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What is Nordic Walking?
The right equipment: how to choose nordic walking poles
Pole Fitting (Correct Pole Height)
Material – Carbon or Aluminum?
Quick Release feature
Adjustable or Fixed Length?
Where to buy Nordic walking poles in Halifax
Where to buy replacement rubber tips in Halifax
Technique tips for how to Nordic walk
Nordic walking FAQs
High intensity, low impact
Nordic walking has been shown to help you get much more out of your workout than regular walking – and yet, you don’t feel like you’re working that hard! It is also easier on the body than regular walking (or jogging), because when used correctly, the poles can take pressure off your knees, hips and ankles.
A full-body, calorie-consuming workout
Nordic walking engages almost every muscle in the body. Just as in regular walking, you make good use of your legs. But in Nordic walking there’s also enhanced use of muscles in your lower legs & feet; your stomach, sides & back; and shoulders, arms & wrists. And, because you’re working more muscles, you’re also burning more calories!
A technical challenge
A lot of people think nordic walking is easy. Anybody can walk with poles, right? But developing advanced nordic walking technique is more challenging than many people realize. There are over a dozen different elements to nordic walking – each involving special ways to move your body. It takes time to develop these skills. Beautiful technique is a goal to work towards over several years! One thing that makes nordic walking fun is that it keeps your mind active as you focus on perfecting your technique.
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The right equipment: how to choose nordic walking poles
Make sure you get the right type of pole:
Many people think they can use trekking poles, or cross-country ski poles, for nordic walking. But there are actually poles specifically designed for nordic walking. With proper instruction, you might be able to use trekking poles with some success*, particularly for a gentle style of pole walking. However the special straps found on good quality nordic walking poles will allow you to fully benefit from the many advertised health advantages of this sport.
* Note: if you plan on walking on pavement, you’ll need to have special angled rubber feet. Trekking poles come with flat feet, so you’d need to change those over to nordic walking feet.
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Pole Fitting (Correct Pole Height):
It can be difficult to determine the correct pole height from a formula, because the correct pole height varies with your relative leg-length, torso-length, and arm-length. Also, as your technique improves, you may find that longer poles give you a more satisfactory workout, while a beginner finds shorter poles more manageable. If you plan on taking your poles on a trek, you might want them shorter for long climbs, and longer for descents. For walking in snow, the poles should be longer. This is why adjustable poles can be a good investment!
However, as a guideline, the top of the pole should be about an inch above your belly-button. Or, if you hold the pole straight-vertical in front of you, with your hand grasping the handle, the angle of your elbow should be just-slightly-greater than 90 degrees.
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Here are some other features to consider when looking for a pair of poles:
Material: Carbon ($) or Aluminum? – Carbon poles are lighter and stiffer – this means that more of the energy you put into pushing down on the pole will be given back to you, helping you move forward with zing and efficiency. Carbon poles also swing very nicely – if you’re into high-performance sports gear, you will notice a difference in the “snappiness”. That said, I find that if you are using carbon poles on gravel without the rubber tip, their stiffness can be a draw-back: you feel the impact on the hard ground a lot more! Even on pavement *with* the rubber tip, carbon tends to make for a harder (more jarring) experience.
Aluminum poles are heavier, but also more affordable, than carbon. Low-quality aluminum poles feel clunky. That said, there is a notable difference in performance between high-quality and lower quality aluminum poles – not all aluminum is created equal and you’ll get what you pay for! Note also that aluminum is also less stiff, meaning more energy is lost with every push; but on the other hand, it offers a “softer” feeling on hard surfaces, which I appreciate.
It should be noted that there are also “composite” poles which are a mix of carbon and other materials. They are usually labelled as ” X percent carbon”. They lie somewhere between 100% carbon and 100% aluminum poles in terms of price, weight and performance!
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Quick Release – for people who like to stop frequently to rummage in their bag, blow their nose, or take a sip of water, a quick-release is a great feature worth investing in. Because the special Nordic walking straps fit like a glove, they are time-consuming and annoying to take on and off. A quick-release allows the entire strap to detach from the pole in one quick motion, so your hand remains snugly in the strap while you do your rummaging!
However!! Buyer beware: some quick releases are much easier to use than others. My “trigger grip” quick releases, by Leki, can be undone with my eyes closed, with only one hand. Others I have tried (e.g. Gabel’s fitlink system, 2009 version) take two hands, substantial coordination, and so much force that by the time you get them out, you might as well have undone the velcro! Also, some systems are more liable to break or wear out over time. Quick release systems are expensive, so when you’re shopping around, be sure to try each one several times, and take a close look at the durability of the mechanisms involved, so you don’t waste your money.
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Adjustable, Double-Adjustable, or Fixed Length? – Some poles adjust in length, while others do not. There are advantages to each type, depending on your preferences.
Double-Adjustable: A double-adjustable pole (or ‘travel pole’) has two points of adjustment. This means it can collapse to about 2 feet long- meaning you can put a pair in your knapsack or suitcase. I love this feature for my own personal use, because I bike places with my poles. However, if you don’t plan on travelling with them, I don’t recommend double-adjustable- they are heavier and more finicky because of all the moving parts, and also more liable to have mechanical problems.
Single-Adjustable: A single-adjustable pole has… you guessed it! One point of adjustment. This means you can vary the length, but the poles will not get particularly short for packing away. So, why would you want to vary the length? Some people like to play around with different lengths to see what they prefer (longer poles give you more power, but tend to make you lean forward more, and can put strain on fragile shoulders. Shorter poles are easier to manage and help you stand straight but don’t give you as much oomph). . .
In addition, some people are finicky about having their poles “just right” at all times – and since your pole height will changes a half-inch when you remove the rubber tips, and since your poles may sink down in soft surfaces like mud or snow, an adjustable pole allows you to account for these differences.
On that note, some people hope to use their poles for other things than Nordic walking, which may require height adjustments. For example, for snow shoeing, you’ll want to make the poles longer. For hiking up a mountain, you’ll want to make them shorter. For hiking down a mountain, you’ll want to make them longer.
Finally, some people might want to share their poles, or eventually sell them. An adjustable pole is more versatile as it can be used by people of varying heights!
Fixed-Length: A fixed-length pole is a solid piece of aluminum or carbon. Because it has no moving parts, it is quite a bit lighter. Many people appreciate this. It is also a simpler piece of equipment! While it is rare for a good-quality pair of adjustable poles to break, there is always the risk that something could go wrong. A fixed-length pole is much less likely to “malfunction”. Finally, a fixed-length pole is cheaper. To make the adjustable parts cost money. So if you see a fixed-length pole and an adjustable pole for the same price, then the fixed-length probably has nicer features, or is of a better quality, than the adjustable one.
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Where to buy poles in Halifax
Many speciality sports stores now sell Nordic walking poles. Make sure you verify that the salesperson can explain the difference between Trekking Poles and Nordic Walking Poles, before you buy! If you live in Halifax, you can purchase poles at the Trailshop, Oh My Sole!, and from Nordixx Canada’s local distributor in the Hydrostone.
I’m pleased to report that as of 2015, Mountain Equipment Co-op is now carrying Nordic walking poles again, although the Halifax store does not stock them so you have to order online (but there is no extra cost to have them shipped to the store). Please be careful because MEC carries many models of trekking poles but only one nordic walking pole at the moment. The pole is made by Komperdell and this link to the product on MEC’s webstie was working as of May 2016.
You can also try ordering poles online from various distributors (e.g. Amazon), which gives you access to all sorts of other good brands like Exel, Gabel and Swix, but I think it’s risky to order a pole that you can’t try out first.
In general, I find Leki to be a top-notch brand and would not hesitate to recommend any of their poles. I am also really pleased with MEC’s decision to carry the Komperdell Spirit Vario Pole (see link above), which has fantastic features (single-adjust pole of high quality material with quick-release adjustable strap) for an outstanding price. Please note however that their rubber tips are sub-par (I replaced mine with Leki tips).
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Where to replacement tips for your Nordic walking poles in Halifax
You can buy inexpensive (about $10 including tax) replacement tips either from Mountain Equipment Co-op or Nordixx here in Halifax. However! After much experimentation and experience in my classes, I would highly recommend that you spend $17.50 on a pair of Leki replacement tips (usually available at the Trail Shop). These tips are far superior to anything else I have tried – they are soft and gummy – therefore absorbing impact and preventing slip. However, despite their softness, they last an incredibly long time. Definitely worth the investment!
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Nordic Walking Technique Tips – How to start Nordic Walking:
Nordic walking is a somewhat complex skill to master. Anyone can walk with poles, but there are over a dozen distinct body movements associated with advanced Nordic walking technique.
Interestingly, not all aspects of the movement depend on having poles: part of the idea behind Nordic walking is to train your body to move in new, healthy ways that reduce impact and use more muscles than regular walking. Therefore, you can employ (and practice) many of the elements of Nordic walking without even owning a pair of poles!
Because the skill set is somewhat complex, I highly recommend a lesson with a certified instructor to ensure you develop good technique and don’t fall into any bad habits. I may be biased, since I’m an instructor myself- but you have no idea how many people I’ve seen walking with the poles incorrectly! If you hope to derive all the magnificent benefits that Nordic walking claims to offer, it’s worth investing in at least one lesson.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are a range of acceptable techniques that will give you health benefits – Nordic pole walking is still an evolving sport and there are many different schools of thought on the “best” way to do it. One company even sells poles with no hand straps at all! Your technique approach may also depend on your age and ability level – when I teach “advanced” technique I show you how to move your arms so the poles become completely airborne between strokes – but if you are using the poles for stability because you have bad knees, you probably don’t want to be throwing your poles around like that :)
To help get you started, I’ve posted a few tips and helpful hints here to help you build basic skills:
TIP 1 – Walk with relaxed hands and arms.
When people get a pair of poles in their hands, they instinctively want to grab the handles and hold tightly. However, this creates unnecessary tension in your hands, arms and right up into your shoulders and neck! It also impedes the natural, rhythmic arm-swing that is the foundation of good technique.
The fancy straps on good nordic walking poles are designed to attach your hand firmly to the pole. Therefore, there is no need to squeeze the handle!
As a first step to learning to nordic walk, I get my students to relax their arms and hands completely, and let the poles hang off of their wrists, pretending the poles are not there at all. I encourage them to walk like this until their arms start swinging gently and naturally in opposition to their feet, as all human arms do when we stroll along in a relaxed manner.
If you can get into a good natural swing-rhythm, then you’ll find the poles are naturally coming to exactly the right place (tips beside your feet, with about a 45 degree backwards angle), without you even having to think about it!
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TIP 2 – Practice your “pendulum swing”.
These days, a lot of us walk self-consciously, or stiffly. We do not let our arms swing in full healthy arcs from the shoulder, in natural opposition to our legs. Even those who do walk well tend to tighten up when they first get poles in their hands. To develop good Nordic walking technique, you must remind your body how to walk naturally, in an unreserved, carefree manner, letting your arms swing big and loose from the shoulder joint!
Without the poles, go for a walk around the block. Keep your upper body relaxed. You should feel as if each arm is a long pendulum, that swings based on the momentum of your body, rather than through a conscious, muscular action. Now try to extend your stride a bit, and walk more vigorously than you normally do. Notice how the more you increase the tempo, the more your arms will (hopefully) swing in opposition to your legs. (psst – swinging your hips will help too!).
What do I mean by opposition? It means that when your left leg is forward, your right hand is forward. And vice versa. This is called diagonal walking. Some new nordic walkers need to watch out for “bear walking” – when same arm and leg move together. I find that often, when you are concentrating on a new skill, your brain gets muddled and you start swinging your right hand with right leg, and left hand with left leg. If you notice this happening, stop, shake your arms loose, and start again.
Now, put on your poles, go walking with a friend, and practice together. Let the poles hang loose behind you, do not grip them at all during this training walk! Get your friend to watch out for bear-walking – make sure your legs consistently move in opposition to your arms. Next, get your friend to watch for an overly-controlled arm motion. They should also watch for too much elbow-bend. Your arms should swing spontaneously and loosely from the shoulder, in response to the energetic striding of your legs. If you are consciously lifting each arm and punching it forward, then you are thinking about it too much! Try to relax and pretend the poles simply don’t exist. With your fancy Nordic walking straps, the poles will follow you wherever you go – you do not need to hold on to the handles.
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Tip 3 – Practice your “Gunsling” to snap the poles forward and plant them at the correct angle
A key to successful pole handling at an advanced level is to be able to snap the pole forward quickly, in one smooth motion. The pole tip should land on the ground approximately in line with your torso, and should be angled at about 45 degrees. Most people try to grab, lift and plant the pole in front of them. This approach will result in stilted, awkward technique. An athletic nordic walker lets their poles swing forward without consciously lifting them up, following the natural and rhythmic swing of the arms (see Tips 1 & 2 above!)
The angle at which the pole plants is quite important. It is very common for beginners to plant their poles out in front of them, meaning the poles are straight vertical, or even angled back towards the body! While planting the poles this way can be useful for stabilizing you (especially going down steep hills), it is not at all helpful in propelling you forward. . .
Think about it: if your pole is straight vertical when it lands and you apply pressure to it, then the net effect will be to propel you up towards the sky. Try this out at home! Put the pole at different angles and push on it. You’ll find that when the pole is at 45 degrees behind you, you get the most efficient and powerful push in the forward direction.
Okay. Now we’re ready to learn how to sling the pole forward correctly – this is a bit tricky! To learn this “gunsling” skill, I recommend moving both poles together (double poling). The exercise can first be done standing still.
Put on your poles, stand straight with your feet beside each other, and throw both your arms out behind you, like you have just finished your pole push. Your arms should be extended behind your body, your fingers should be loose and open, and the poles should be hanging limply from the straps, with the tips on the ground far behind you. Just checking: you should not be gripping the poles or holding them in any way!
Now you’re ready to begin. The “gunsling” has two components. The first is a smooth forward “swoosh” with the whole arm, initiated by the shoulder muscles. Your hands are loose and relaxed and your elbows are barely bent. The poles follow your hands because they are attached by the straps, not because you are grabbing them! Remember, you should not be gripping the poles as you bring your arms forward.
When the pole tips approach your stationary feet and your arms are out nearly straight in front of you, you now undertake the second component of the motion: apply quick and confident downward pressure on the pole straps with the heel of your hands, in order to “catch” the tips on the ground. All this should be done with loose, slightly open hands. Please resist the urge to grab the handles when you apply downward pressure to the straps!
So, to review: a beginner tends to grab the poles, pick them up, carry them forward, then press them down into the ground again. In contrast, an advanced nordic walker loosely swings the whole arms forward with relaxed hands, the poles obediently following. When the poles reach the correct position, the experienced nordic walker applies sudden downward pressure on their straps with the heel of their hand, locking the pole tips in place against the ground.
To repeat this drill, take a couple of steps forward without moving your arms forward, so you are back to your starting position (arms behind, hands open, poles limply hanging off the wrists, pole tips far behind you). Then repeat the smooth, forward swing of the poles, immediately followed by quick and firm downward pressure on the straps.
Do this over and over again until you can reliably “catch” the poles in the appropriate place and at the appropriate angle without thinking too much about it.
Now try this same exercise while walking at a rhythmic pace (double pole while stepping forward with the left, then walk forward on the right while throwing the poles back behind you, then double pole while stepping forward with the left, etc.) Try this exercise a few times, alternating whether you’re poling with the left step or the right step.
When you’ve mastered that, try “regular” walking with one pole push at a time, and concentrate on your smooth and snappy forward sling!
Okay, that’s a beginning for you. There’s lots more to work on, especially in how you move your legs and feet– but if you want to find out more, you’ll have to take a lesson!
Question from Donna in Halifax:
A colleague at work asked me what the difference is between the Trekking and the Nordic walking poles… and besides the difference in the wrist vs hand grip, I wasn’t sure. Are the poles used for different terrains?
Answer from Kat:
Great question, Donna :-) The actual pole shafts are indeed similar- so if you were to put a fancy ergonomic hand strap on a trekking pole (which in many cases would be difficult or impossible, depending on the attachment mechanism, but anyhow!), and replace the flat rubber foot with an angled one, you could use the pole for Nordic walking.
That said, trekking poles are generally made with robustness in mind (think climbing up and down a mountain with a 60 lb pack), so they tend to be thicker, sturdier and heavier than the average Nordic walking pole (although inexpensive Nordic walking poles can be clunky too).
If you are an athletic pole walker who takes long smooth strides with loose swinging arms and poles flying up in the air behind you, you’re going to appreciate a light, responsive poles that swing nicely. Chances are, a trekking pole will not behave the way you want it to.
On the other hand, if you’re a beginner or gentle walker who keeps a firm hold on the poles at all times, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference!
Finally, can a Nordic walking pole be used for trekking? Although, as I’ve said, Nordic walking poles tend to be lighter and slimmer, they are still very strong. I’ve had big heavy people take a leap and put all their weight on the poles, and never seen them bend or buckle. I always tell people that Nordic walking poles work great for trekking, and in fact are like the “Cadillac” of Trekking poles, because they have a more comfy hand strap that fits like a glove.
Question from Pamela in Victoria:
“Do the little ‘feet’ at the bottom of the pole face forwards or backwards? Or does it matter?”
Answer from Kat:
Hello Pamela- thanks for the question: The “feet” face the opposite of your human feet.
i.e. the toe-part of the rubber tip faces backwards.
And you should know there is an important reason for this —
to be an effective nordic walker, you should always have the poles at an angle behind you, rather than placing them straight-vertical on the ground.
This is because the poles are supposed to help propel you forward, and if you have them straight-up-and-down and put downward pressure on the straps, the resulting vector of force will lift you up in the air, which is not helpful!!
If the poles contact the ground at approx a 45 degree angle as you walk, then the down-ward and backward pressure you place on the pole straps with the heel of your hand will do a great job of pushing you forward.
So if you look in a mirror while you put the poles at a 45 degree angle, you’ll note that *if* you have oriented the rubber tips correctly, they should lie flat against the ground.
The only other tidbit i’ll add, in case you didn’t know, is that the rubber tips are designed for pavement walking… if you’re ever out in the back-country on mud or dirt (or snow) you’ll want to remove them to reveal the metal spikes.
(As for gravel, I find there’s no ideal solution… the extra-large Leki brand tips are not too bad… or if you want to spend $35, the Leki “spike tip” pads (rubber with metal studs) – work pretty well!).