Nordic Walking Technique and Equipment

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 in order to maximize the safety and benefits of the activity.

Design
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 different lengths and are designed to fit a range of user heights. There are also two-piece adjustable models which can be adjusted more specifically to the user’s height.

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 be shared by users of different heights, they can “grow” along with growing users, and they are more convenient for travel. 

The three piece poles with a high quality lock are best suited for mountaineers and trekkers as they are compact and can be conveniently stowed for travel. However, it is less likely that the three sectional poles have adequate vibration dampening performance for use on asphalt and sidewalks.  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 http://walking.about.com/od/poles/tp/nordicpoles.htm.

Materials
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 pole shafts may be made of aluminum alloys, carbon fibre, or composites of glass and carbon fibers. As with any exercise equipment, to a certain degree you get what you pay for.  Beware of generic brand, bargain basement 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, it is worth paying for a well known brand. Buying poor quality poles can end up being very costly in the event of an equipment-related injury.

Features
Nordic walking poles all come with rubber tips which are designed to provide a soft, cushioned plant of the poles on any firm, stable, natural or urban paved surface.  The rubber tips can be removed to expose the hardened tungsten carbide steel tips which can be used whenever the rubber tips do not provide adequate traction, e.g. on a trail that is unstable or slippery.

The 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. Established brands include, Leki, Exel, Swix, Gabel and Komperdell.    
There are also Nordic walking poles with specially designed ergonomic strapless grips from Urban Poling and Exerstrider which were designed to eliminate the discomfort that straps may cause and lessen the likelihood of an injury in the event of a fall.

Length
The length of the pole is important to ensure correct technique. 70% of your overall height is the recommended length for your Nordic walking poles. The rule of thumb is that your elbow should bend at a 90 degree angle when the pole is perpendicular to the ground (the elbow should be glued to the waist and pole tip touching the ground). If your elbow bends at an angle greater than 90 degrees, it is best to select a longer pole.

Please refer to the chart below for more information:

Height (ft, in)Length of pole (cm)
4’9” – 4’11”100 cm
4’11” – 5’3”105
5’3” – 5’5”110
5’5” – 5’8”115
5’8” – 5’11”120
5’11” – 6’2”125
6’2” – 6’4”130
6’4” and above135

Please note – you may want to size up or down according to your individual requirements. If your height falls between two sizes on the chart, it is recommended that you err on the shorter of the two sizes for beginners, and choose the longer pole for more active individuals.

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
To those new to the sport, Nordic walking is obviously a pretty straight forward hybrid of fitness walking and cross-country or “Nordic” skiing.  No matter how you use poles, people are likely to ask you if you are training for skiing or if you have “forgotten your skis”. 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, 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 (INWA) in your area, or you can learn with the aid of a 5-star rated instructional DVD and Instruction Manual by an expert instructor which you can learn more about at: http://walking.about.com/cs/poles/gr/exerstridervid.htm.


European and American Nordic Walking Techniques
European Nordic walkers generally consider the activity a sport, as the European technique was designed to very closely mimic Nordic skiing. The European technique involves a long range of motion of the arms with the arm passing behind the torso and the grip of the pole being released at the end of the swing.  (It is for this reason that the Europeans insist that straps are an essential feature of Nordic walking poles). The long range of motion of the arms requires the correspondingly long stride that characterizes the Euro version of Nordic walking.  Because the European method of Nordic walking has more in common with Nordic skiing than it does with ordinary fitness walking, it requires a bit steeper learning curve and instruction is generally offered in numerous sessions.

American pole walking pioneer Tom Rutlin developed his technique beginning in 1985 with the aim of making fitness walking with poles as safe, simple and natural as walking, while at the same time maximizing the health and fitness benefit of the upper body involvement through the poles.  He does not look at Nordic walking as a “sport”, but as a functional fitness building exercise activity. His version emphasizes a comfortable, natural tempo and stride length to preserve 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 (which has over the last few years evolved to be a feature of both Rutlin’s technique and the European technique) 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 benefits. The shorter, more natural stride length accompanies a shorter range of motion of the arms which do not pass behind the torso.

The European method might be characterized as Nordic skiing without skis, while Rutlin’s “Exerstride Method” Nordic walking version could 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’s no such thing as “best” in either case, only what is best for you given your goals, and your attitude and approach to exercise. 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. 

As a general rule, if you like to see yourself as an athlete in training, you may be more drawn to the Euro version of Nordic walking.  If you’re simply more interested in improving your health and functional fitness as well as turning your walking workouts into a more motivating, effective and time-efficient total body exercise, you may be more drawn to Rutlin’s version.

Any pair of quality Nordic walking poles can be used for either of the dominant Nordic walking techniques. After receiving instruction from a person qualified in either the European or Rutlin method of Nordic walking, you’ll find walking will be a lot more fun, interesting and beneficial. 

If you ask people who are already Nordic walking, they will very likely agree on at least one thing for certain…If you haven’t tried Nordic walking yet, you’ve just got to try it to really begin to understand why it is such a fast growing exercise trend!

Tom Rutlin is an internationally recognized fitness authority and is considered by many to be the "father" of the rapidly growing worldwide Nordic walking movement. He is known for both his pioneering work in fitness walking with specially designed poles and for his concept of "good use" total body exercise. He founded Exerstrider Products, Inc. in 1988 and has dedicated more than a third of his life to helping people discover this fun and motivating way to achieve and maintain their total body fitness and the joy of simultaneously putting their entire body to good use on a regular basis. Tom has kindly provided this article to SportMedBC for use in our RunWalk Community network.