The Pole Lady Walketh
The idea behind Nordic walking is to increase the cardiovascular benefits of walking by working all of the muscle groups in one low-impact workout. If you think about it, when you walk or run, you only really use your legs and not the arms or torso as much. Adding the Nordic walking poles helps to focus the arms and upper body to do more than just swing by your side. By employing the specific technique suggested by groups such as the American Nordic Walking Association (ANWA), it is estimated that you can increase your heart rate to about 10-15% over regular walking and use up to 70% of your body’s muscle mass. In addition to these research findings cited on the ANWA website, I can add that one of the unexpected benefits that I discovered is the poles help a lot with keeping a proper walking posture, making it less likely to have sore knees, hips or a lower back at the end of a walk. This also carries over to regular everyday walking, so I find myself slouching less while running errands and doing other ordinary daily routines.
Nordic walking originated in Finland essentially as a way for cross-country skiers to stay in shape during the summer months; hence the Nordic part of the name. The technique for walking has a similar motion to the backward push of the arms used in cross-country, which is as much about propelling movement as it is about keeping balance and aligning the momentum of the upper body with the momentum of the lower body. The ability to maintain or build some upper body and core muscle strength or tone is sometimes cited as a benefit of including the upper body while walking, as noted by the Bristol (UK) Nordic Walking group. One thing I can attest to is the poles are deceptively light at first. When I first started using them, I was not sure I would be able to do so for a full 3 miles, they made my arms that sore after the first few times out. Eventually they do become second nature and now I really miss them if I find myself walking without them.
The best thing about Nordic walking is, aside from the poles, no other special equipment or training is needed to get started. The poles themselves come in two main types, telescoping or two-piece poles that can be collapsed for easy transport, and one piece or fixed-length poles that are similar to ski poles in that they are height matched to the walker. Poles are made by different manufacturers and come in different materials, such as carbon or titanium. Note that you want to look for poles made for Nordic walking, as there are also walking poles designed for trekking and hiking that have a slightly different style and tend to be a bit heavier for the rougher terrain encountered on a mountain trail. Most poles will have removable feet that can be taken off for use in snow or so they can be replaced once the treads have worn out. I have only replaced the feet on my poles once and typically walk on concrete and asphalt, so you can see they tend to be durable.
If you are interested in getting started in Nordic walking and becoming a “Pole Lady (or Dude)” yourself, there are a few places to turn. Most pole manufacturers will have some information on their websites about selecting the proper poles and might even have training DVDs you can purchase. In addition to the ANWA site mentioned before, there are other Nordic walking associations from around the world that offer tips and equipment reviews. Sites such as About Nordic Walking and Nordic Walking UK are full-feature sites with blogs and other resources for beginners or even advanced walkers. The International Nordic Walking Association (INWA) is designed more as a clearinghouse for national Nordic walking organizations, but many of their features are also available to the public, including an extensive collection of links to research papers regarding Nordic walking and its health benefits. If you want to just jump right in and get a basic overview of what you need and how to get started, Fitness Magazine has a concise article on their website that covers just enough without leaving out any important details. There are also two pretty good videos on YouTube, one by LekiNordicWalking that discusses selecting, sizing and setting up poles and another by FrancoisHH that talks about the benefits of Nordic walking and the proper technique to employ.