A beginner’s guide to Nordic walking

Walking has become central to many of our lives over the past year, as daily lockdown strolls have often provided a much needed breath of fresh air. However, it’s only natural that repeating the same walks time and again, can become somewhat uninspiring. So if you’re finding your walking pattern repetitive, and you fancy trying something new, then you might like to try a different form of walking.

It’s often forgotten that there are a range of walking styles. But it’s actually pretty easy to add some variation to your routine, without having to walk miles out of your way. 

Nordic walking is a wonderfully versatile and fun variation of walking that involves the use of specially designed poles. It transforms walking into an effective, total body workout, while being accessible, and easy to learn.

So, if you’re looking to add something different to your walking routine, improve your health, or simply try something new, then Nordic walking could be for you. Keep reading to find out about the many benefits of Nordic walking, and how you can get started.

What is Nordic walking?

Nordic walking is a total-body form of regular walking that involves the use of specially designed poles. The concept originated from Nordic skiing, and first appeared in Finland in the 1930s, when professional cross-country skiers began using their poles during summer training and were impressed with the results. They found the poles provided them with an effective technique to keep their upper body in the best possible shape during the off-season months.

Nordic walking came to the UK in the early 2000s and has continued to grow in popularity ever since. Much like Nordic skiing, the use of poles in Nordic walking work to engage your upper body as you walk, and provide an effective full body workout.

If you’d like to read more about Nordic walking and it’s history, then there are plenty of books available on Amazon that are perfect for beginners; such as The Complete Guide to Nordic Walking by Gill Stewart,  The Beginner’s Guide to Nordic Pole Walking for Health, Fitness and Adventure  by Desmond Ogley, and The Ultimate Nordic Pole Walking Book by Klaus Schwanbeck.

What are the benefits of Nordic walking?

Nordic walking is fun, accessible, and easy to learn

Nordic walking has become a popular method for people of all ages and abilities to get outside, exercise, lose weight, and improve their overall health and wellbeing. It doesn’t require a certain level of fitness, only an understanding of how to use the poles correctly. Luckily, the technique is fairly simple and easy to learn, so you won’t have to complete any lengthy or expensive training before you can get going.

Nordic walking provides a full body workout

Unlike regular walking which only targets the legs and lower body, Nordic walking provides a full body workout that engages 80% to 90% of muscles in the upper body. It’s also great for building muscular strength, which is especially important in your 50s and 60s.

By working more muscles, Nordic walking increases heart-rate (around 10%-15% higher than normal walking), oxygen consumption, and calories burned. In fact, this US study estimated that Nordic walking burns around 20% more calories than regular walking.

Nordic walking reduces impact on joints and can help ease muscle tightness

When using the correct technique, Nordic walking can also be effective in tackling muscle tightness and discomfort developed from everyday routines, such as hunching over a desk or watching TV. Angling the poles backward and engaging your arms and shoulders in the full range of motion will automatically improve your posture and can relieve muscle stress. This 2017 study found that office workers who completed 12 weeks of Nordic walking reported that they had less pain in their trapezius muscles, and improved mobility in their shoulders.

The extra support of the poles also improves stability, and reduces the impact on joints as your bodyweight is more spread out. While increasing your normal walking speed or taking up power walking are effective ways to intensify your workout, Nordic walking is great because it gets your heart rate up without feeling like you have to exert yourself any more than regular walking, or perform higher impact movements.

Nordic walking can help with preventing and improving certain health conditions

Nordic walking has various beneficial effects on resting heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen capacity, plus, it can improve the quality of life in people suffering from certain diseases. It’s also been proven to lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, by helping to keep arteries clear.

Another benefit, is that Nordic walking has been shown to improve the walking abilities of patients with conditions such as intermittent claudication (where pain affects the legs as a result of exercise) and Parkinson’s disease, decrease the risk of certain types of cancer, and improve athletic injuries and chronic back pain.

Nordic walking can positively impact mental health

Nordic walking also allows you to get outdoors, and both exercise and spending time outdoors have been proven to positively impact mental health and wellbeing. Mental health charity Mind, studied the effects of exercising outside and spending time with nature, and recommends ’ecotherapy’ as a clinically valid treatment for people struggling with their mental health. The charity has listed specific benefits of ecotherapy such as an improved mood, a boost in confidence and self-esteem, as well as reduced feelings of stress and anger.

Spending time outside can also be a powerful tool in helping us gain perspective, especially at the moment, when many of us aren’t leaving the house as much. If you’re interested in finding out more about the link between exercise and maintaining a healthy brain, you might like to read our article; How exercise can lead to better brain health.

What is the Nordic walking technique?

Nordic walking technique: The basics

The Nordic walking technique is entirely based on your regular walking pattern, with the added use of specially designed poles, to improve upper body strength. It’s sometimes confused with activities such as trekking, climbing, or trail walking, because all involve the use of poles – but Nordic walking uses an entirely different technique. When used for trekking, poles are mainly used to provide added stability and support, however, Nordic walking poles are a specific health and fitness tool.

With Nordic walking, the poles remain behind the body as an extension of the arms, pointing diagonally backwards at all times. The pole technique is a basic enhancement of the regular arm swings you make when walking normally. They’re then planted behind the body with each stride in order to propel you forward; working the arms, shoulders, back muscles and upper chest.

But don’t worry if this sounds complicated – when you first take your poles out for a walk, you don’t need to throw yourself in at the deep end. To get a feel of walking with the poles, try simply dragging them behind you with your arms relaxed to start with; even that extra weight will create some resistance, which will exercise your upper body. When you feel comfortable with this, you can try swinging your arms to get used to the motion; but remember to always keep the poles pointing diagonally backwards.

Next, have a go at planting the poles into the ground with each stride; opposite arm to opposite leg, as with normal walking. It’s important to take your time and keep practicing, to get used to the movement, and before you know it it’ll all come naturally to you.

For a deeper insight into the Nordic walking technique, have a watch of the video below to see the basic movements involved.

Heel to toe foot roll

Another important aspect of the Nordic walking technique, which also applies to regular walking, is the heel to toe foot roll. This means hitting the ground with your heel, and following through with a rolling technique, so that you push forward onto your next stride from your toes.

Almost everyone naturally walks in a heel to toe walking stride, but fully mastering is vital to maintaining good balance, posture, circulation, and protecting your joints when walking.

This video explains the correct leg and feet movements involved in Nordic walking…

Learning the Nordic walking technique from a qualified instructor

If you don’t feel completely confident heading out for a Nordic walking session by yourself, and think you might benefit from some further guidance, then you might like to consider seeking the help of a qualified instructor. They’ll be able to run through the technique with you and answer any questions you might have to make sure you’re getting the most out of the exercise.

Most instructors will offer a taster session so it’s okay if you decide it isn’t for you.

This service on Nordic Walking UK allows you to search for an instructor near you. Or alternatively, if you’d prefer to learn by joining a group of fellow Nordic walkers, you might like to consider becoming a member of Nordic Walking UK. While some sessions and events might not be possible at the moment due to lockdown restrictions, there’s no harm in planning ahead.

What equipment will I need for Nordic walking?

Other than the poles themselves, there aren’t any absolutely essential pieces of equipment needed for Nordic walking. However, to ensure you remain comfortable and avoid injury, it’s worth thinking about investing in other kit, which we’ll cover below.

Nordic walking poles

There are two main types of Nordic walking poles, and the basic distinction is between them being fixed length or adjustable. Both types of pole, when properly designed and made from the correct materials, are good options. However, it can sometimes be difficult to find the ideal fixed length pole off the shelf, as we’re all different heights – and a lot of people like the convenience of being able to expand adjustable poles and fold them up into a bag.

Once you’ve decided between fixed length or adjustable, the material composition of your poles is also an important factor to consider. Choosing the right poles for you will depend on how often you plan to be walking. This guide by Newfeel offers some useful guidance on different Nordic walking pole materials and should help you decide on the right poles for you.

There are some pairs of Nordic walking poles available for around £30, however, if you’re looking for poles that will last, then it can sometimes be necessary to pay a bit more. Some reputable Nordic walking pole manufacturers include LEKI, Fizan, Exel, and Gabel – and if you’d like more information to help you decide which poles to go for, you might find this guide by Bristol Nordic Walking useful.

Nordic walking shoes

Walking distances in the wrong type of shoe can lead to painful sores like blisters, and put a damper on your experience. So, it’s worth investing in a decent pair of Nordic walking shoes, so that you focus on your technique and enjoy your surroundings – rather than worrying about your feet!

There’s a few things to look out for when searching for the right pair of Nordic walking shoes, that will help you get the most out of your walks. First, check that your walking shoes are comfortable and supportive, with good cushioning, so that they can successfully tackle various terrains.

Next, it’s a good idea to go for a pair of shoes or boots that are waterproof and provide your feet with ample room to breathe. The last thing you want to deal with is wet feet, as this will be enough to tamper even the shortest walks. And lastly, try and opt for shoes with a flexible sole in order to achieve the heel to toe foot roll, which is key to maintaining good posture while walking.

To help you find the right pair of Nordic walking shoes, Bristol Nordic Walking group have put together this list of the best boots for Nordic Walking. Some items can be pricey, however, if you’re looking to commit to Nordic Walking as a long-term hobby, then sometimes it’s best to invest in a more expensive pair that you know will last. It’s worth having a browse of the various shoe options available on Amazon and Decathlon.

The video below also provides a useful guide on how to pick out appropriate footwear for Nordic walking.

Appropriate clothing and accessories for Nordic walking

It’s best to opt for lightweight clothing when Nordic walking, as heavy jumpers and coats can weigh you down. It’s also likely that you’ll warm up once you get going, and it’s much easier to wear several layers of light clothing that you can remove easily, than one extra thick piece of clothing. It’s also recommended not to wear clothing that’s likely to flap either side of your body, as this could interfere with your pole motions.

In the winter, you might like to consider lightweight gloves, a hat, and a waterproof coat to keep you dry and insulated. And in the summer, high-factor sunscreen and sunglasses are an important addition to protect yourself against powerful rays. And of course, it’s always important to carry a water bottle around with you to ensure you remain hydrated.

Rucksacks and bags for Nordic walking

When Nordic walking, it’s useful to have a rucksack or bag to carry your personal belongings in, because your hands will be occupied with your walking poles. Rucksacks or bum bags are usually preferable options, because shoulder bags can unevenly distribute weight and may also interfere with your arm movements.

How can I get the most out of Nordic walking?

Take things at your own pace

The great thing about Nordic walking is that you don’t have to go at great speed for it to have an impact. However, as with any form of exercise, you’ll need to do it often enough to see the benefits; around 2 miles a day or 15 miles a week is a good goal. And as always, remember to warm-up before your walks and cool down after – drinking plenty of water in between to keep muscles healthy and prevent dehydration.

If you’re just starting out, it’s important not to push yourself too hard too early on, because you don’t want to overexert yourself or risk injury. To begin with, you might like to just get a feel of the poles in your hands before you head out for a walk using them. It might be tempting to get going with large walks and challenging terrains immediately, but it’s much better to slowly build it up over time. Once you’ve learnt the technique, start with a few reasonably short walks along well-used paths, and only increase the distance and venture onto tricker paths, or steeper inclines once you feel comfortable to do so.

However, the most important thing is to listen to your body throughout. Remember everyone’s pace is different; what works for you might not work for someone else, but it really doesn’t matter because it’s a personal experience. If it feels like too much today, don’t worry; there’s no rush and you can simply try again another day.

Consider setting yourself goals

Unlike some other sports, Nordic walking isn’t competitive. However, if you find competition exhilarating and an important part of sport, then why not compete against yourself? If you’re a beginner, then you could set out a plan for what you’d like to achieve with your Nordic walking. And if you’ve already started, then why not challenge yourself to complete your normal route in a quicker time, or maybe set a new distance record? Setting yourself goals can be a great way to motivate yourself and add another dimension to Nordic walking.

If you wanted to, you could record your goals and achievements in a journal. There are plenty available on Amazon, for example this Nordic Walking Logbook, this Goal Getter Productivity Journal, or this Wellness Journal. This way, you’ll have your goals and achievements written down to look back and reflect on.

Use Nordic walking to explore new places and hobbies

The beauty of Nordic walking is that it’s an all-year round activity that you can do pretty much anywhere. It can take you from pavements in towns and villages, through to countryside trails and mountain ranges – or even further afield on holiday if you fancied it. This provides the opportunity for great fun and adventure, as you can explore new places and appreciate nature. If you’re unsure where to walk, you might be interested in the Alltrails app, which allows you to discover new routes by area. A free membership allows you to browse thousands of different trails on the app.

If you wanted to, you could also pair your walking with other hobbies. For example, if you’re into nature you might like to read our beginner’s guide to bird watching, and then look out for the birds you’ve learnt about whilst walking. If bird watching isn’t your thing, then you might find some other inspiration in our article 10 rewarding activities to do while walking.

Connect with other Nordic walkers, or embrace it as a solo activity

Nordic walking is a great way to socialise and meet new people, which can be something to look forward to as lockdown begins to ease. When restrictions have lifted, you might be interested in attending a Nordic walking event or joining a Nordic walking group. This tool by Nordic walking UK also allows you to search for Nordic walking events and activities happening in your area.

Alternatively, if you’d like to join a group of fellow Nordic walkers, you might like to consider becoming a member of Nordic Walking UK. This can be a great way to make new friends, which can make Nordic walking even more enjoyable because you’ll have someone to chat to along the way.

Exercising with others can also be a great way to maintain motivation and increase the likelihood of committing to a sport. For example, it’s much easier to decide not to go walking if you don’t really fancy it when it’s just you going, than it is if there are others involved. This could be the key in helping you stick to a sport and reap the benefits long-term. But alternatively, if you’d prefer to venture out by yourself, that’s great too.

Final thoughts...

Nordic walking is a great and accessible way for people of all abilities to get outside, strengthen muscles, and improve their overall health and fitness. Despite not feeling as though you have to exert any more energy than regular walking, Nordic walking provides an effective full-body workout by engaging muscles throughout the entire body.

With the added bonus of reducing the risk of certain diseases, and improving posture and balance, Nordic walking really ticks all the boxes. It’s fun, easy to learn, and anyone can get good at it. So whether you decide to venture out by yourself, or alongside others, there’s a lot to be gained from this walking technique. And as lockdown begins to lift and sunnier days take over, when’s a better time than now to give Nordic walking a go?

Have you tried Nordic walking? Would you recommend it to others? What do you enjoy most about it? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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