders, tuck in your lower back, and feel your psoas muscles stretch. Repeat with the other leg.

Psoas muscles, if relaxed and stretched out, i.e., in good shape, will relieve and also prevent back pain. This will make a huge difference in your snowshoeing experience: your psoas muscles will be ready to take on the load as you run on your snowshoes.

Spinal Twist

It’s not only the lower back that matters for snowshoers; in fact, the upper back is just as important. If the upper body is tight and unable to explore its full range of motion, the shoulders will take all the impact of the many arm movements you make. This can cause all sorts of problems, from mild inflammation to a proper frozen shoulder. However, spinal twists can help prevent these.

Start by standing with your feet slightly apart. Then take a step forward and stop mid-stride. Now, as both your feet are placed stably on the floor, stretch out your arms to one side. Move one arm right behind you while you bring the other arm in front of you.

Twist from the hips to the shoulders while slightly twisting the body. Hold the pose for at least a minute, and then change sides.

The spinal twist can be modified as per your own preference. Try different ways as you go and see which suits you best.

Hamstring Stretch

Tight hamstrings are a snowshoer’s biggest woe. Your legs carry all your weight, as well as the weight of your supplies – if the hamstrings are not strong enough, the knees will take on all the impact and might give in soon. Let’s just say the health of your hamstrings will determine how far you go on your hike.

If we have you convinced now, prepare for a hamstring stretch. Place your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. Now, begin tipping forward by lifting your tailbone up. Align your spine, so it is parallel to the floor, and then plant your hands just below the knees. To ensure your position is correct, do not let yourself round your lower back.

A common tip for this is to imagine that your pelvis is a bowl of water, and you wish to slowly pour the water on your toes.

Depending on your flexibility, this stance is either how far you can go or just the beginning. If you feel you can continue moving forward, stretch the top of your head towards your feet and relax your arms as you do. At this point, you should feel your hamstrings really stretch and burn. Hold the position for 30 seconds or for as long as you can. Six repetitions for one or two sets should do the trick.

Religiously following these tips and exercising at least six weeks before snow falls will train your body well for the upcoming snowshoeing season. You can also change up the exercises according to your strength and stamina.

Stretch Routine

Anyone who works out in any form or way knows the rule: warm up before you head out. Snowshoeing is no different. In fact, since snowshoeing involves longer periods of time at higher temperatures, thereby requiring more energy and engaging more muscles, stretching for snowshoeing becomes all the more important.

In colder weather, your muscles tend to become tight and stiff and more prone to injury than usual. Subjecting them to sudden physical activity in that stiff state then poses a risk of muscle strain, muscle damage, and joint pain. When it comes to snowshoeing, this will impact the lower back, knees, and legs the most. This explains why lower back pain, knee pain, and hamstring problems are the most common complaints snowshoers have.

To prevent these problems, ensure a round of stretching before each snowshoeing run. The stretches are simple, but the benefits are big. We recommend ten to fifteen minutes of a series of:

  • Standing forward bends
  • Standing calf stretches
  • Heel drop stretches
  • Standing quad stretches

This basic stretching routine prior to snowshoeing will safeguard your hamstrings and lower back from sprains and pains and keep your limbs flexible and healthy. Whether you’re a professional snowshoer or a hobbyist, health and safety are equally important for you to enjoy the sport.

Common Injuries for Snowshoers

Like all else, snowshoeing also comes with its own set of problems. These include:

Hypothermia

Since snowshoeing takes place in low-temperature, snow-covered settings and can often take a couple of hours at a time, there’s the natural risk of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is not just ‘feeling cold.’ It is when the body reaches uncomfortably low temperatures (35C/95F), and muscles cease to function optimally. Hypothermic individuals get slurred speech and lose their balance. If worsened, their pulse will weaken, and their breathing will get heavy. When it comes to hypothermia, prevention is key.

Layer up with warm clothing, and keep your body well hydrated since the fluid also helps with thermoregulation. Similarly, for frostbite, the best solution is prevention: wear proper snowshoeing gear to protect your limbs from low temperatures, and drink plenty of fluids.

Knee Injury

Another ailment associated with snowshoeing is a knee injury. These injuries range from mild knee pain and discomfort to severe tendonitis and ligament tears and must be guarded against.

Chondromalacia

The most common problem snowshoers face is Chondromalacia, also known as Hiker’s Knee. As one misstep causes you to plummet through the snow, dragging your bodyweight against your legs, your knees brace themselves for the impact. This tightens and stretches the unprepared tendons and ligaments, eventually leading to severe pain around and underneath the kneecap.

Chondromalacia can make downhill treks – even one down the stairs in your house – particularly uncomfortable. Not only that, but a knee once injured is more prone to new injuries in the future. For this reason, snowshoers are encouraged to wear knee braces to provide additional support to the knees.

The use of trekking poles also divides the load with the knees and will ease the pressure off them. Apart from this, a regular routine of leg exercises such as squats and weighted leg extensions will strengthen your quadriceps and take off added pressure from the knees.