Saturday, October 28, 2006


Nordic Walking – The “Right Way”?

I would like to thank fellow UK based Nordic Walking Instructor Stuart Montgomery of for the following 'thought provoking' article. =====================================================================================

Here’s an interesting question for NW instructors: are we introducing Nordic Walking, or are we re-inventing it to fit our own local context?

The question hinges on what we think Nordic walking really is. A common view is that it is a set of fairly fixed practices that were codified by fitness professionals in Finland in the 1990s. In this view, the job of the NW instructor is simply to make this set of practices available to his or her local public.

However a contrary view is possible. This view does not see NW as a fixed set of practices. Rather, it sees NW as something that – in a diligent and serious-minded way – instructors are making up as they go along, amending it to suit the needs and expectations of the clients that actually present themselves.

I go for this contrary view. And I therefore get a little impatient with instructors who talk dogmatically about the right way to practise NW, who say that you must wear one kind of footwear and not another, and who insist that for a person of a certain height there is one length of pole that is right and every other length is wrong. I have come to this view after a couple of years’ experience as an INWA instructor. During this time I have done a lot of teaching, often taking five regular classes a week.

My own background in outdoor activity has three different elements. I’m a fitness instructor; I have done a lot of mountain walking with groups (I hold a Summer ML); and I have many years experience of cross-country skiing. Each of these elements tends to influence my NW teaching in a different way – and each is relevant to a different type of student.

With my fitness instructor hat on, I take a focussed approach. I work on good technique, emphasising push-back, oppositional rotation of shoulders and pelvis, foot-strike that leads with the heel. I get the students to engage their abdominals, to feel their triceps working, to keep their shoulders soft. We mainly do long, slow distance; but sometimes we do intervals, ladders and pyramids. For footwear I recommend good trainers or NW shoes...

...For clothing I refer them to the local running shop. For pole-length I follow INWA’s recommendation of height multiplied by 0.68. For terrain I use public parks with well-maintained grassy surfaces. At this intensity, a session of one hour will normally be long enough. When I’m working like this, I think I come pretty close to INWA’s expectation of a NW instructor.

The trouble is – I don’t get many clients who want me to work like this.

What I do get – and they form the overwhelming majority of my clients - are people who want a regular, brisk, country walk. They want to join a group, to have a sociable chat as they walk, and perhaps to make new friends...

...When they have completed one eight-week series of classes they will often immediately sign up for another. They are mainly women, and mainly aged over forty. Part of the reason they want to join an organised group is that they are afraid to walk on their own – there is a strong feeling in our area - in many areas - that women who walk alone in parks and open spaces are putting themselves at risk of assault.

With this type of client, my job starts out as a NW instructor – I need to show them the basics, after all. But then it has to change, for if I go down the “fitness” road I will very quickly scare them all off. My role therefore becomes more like a walking party leader...

...I still occasionally work on new technique. But the main tasks are to research and select a good variety of interesting country walks, and then lead the groups around them, taking care to match the pace to the fitness level of the group, to ensure there are plenty of drink stops, and to ensure that nobody is left out of the conversation.

The walkers in these groups have different equipment needs from the fitness walkers. Now light walking boots are the most appropriate footwear. Boots may lack the forward flex of trainers or walking shoes, but the ankle support is valuable, and so is the cleated sole, for we sometimes go over muddy ground. For clothing I refer them, not to the running shop, but to a supplier of country walking gear...

...As for pole-length, these students are often better with a pole that is a little shorter than INWA’s recommendation – partly because they will not consistently perform a good push-back and partly because our walks will sometimes take us over mixed ground on which we use the rubber “paws” (which add to the overall length of the poles)...

...These walkers are definitely getting some benefit from their poles. However, I sometimes feel that because they are poling so lightly, they might as well be using any old poles: trekking poles, ski poles or even poles with no straps at all. Partly to compensate for this light poling I make these sessions longer, from ninety minutes to two hours, to ensure that a good fitness workout is achieved.

My third category of NW clients is made up of people who are already cross-country skiers. This is a small category, making up perhaps ten percent of the overall total number of students. Some come for standard classes; others join a Ski Fit - Ski Ready programme.

NW offers two sorts of benefit for cross-country skiers. One is the general fitness benefit. The other is that they can use the poles to practise ski-specific exercises. These exercises mainly involve work on hills. We climb hills in different ways (walking, running and bounding, and sometimes using a shuffling kind of gait known in skiing circles as “moose-hoofs”)...

Usually we walk back down the hills. But sometimes we work our way down by taking jumps that simulate the turning movements in downhill skiing, using the poles for support as we jump. As far as clothing is concerned, these people need running kit. Footwear should be good trainers or sporty walking shoes – as long as the terrain is free from tussocks and potholes...

...And as for pole-length – well, poles should ideally be adjustable. When going uphill the optimum pole length will be about 10cm longer than the INWA standard. When going downhill, and especially when jumping, the pole should be about belly-button height, which is maybe 10cm shorter than the INWA standard.

I have worked with other types of walker. There have been people wanting help in recovering from hip replacement surgery. There was a woman in her mid-eighties, still keen to walk, but a little hindered by angina. There was a man trying to hold off Parkinson’s disease. There have been teenagers preparing for a school ski trip. They have all required a different approach.

I am certain that other instructors could come up with many additional categories from their own experience. And I’m also certain that these categories would encompass a very wide range of ages, expectations and levels of fitness.

I feel that as instructors we should celebrate this diversity, rather than retreating into a one-size-fits-all mentality. The great thing about Nordic walking is not that it is suitable for everyone. Rather, it is that it can be made suitable for everyone. The challenge for instructors is to make our practices and methods every bit as varied as the clients who come to us for help.

Stuart Montgomery
October 2006

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