Friday, November 21, 2008


A Newbie's Guide to Nordic Walking

New to Nordic walking? Here’s some basic information intended to allow you to lay an informed, balanced base of knowledge on which to build your Nordic walking experience.

“Nordic walking”, or fitness walking with specially designed poles, is becoming one of the fastest growing fitness trends all around the globe. In recent years it has taken much of Europe by storm and is now rapidly gaining legions of enthusiastic participants world-wide. If you are interested in giving this total body exercise version of walking a try there are a few things you need to know to make your entry into the Nordic walking community in an intelligent and informed way.

The History

Nordic skiers may have used their ski poles for off-season training perhaps as far back as the days when Nordic skiers, like hikers, used only a single pole. Ski-bounding or ski-striding with a pair of poles has certainly been an essential part of off-season training for any serious competitive Nordic skier for decades.

Although the European Nordic walking community generally asserts that fitness walking with poles as a unique exercise form began with its introduction in Finland in 1997, others credit an American pole walking innovator and creator of Exerstride Method Nordic walking - ‘Tom Rutlin’, with being the “founding father of Nordic walking”. David Downer, author of Nordic Walking Step By Step - - asserts that...

"As a form of exercise in its own right and completely detached from skiing, hiking and trekking, the activity of fitness walking using specially designed poles was pioneered in the U.S. by cross-country skier and certified ski coach Tom Rutlin in 1985".

The undisputable fact is that this relatively new total body exercise hybrid of walking and cross-country or “Nordic” skiing is deeply rooted in an off-season ski training technique long practiced by Nordic skiers all around the globe.

How it Works (why more and more people are walking with poles)

It's much easier to understand why people so many people are adding poles to their fitness walking when you get a first-hand feel for how it works. It takes just a few seconds if you follow these four simple steps:

1. Sit in a chair facing a table or desk and extend both arms out as if offering them for a friendly handshake. (If you’re reading this while sitting at your computer, raise your hands off of your computer keyboard and mouse reach out on each side of your keyboard)

2. Make two fists and place them on the desk or table top with your thumbs up.

3. Finally, sit upright and alternately press one fist, then the other into the desk repeatedly.

4. Feel how a strong wave of muscle contractions goes through your abdominals as well as muscles in your back, arm, shoulder, chest, and important “core strength” muscles each time you push.

As you Nordic walk you’ll do approximately 2,000 similar contractions per mile of all these muscles against resistance as you apply a force to your poles, rather than a desktop, with each stride. Best of all, with Nordic walking, because the work is shared by so many major muscles, you can actually feel like you're working less while accomplishing much more, and with much less risk of injury. Now you may be beginning to understand why so many walkers are stepping up to Nordic walking!

The Benefits

In the same time you might otherwise just walk -- and with little or no additional perceived effort -- you can simultaneously…

* Strengthen abdominal, back, arm, shoulder, chest, leg and all “core” muscles (without separate weight or resistance training!)

* Burn 20-50% more calories

* Improve cardiovascular fitness

* Increase overall stamina and muscle endurance

* Improve lymph system function and boost your immune system

* Reduce pain and injury-causing stress on hips, knees and feet

* Help maintain overall bone density

* Maintain joint health and range of motion

* Improve both your posture and balance

* Enhance both your energy and mood

* Experience a safe, fun and convenient “good use” total body exercise

...(Hey, what’s not to like?)

The gear

To those new to the activity, Nordic walking poles look like nothing more than rubber tipped ski poles – and basically they’re correct. But in the long run it is important that the poles you use be of quality design, materials and features and of a proper length – 68-70% of your overall height is the recommended length of Nordic walking poles.

As with any sporting activity, there is vigorous debate about what type of pole design and what features are best. There are one-piece non-adjustable poles which come in various lengths and are designed to fit a range of user heights, and there are two-piece adjustable models which can be adjusted more precisely to the users’ heights (three-piece poles are designed for trekking and are not well suited for fitness walking for a number of reasons). The advantage of one-piece poles is that they are simple and have no moving parts. The advantage of quality two-piece telescoping adjustable poles is that they can be easily adjusted more precisely to your height and for varying use conditions, they can also be shared by users of different heights, they can “grow” along with growing users, and they are far more convenient for travel. There are high-quality top rated one and two-piece Nordic walking poles -- as well as poor quality poles of both kinds available in today’s marketplace. For a rare independent rating of top walking pole brands go to .

Nordic walking pole shafts should be lightweight, strong and stiff and be designed to effectively dampen vibration in order to provide quiet operation and prevent vibration-related injuries. Quality poles shafts may be made of aluminum alloys, carbon fiber, or composites of glass and carbon fibers. As with any exercise equipment, to a certain degree you get what you pay for. Beware of brand X, bargain basement or mass merchandiser offered walking poles (generally manufactured in China with very low performance standards) when it comes to quiet operation, vibration dampening, durability, strength, stiffness and overall quality. Buying poor quality poles can end up being very costly in the event of equipment related failure or injury.

Nordic walking poles all now come with rubber tips or “paws” which are designed to provide a soft, cushioned plant of the poles on any firm, stable, natural or urban paved surfaces. The rubber tips can be removed to expose hardened tungsten carbide steel tips which can be used whenever the rubber tips do not provide adequate traction, or anywhere the walking surface in the city or on the surfaces that are unstable or slippery.

European Nordic walking poles are generally manufactured by long established ski pole manufacturers, and thus include either simple ski pole-like straps or more elaborate strapping systems -- a kind of fingerless glove/strap combination, originally designed for Nordic ski poles. There are also Nordic walking poles with specially designed ergonomic strapless grips which were designed to eliminate the need for straps, the discomfort that straps may cause and to lessen the likelihood of an injury in the event of a fall.

There is vigorous debate on all issues of pole design and features, and the good news for the consumer is that numerous quality options offer you numerous quality choices.

The technique(s)

Again, to “newbie’s”, Nordic walking is obviously a pretty straightforward hybrid of fitness walking and cross-country or “Nordic” skiing. No matter how you use poles, people will ask you if you are training for skiing, have “forgotten your skis” or “are expecting snow”. Don’t worry if you know nothing about Nordic skiing, Nordic walking is not actually much more complicated than just walking. When one walks, the right arm naturally swings forward when the left leg steps forward and it’s the same whether you Nordic ski or Nordic walk. So the good news is that although balancing and gliding on two thin skis – Nordic skiing – can take years to master, if you can walk you can generally master at least the basics of Nordic walking in almost no time.

With a Nordic walking pole of the proper length in each hand (this is why poles of a proper length are essential) one simply swings both the arm and the pole-in-hand forward just as one does while walking. The poles in effect become another set of legs so you’ll need a bit of instruction on how to properly plant and use the poles in a manner that maximizes both the safety and the benefits of the activity. For knowledgeable, quality instruction look for a certified Nordic walking instructor in your area, or you can learn with the aid of the Exerstrider 5-star rated instructional DVD -- see:

European and American Nordic walking paradigms European Nordic walkers generally refer to the activity as a sport. This is likely because the European technique was designed to closely mimic Nordic skiing. Pole walking pioneer Marko Kantaneva of Finland, worked with Finnish ski pole manufacturer Exel, to develop their original Nordic Walker® (from which the generic term “Nordic walking” was derived) poles (introduced in 1997), as well as the original European technique and training programs which Exel’s International Nordic Walking Association (INWA) introduced to Finland and later much of Europe.

Marko’s original “Sauvakävely” (Finnish for pole walking) technique, which he developed while studying and working at the Finnish Sports Institute at Vierumaki (1994 –1997), involved planting each pole with the elbow in a right angle position. The elbow joint was then opened as force was applied to the poles and the straightened the arm then passed beyond the torso and the grip of the pole was released just as it would be in Nordic skiing. (It is for this reason that the Europeans assert that straps are an essential feature of Nordic walking poles.) True to its sporting genes, European Nordic walking promotes the notion of increasing tempo and stride length as a central means of increasing its exercise effects.

Over the years since the introduction of Marko Kantaneva’s original “Sauvakävely” method of Nordic walking, something of a hybrid European technique which features an extended arm pole plant (likely influenced by Tom Rutlin’s extended “handshake” pole plant) has gained wide favor as many Nordic walkers have discovered that an extended arm pole plant more efficiently activates the core and other large upper body muscle than does the right angle pole plant. This hybridized European technique involves a resulting very long range of motion of the arms, as the arm is both extended in front of the body and still moves behind the torso as the grip of the pole is released at the end of the swing. This very long range of motion of the arms requires the correspondingly long stride that characterizes the Euro-hybrid version of Nordic walking. Because the biomechanics of both European methods of Nordic walking have more in common with Nordic skiing than they do with ordinary fitness walking it can, for many people, require an extended learning curve and instruction is generally offered in numerous sessions.

Tom Rutlin, developed his original “Exerstride Method” Nordic walking technique beginning in 1985, and he introduced the first specially designed poles with rubber tips for fitness walking in 1988 (before the term Nordic walking was coined to describe fitness walking with specially designed poles). His goal was to make fitness walking with poles as safe, simple and natural as walking while at the same time maximizing the health and fitness benefits of the upper body involvement through the poles. Rutlin does not refer to his version of Nordic walking as a “sport”, but rather as a “functional fitness-building activity”. His version emphasizes a comfortable, natural walking tempo and stride length aimed at preserving the natural and extremely safe nature of walking. Instead of increasing walking tempo and stride length in order to increase the exercise effects of his method of Nordic walking, his extended “handshake” pole plant was designed to bring about the involvement of the maximum amount of muscle mass, and the emphasis is on increasing the amount of force applied to the poles rather than the speed of walking in order to maximize the overall benefits. The shorter, more natural stride length accompanies a shorter range of motion of the arms, which do not pass behind the torso. Because the poles do not pass beyond the torso and the grips are not released, Rutlin’s poles feature an ergonomic strapless grip which is at this point unique to his Nordic walking poles.

The European method might be characterized as Nordic skiing minus skis, while Rutlin’s “Exerstride Method” Nordic walking version might be accurately characterized as fitness walking with the addition of poles designed especially for this new activity.

Which equipment design and technique is best?

There is no such thing as “best” in choosing techniques or equipment design for Nordic walking. Since Nordic walkers come in all ages, abilities and health and fitness goals, what is best for each given their ability, goals, attitude and approach to exercise is a matter that should be subject to individual choice. Now that you are armed with some knowledge about the options available to Nordic walkers it will be up to you to decide which of the available equipment and technique options will be best for you in achieving your health and fitness goals.

Any pair of quality Nordic walking poles can be used for any of the dominant Nordic walking techniques/paradigms, and any way you use poles after receiving instruction from a person qualified in either of the European or Exerstride method of Nordic walking, you’ll find walking will be a far more fun, interesting, motivating and health and fitness results-producing.

As a general rule, if you like to see yourself as an athlete in training, you might be more drawn to one of the European version of Nordic walking. If you’re simply more interested in improving your functional fitness and turning your walking workouts into a more motivating, effective and time-efficient total body exercise you may find Rutlin’s Exerstride method of Nordic walking more suited to you. A growing number of open minded members of the global Nordic walking community regularly draw from all versions of Nordic walking in order to both make their Nordic walking more interesting and to enjoy a full spectrum of benefits that may only be realized when one uses different methods to, in effect, “cross-train”.

Ask people all around the globe who are already Nordic walking and they will very likely agree on at least one thing for certain…If you haven’t tried Nordic walking yet you should give this new total body version of walking a try very soon!

Disclosure: This article is reproduced with the permission of

Exerstrider wishes to be the first to fully acknowledge that despite their best attempt to be as fact-based and objective as possible in writing the piece -- it reflects both facts and what others will see as opinions offered through their own lens.

To this point there has been very little written aimed at providing this kind of comprehensive, useful introductory information on Nordic walking, intended to aid “newbie’s” and the curious in making their entrance into the community of Nordic walkers, in a way that even attempts to be objective.

If you feel that this piece does not serve potential newcomers to Nordic walking in a manner that is both informative and objective enough to suit you – We would welcome it if you were to offer up your own piece in the same spirit of being both informative and as objective as possible in service to others.


Good Article David!
IMO it covers most options available for pole walking and lets the reader decide which is "best" for them. Personally, I like to try all options from time to time; as they say "variety is the spice of life!"
Walk Well!
Ed Urbanski
Greendale, Wisconsin
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