Sunday, March 29, 2009


Up Hill and Down Dale

A recent vacation in the English Lake District has given me ample opportunity to evaluate technique for Nordic Walking hills. Those quiet moments of introspection whilst toiling up long steep slopes also afforded me a chance to put my thoughts in order.

Of course, the process was not scientific and my musings can only be viewed as anecdotal. Furthermore, during a long day in the hills poles get used in a whole manner of ways – from actual Nordic Walking; to simply aiding balance; to assist in braking; to help in stream crossings or simply something to lean on when your lungs are bursting!

Technique is very dependent on the context and also the terrain. Steps or even slope - grade and duration of climb/descent - firm or loose ground - wet or dry underfoot - windy or calm conditions.

On two of my outings I did encounter a section of steep ground which was about 300 metres long and made up of an even grass covered surface (kept neatly trimmed by hill sheep). The average gradient was about 1 in 4 (worked out subsequently from the 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map) and this afforded a good section for experimentation.


As walking is sometimes described as “controlled falling,” then uphill walking can be said to be like falling “into the hill”. In tackling hills we are generally advised to adopt a “forward lean” which is to do with maintaining momentum as the legs are tasked to push you up the slope rather than just supporting the body. However such a forward lean should not be of a magnitude which puts the lower back into periods of flexion. In other words, the lean should not become a stoop, which, apart from anything else, will compromise your breathing.

I have seen hill runners with an exaggerated lean as they scuttle up very steep uphill sections, but such persons are usually very fit and strong individuals who regularly train on steep terrain. On uphill sections which have to be walked it is quite usual for them to press down on the knee in order to take some of the strain away from the legs. You might say that they use the tibia/fibula combination as a walking pole!

The lean should come from the ankles which, on non-stepped terrain, will be in flexion. In any event, it is good practice to slightly engage the core, in an effort to maintain neutral, and I believe that this is a good habit which needs to be cultivated generally.

You can describe that a suitable posture for ascending a non-stepped slope is to have the “downhill” leg, spine and neck more or less aligned (as David has previously outlined). On my outings I found this a comfortable approach. Of course, if the hillside is stepped then the posture will be similar to that adopted moving up a staircase, i.e. the body is more or less upright.

My preferred pole technique on steep ground is double pole. I find it helpful to plant the poles alongside the lead foot and then walk “through the gate,” finishing with an assertive push and release in a full blown European style. This is almost as good as having handrails to pull on and takes much of the load away from the lower body. Furthermore, it affords a great opportunity to work the shoulder blades and also to keep them well down the back.

Double poling is also a good way to morph Exerstriding ® with the Euro Technique as you can readily deploy the handshake/pump-handle regime combined with pushing past the hip, simply because you have plenty of time! Of course, the magnitude of push will be a product of your condition and your aims of the outing. If it’s largely meant to be a long enjoyable day in the hills then you will not want to over work but just take advantage of spreading the effort around the body. If however, it’s part of an intensive one hour workout then this is a great way to “up the ante”.

A further tip on longer uphill sections is to place the poles a little more out to the side than is usual in order to allow the ribcage to expand which aids breathing (or gasping!). It seems to have a similar outcome as tucking the thumbs under the rucksack shoulder straps, a technique often employed by hill walkers.


Speak to many hill walkers and they will probably tell you that coming down is harder than going up. Of course the latter can be strenuous aerobically and can have a heart rate monitor going into meltdown! However, coming down long descents can cause considerable fatigue to the quads followed by a day’s worth of DOMS owing to long periods of eccentric muscle contractions.

Needless to say, poles help.

However, to generalise, walking downhill is more of a conscious process and on a steep slope having an unbroken surface I found that the most viable technique involved:

a) reducing speed (otherwise “runaway” is quite possible)
b) shorten stride length
c) maintaining a slightly bent knee for shock absorbing purposes and fluidity of movement
d) maintaining a “relaxed approach” generally
e) keep some engagement of the core
f) plant the foot in a plantar flexed position so that traction is maintained
g) plant the poles more or less perpendicular to the slope face (see below)

I tried the knee bent/sitting posture which has been recommended by the INWA but I found it tiring, not entirely stable and somewhat “unnatural”. Furthermore, I can also see that for someone with ailing knees it could be very stressful.

Up to the point where the ground became very steep (say steeper than 1 in 4) I was happier placing my poles more or less at right angles to the slope itself and engaging the pole moderately. This gave me a feeling of considerable security and allowed me to still focus on things like maintaining good posture.

However, as the grade grew steeper I found it better to allow the pole plant to migrate forward in order to help with braking and balance. This latter situation does have risks though and a poorly placed or skidding pole can be unnerving. My own poles (Komperdell) have short, sharp blade type spikes and these bite well. I would not be quite so confident about the pencil type tip. Rocky surfaces are another matter and the use of poles has to be in question.
Malcolm Jarvis, Nordic Walking Leeds UK

Malcolm, an excellent article! You mirror my views exactly. I have many years of experience going up and down hills, running, walking, pole walking, skiing(both x-c and alpine), and biking. I can remember a 50 mile trail run that I did in 1987. During the later stages of the race, my quads were hurting so bad that I walked backwards down some of the hills! I did finish the race in about 11:30. Needless to say, had trouble walking the next couple of days!
Walk Well!
Ed Urbanski
Greendale, Wisconsin
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