What’s So Special About Nordic Walking?
Never heard of Nordic Walking? Not surprising. It’s big in Europe where it was invented as bare-ground training for cross-country skiers. But it hasn’t really caught on here, at least not yet.
Which is a shame. Many of us walk for exercise and most of us have only a limited amount of time to do it. Nordic Walking lets you get more for every mile and minute you walk by engaging the muscles of your arms and torso to help propel you forward. Basically, you move faster, farther, get your heart rate higher, and burn more calories. A study by the Cooper Institute (the folks who invented the term “aerobic exercise,”) found that Nordic Walking beat regular walking by about 20% for oxygen use and calories burned—nice bonus.
The first time I heard about Nordic Walking, I immediately laughed out loud and made three smug assumptions.
First, I assumed it was nothing more than a gimmick to sell more poles.
Second, I assumed I wasn’t interested—I already do plenty of walking.
And third, I figured that if I ever wanted to try it (which I wouldn’t), any old poles would do.
Turns out I was WRONG on all three counts.
Nordic walking is fun, it is a better workout than walking alone, and you really do need those special Nordic Walking poles
Learning Proper Nordic Walking Technique
It was a breezy, cool fall day on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, N.H. when I learned how to walk. Nordic Walk, that is. First discovery: Nordic Walking is easy to learn, especially if you already know how to walk.
Several websites explain the basics. Nordic Walking Online has a lot of information. There are also several instructional videos on YouTube and American Nordic Walking Association has an instructional video.
But the most fun way to learn is with an instructor in a fitness class. There’s something so inherently silly about taking a lesson to learn how to walk that the laughter begins almost immediately. My instructor, Cindy Krisanda, is a Pilates instructor and fitness trainer at The Fitness Edge in Meredith, and enthusiastically preaches the gospel of Nordic Walking. I like enthusiasm. When I joined Cindy and two of her students Kerry Williams and Barbara Cathcart for a lesson, here’s what I learned:
You start by adjusting your poles (more on these later) for proper length. When you hold the grip with the pole vertical in front of you, and your elbow tucked into your waist, your forearm should be parallel to the ground. You can experiment later with different lengths for advanced techniques.
Next you cinch up the wrist straps—identical to the ones used on skate-skiing pole, and finally, you twist the curved rubber tip to align with the handle for maximum grip. That rubber tip can be removed if you are walking on dirt, rock, or slippery surfaces like ice.
With the poles adjusted, we started walking, arms held loose and straight, hands open, poles dragging behind. After a few steps our arms started swinging naturally, right arm with left leg and vice versa. From there, it took only moments before we were planting the pole tip just forward of the rear foot and gripping the handle as we pushed ourselves forward—voila!, Nordic Walking!
Walking on the flat, uphill or down, you keep the same basic upright posture. Uphill, you could really feel the extra thrust of the poles. Downhill it seemed natural to lean back slightly, bend the knees and use the poles more for stability than forward propulsion.
It wouldn’t seem like poles would make a big difference, but I was wearing a heart rate monitor, and, walking on flat ground I could get my heart rate up into the aerobic zone, something I usually need a hill or a pack to accomplish.
Have you ever worked out on an elliptical trainer? That’s close. But Nordic Walking is better: you’re moving fast, building an endorphin high without the undue impact on your joints and spine that you get from running. And, best of all, you are outside, perhaps with friends old or new, getting exercise and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.What could be better?
Nordic walking may indeed create a demand for more poles, but only because it’s outdoors, fun and great exercise. And, sadly, any old poles don’t work. To Nordic Walk with proper form (which is very good for your torso and arms), you absolutely need poles of the correct length. That’s why most Nordic Walking poles are adjustable-length.
The strap system, which lets you walk with a relaxed hand while you drag the pole forward is also essential for correct form while Nordic Walking. The handles of alpine ski and trekking poles are designed for the poles being held upright and in front of you, not angled back. Cross-country poles would probably work, but mine are all too long. Conversely, it looks like Nordic Walking poles, with the snow baskets available as accessories, would make great cross-country ski poles, though they might be a little heavy.
Finally, there’s the matter of the tips. On Nordic walking poles, the angled rubber tips designed for walking on pavement serve three purposes. First they grip rough hard surfaces, giving you something to push against. They protect surfaces like the Meredith boardwalk where we learned, or indoor walking tracks. And finally, they quiet the whole experience—dragging aluminum poles on pavement is unpleasantly loud.
My recommendation? If you like walking and are interested in Nordic Walking, then invest in poles. Once you have a pair, they’ll last forever. And they are much cheaper than an eliptical trainer, easier to transport, and they let you play outside.