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Racers compete in the 10km Switchback Challenge, a high endurance snowshoe race along the Bruce Trail at Craigleith Ski Club in Craigleith, Ont., Feb. 20, 2011.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Kelly Ann Wald started running a little over two years ago on the trails near her home in Barrie, Ont., which, given that it was wintertime, were covered in snow. Looking for ways to increase her range, she discovered running-specific snowshoes and a series of races to go with them. "I want to stay out on the trails all winter, and snowshoe running allows me to do that," she says. "As the snow gets deeper, you can go further."

Though it's hard to track numbers – a lot depends on the season's snowfall – both snowshoeing and snowshoe running are increasing in popularity. According to U.S. data from the Outdoor Industry Association, participation in snowshoeing has increased more than 40 per cent since 2008.

Competitive runner and personal trainer Derrick Spafford, who heads up the Dion Eastern Ontario Snowshoe Running Series, partially attributes the increase to the rise of trail running as a whole. "At this point [snowshoe running] is not in the Olympics, but there's been a push in that direction," he says.

It's certainly gruelling enough to challenge any gold-medal hopeful. Snowshoe running is a tough workout, requiring more power than road running, especially when plowing through deep snow, which requires high-knee manoeuvres. For this reason, Spafford notes, it's become a favourite cross-training activity for cyclists and triathletes, who initially have an easier time than runners "because of the strength they have in their quads." Calorie burn depends a lot on conditions – the hilly trails I tried at British Columbia's Silver Star Mountain Resort had me gasping for breath sooner than any treadmill workout, whereas flatter routes make for easier cardio – but you're looking at something in the range of 500 to 600 an hour, about double what you'd burn walking.

That said, Spafford adds, "if you can run or hike, you can snowshoe run." There's little to no learning curve, and the equipment is affordable – Mountain Equipment Co-op sells a pair of Atlas running snowshoes for $195, a far cry from prices for ski gear. Running snowshoes are narrower and lighter than your standard model, allowing for a more natural running stride, and typically worn with trail running shoes, preferably with some water protection. Road runners should expect their normal pace to be significantly slower, says Spafford. "If I normally run 5k in a half hour, it could well take me 45 minutes or an hour to do that same distance on snowshoes," he says.

Grace Hiom, co-founder of the Dirty Feet trail series in south-central B.C., started snowshoeing when she lived in Calgary and was looking for the "least expensive winter sport." While in Alberta, she helped start up low-key 5K and 10K snowshoe races at Mount Norquay. After moving to Kamloops, B.C., she took advantage of the region's quality snow and ski hills to launch snowshoe races at Sun Peaks, Silver Star, Big White and Stake Lake Nordic Centre. And while the top racers are serious competitors – a recent finisher did the 10K route in 51 minutes, lightning fast for the sport – the events are called fun runs and walks on purpose to encourage everyone to give it a shot.

"Snowshoe racing is beautiful," says Daniel DesRosiers, who runs Quebec snowshoe-racing resource Raquette Quebec and trail race series Courses en Forêt, and helped organize last year's world snowshoe championship in la belle province. "It's an awesome cardio workout, you don't have to worry about waxing your skis – you just put [on] your snowshoes and you go."

And while each race event has its own character, there's one thing they all have in common: a sense of taking advantage of winter weather rather than hiding from it, and, yes, of playing in the snow. "When you go to a race, everybody's in good spirits," says Wald. "You take off and there's snow flicking everywhere and you hear the snowshoes and it's playful and fun."


The Yeti Snowshoe Series

March 2: Blue Mountain, Ont., and Whistler, B.C.

March 9: Edmonton

Tubbs Romp to Stomp Snowshoe Series

March 2: Mount Seymour, B.C.

Dirty Feet Trail Series

March 3: Sun Peaks, B.C.