If you love snowboarding and you want to keep physically active when there’s no snow on the ground, you have a lot of options. These include other board sports (skateboards, surfboards, stand-up paddle boards, windsurfers) and cycling (off-road and road). Another, choice is Nordic Walking, particularly when it is too wet or muddy for other activities. It’s also good for sandy surfaces.
What is Nordic walking? In brief, it’s walking with sticks that you use to push off against the ground. This simple, additional movement not only increases the pace of the walk, but makes walking more of a whole-body workout.
The benefits of Nordic walking
The benefits of Nordic walking include but go beyond those of conventional walking. These include:
- Weight loss; smaller waists; and increased capacity for exercise (Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews, “Effects of Nordic walking on cardiovascular risk factors in overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes, impaired or normal glucose tolerance,” January 8, 2013)
- Improved cardio-respiratory fitness (Journal of Sports Science & Medicine,
“Effects of Nordic Walking Compared to Conventional Walking and Band-Based Resistance Exercise on Fitness in Older Adults,” September 1, 2013), including lower heart rates at exercise levels (Arthritis Research & Therapy, “Does moderate-to-high intensity Nordic walking improve functional capacity and pain in
fibromyalgia?,” December 5, 2012)
- More effective delivery of oxygen to the muscles (Disability and Rehabilitation, “Nordic walking for geriatric rehabilitation,” June 2013)
- Improved flexibility and upper-body strength (American College of Sports Medicine, “Benefits of trekking poles,” January/February 2014)
- Better sleep (Karolinska Institute, Sweden; “Physical activity in normal and impaired glucose tolerance and Type 2 diabetes mellitus,” September 21, 2012)
According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Nordic walking exerts beneficial effects on resting heart rate, blood pressure, exercise capacity, maximal oxygen consumption, and quality of life.” The Journal of Sports Science & Medicine adds that it can “improve multiple components of fitness in older adults” and boost “functional fitness in a short period of time.”
Selecting the right poles
People have achieved some of the benefits of Nordic walking with all sorts of sticks, including baseball bats and golf clubs. But for the most effective and comfortable experience, consider buying purpose-built poles with straps. The straps transfer the (admittedly minor) weight of the poles from your fingers to your hand, enabling you to walk without a death grip on the poles. The strap, not your fingers, carries the pole, making it easier to carry for a long distance. The best straps have Velcro, which allows them to be form-fitted to your hand. If the straps are adjustable, so much the better: You can maintain a good fit whether you’re wearing winter mittens, spring gloves, or no gloves at all.
Poles come in aluminum or carbon fiber. The former is less expensive, the latter is lighter. Some poles combine the two materials.
As with cross-country or downhill ski poles, a key factor in getting the right set of poles is to buy the correct height. Here’s a quick way to estimate the size you need: Hold the poles so that your elbow forms a right angle (90 degrees). Do your hands fit comfortable on the handles? If not, the poles are either too tall or too short, depending on where your hands end up on the pole.
Some poles come in a fixed length. Others come in two or three pieces, with a locking mechanism that holds them all together. These collapsible poles can be handy for storing in a backpack if you’re on an overnight camp, and they’re easier to store than fixed-length poles. On the other hand, they may collapse at an inopportune time on the trail and the locking mechanism may lock up. You may also–and we speak from experience here–accidentally jam one of the segments into the other at the wrong angle, making it impossible to reduce to the pole to its storage size. Fixed-length poles, on the other hand, won’t collapse, and without a locking mechanism, there’s one less thing to go wrong.
Some poles come with a plastic handle, while others have cork, which sheds both weight and sweat.
A set of poles will come with ferrules (metal tips) for digging into the dirt, though it will probably also come with rubber boots for using on hard surfaces. If you’re going to use poles on asphalt or concrete, the boots are essential; the noise of metal on pavement can be annoying. The boots should have an angle at the bottom, which will help you get that “push” going.
Can you reuse your ski poles? Maybe, though if the ones you have are not the proper height for optimal use in Nordic walking, you’ll accept some trade-offs in the pursuit of saving money. If you have skate-ski poles, they will almost certainly be too long. If you have poles for classic cross-country skiing or for downhill skiing, they will be close to being the right size. On the other hand, their ferrules may be incompatible with rubber boots.
Walk the walk
If you already swing your arms while you walk, you’re on your way toward Nordic walking. Using poles completes the package. As you walk, your left foot and right hand go forward together, as does your right foot and left hand. Put a pole handle out in front of you and push off with the tip. On flat ground, the tip should land somewhere around the heel of your opposite foot.
You can increase the intensity of your workout in several ways, such as by jogging, skipping, leaping, and increasing the pace while going up or down hills. You can also push the pole into the ground harder. Another way to increase the intensity of the walk is to push the handle of the lead further away from your body while still keeping the pole at an angle back toward you.
You may be surprised to find that you’re working up a sweat as you walk with poles. That’s good; it’s a sign that you’re getting some cardiovascular benefit. Don’t be surprised if you find that your pace picks up by at least 20 percent over conventional walking. To the outside observer, the poles don’t do much. But you may find that you’re getting 5 miles worth of work from a 3 mile walk.
The poles also an assist on hills. As you climb, the movement of your arms with the poles gives you forward momentum and keeps your back straight, avoiding hunching over. As you descend, the poles will take some pressure off your knees. In either case, your poles will be more vertical than would be the case on level ground. In fact, you may find it more comfortable to put the tips out in front of the handles.
The poles also encourage you to walk with correct posture: No more old-person walking! You may find that the poles encourage you to swing your hips when you walk. That may be awkward at first, but you can get used to it.
Walking with Nordic sticks also provides some modest workouts to the shoulders and upper arms. Granted, the poles don’t weigh much, so you won’t develop massive biceps. But your muscles will get stronger through repetition.
There are some limits to Nordic walking poles. For one thing, the choice of terrain matters. They don’t work too well when vegetation impinges on the trail. If bushes or grass keep you from having a full range of motion, you’ll lose much of the benefits of having the sticks on your hands. If your path takes you on boardwalks (say, in a wetlands area), you’ll have to keep the poles more perpendicular, and keep an eye on them so they don’t get stuck in between the boards. On hard surfaces, rubber boots on the tips can slip on wet pavement if you angle them too far off vertical.
While using the straps is an essential part of the experience, you may find that they can be annoying at times. They can interfere with the act of tying a shoelace or pulling a trail map out of your coat pocket, so you may end up taking off the straps. For that reason, some people swear by detachable straps.
Let’s not forget one other value of Nordic walking poles: Their simplicity. Boards and bikes must be transported by car, sometimes requiring some awkward loading and unloading. By contrast, you can easily store your Nordic walking poles in the back seat. Leave them there and you may find that a casual errand about town leads to an impromptu workout.
Where to buy
You can buy poles from a number of places, including mass retailers and specialty shops. Our favorite vendor is SkiWalking.com, which sells poles from Swix and Exel. The owner invites customers to email him with questions, and we have found him to be quite helpful in response. (As a note of disclosure, we purchased poles from this business at a professional discount.)
There are, of course, other brands and vendors in the market. If you want to go on the cheap, you could check out a pre-season ski swap at your local ski resort. They may not work that well for hard-surface trails, especially asphalt or concrete, but they will get your started.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit there. Get walking!