When I first started to teach Nordic walking over 9 years ago, I used to refer to it as exercise’s best kept secret! Often I would walk with only one or two people in the group and of course, we would get a few funny looks and the odd sarcastic comment, usually from men. Maybe we still do today, but we have grown to such a large number that we don’t even notice, or indeed care. We know the endless amount of benefits Nordic walking bestows, means that we have the last laugh!
Nordic walking was originally developed in the early twentieth century in Finland for professional cross country skiers when there wasn’t any snow. It quickly caught on and was subsequently adopted by people of all ability levels who wanted to make the very most of their walks. Therein lies two of the things that make it most attractive to me. It is inclusive in that everyone can do it, irrespective of fitness – if you can walk you can definitely Nordic walk. Secondly, the poles mean that a Nordic walk is always going to bring a a ton of extra benefits compared to walking without them.
Here we take a look at the benefits of Nordic walking – always good to be reminded, whether or not you ae a seasoned Nordic walker. In addition, you’ll find some tips on how to work on your technique to maximise the gains. The beauty of Nordic is that there are always ways to keep challenging yourself, however long you have been doing it.
Benefits of Nordic walking
While it is possible to use your arms to power you along when you are walking normally, the poles turbo charge the effect. The way the straps are used to push into means the triceps at the back of the arm, as well as the back muscles, are activated on every stroke. The harder you push and the longer you keep pushing, the more work you will feel. When done regularly, you will notice an increase in arm strength and of course, a more toned appearance too!
TIP: make sure that you are not just letting the pole rest on the ground, actively push down and connect with it. Keep pushing away to the back until you take it off again for the next stroke. This doesn’t need to slow you down, it can still be fluid and free-flowing.
Once you feel comfortable with the basic technique, try experimenting with how hard you can push and how far back you go. The strap is like an accelerator of a car and through it, you can control speed and intensity. It only takes a small tweak to feel the difference.
The swing of the pole as you lift it off the ground comes from the shoulder, a joint that, for many of us is extremely stiff. This brings with it improved shoulder mobility and helps relieve neck and upper back tension.
TIP: Watch out that you are actually swinging from your shoulder and not taking a short cut and using your elbow. The reach to the front is always much further than most people think.
Heart and lungs
As you push, the poles propel you forward. This means that you will be walking faster than you normally might be, often without even realising it. I like to do experiments where one person walks without poles at their normal speed and the other uses poles. The extra distance they are able to cover over a relatively short period is always surprising!
TIP: if you are looking to improve your cardio-vascular fitness, you will need to take your body a little out of its comfort zone. An easy way to work out whether you are working at the right level is to use the rate of perceived exertion scale. The scale is your individual assessment of how hard you are working. I like to use 1 – 10, with 1 being absolutely no exertion, and 10 being total exhaustion.
Although it is possible to train at higher levels, if you are just starting out, aim to work at a level where you would rate your exertion at around 6 out of 10. In other words, there is more in the tank but it’s not completely plain sailing. You should be able to hold a conversation but may have to breathe in the middle of the sentence.
I think this is a good thing to check in with regularly. As your fitness improves, and to prevent it from plateauing, you will need to do more to get you to the same level of exertion.
Nordic walking is sometimes referred to as pilates on legs. As you push into the strap, the core braces itself against the push. The harder you push, the more the core will have to work. Some people get a sense of this happening and some don’t. Either way, I can assure you your core will definitely be getting a good workout.
TIP: there is no need to actively pull your stomach in or tense up, the core will work simply as a result of pushing into your straps.
The poles are extremely versatile and can deliver different things to different people. If your balance is challenging or you know you have an imbalance one side to the other, the poles will offer additional stability as you walk. They can also provide support while doing other exercises eg squats and lunges allowing you to have a go at things that you may otherwise rule out.
TIP: keep the body centred as you walk. Imagine it is almost a dead weight and allow the poles to push you along. Take care that you are not tipping from one side to the other as you place the pole down.
Modern lifestyles mean that maintaining good posture is more challenging than ever. Many of us have rounded upper backs, a shortness across the chest, and a forward-flexed position due to the muscles in the front of the hip being tight. Nordic walking is a brilliant way to help with this. The height of the poles means that your upper body is lifted. Concentrate on looking straight ahead rather than down at the ground and this will help even more.
TIP: don’t be tempted to walk with poles that are too low. When people first start to Nordic walk, they usually want to shorten the poles from the recommended length because it does initially feel quite odd. However, the height of the pole will lift your upper body, allowing you to stand taller and immediately improving your posture. As an added extra, it will also help with the propulsion and speed!
I am saving the best until last! Nordic walking is incredibly social. I never expected it to transform my life in the way that it has. I know that my life would have been so much poorer had I not met the wonderful ladies who have come together through Nordic walking. It’s so much more than exercise, it’s a whole new way of life.
And so finally to the guys who think it’s funny to make the sarcastic comments: more fool you!