Everything You Need to Know About Nordic Walking

Last Updated: September 1, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Nordic walking is a fun and innovative way to get outside while also staying fit and being able to socialize with others. However, if you're new to the sport, you might have a lot of questions about how it works, what makes it different from normal walking, and what benefits it can offer to you.

Thankfully, we're here to help.

In this guide to all things Nordic walking, we'll introduce you to everything you need to know about this excellent fitness activity.

We'll discuss everything from the equipment you need to have to get started and even the basics of the ideal Nordic walking techniques so you can get out and enjoy your next adventure.

Key Takeaways
  • Nordic walking is a great form of exercise that helps engage your upper body and core muscles.
  • It's important to maintain the correct pole angle, plant & push with your poles, and find your personal rhythm while Nordic walking.
  • Adjustable poles are recommended for those who are struggling to find the right size, while fixed-length poles can be tricky to adjust on the go.
  • Joining a Nordic walking group or heading out with an instructor can help you perfect your technique if you're struggling to find your rhythm.

Intro to Nordic Walking

First things first, what is Nordic walking?

There's no official definition for Nordic walking, but it's generally thought of as a type of hiking-style activity where you walk for long distances using specially designed trekking poles that are similar to what you'd use if you went cross-country skiing. The idea is that these trekking poles help you involve your whole body in the sport so that you get more health benefits than you would from regular walking.

Nordic walking actually started out as a hiking trend in Finland where it's called sauvakävely. It was originally designed as a training regime for cross-country skiing for skiers that need a way to keep up their cardio-respiratory fitness levels even when there is no snow on the ground.

Nowadays, the sport has grown far beyond its humble origins and it is now a mode of exercise for thousands of people across the world. With the correct technique and the right telescoping poles, Nordic walking can be one of the best full-body exercises that you can do in the great outdoors.  

What are the Benefits of Nordic Walking?

There are many different benefits of Nordic walking. The sport offers a slew of advantages for participants of all experience levels and it has benefits for both your physical, mental and social well-being.

Here's a quick look at some of the many benefits that you can enjoy by regularly participating in Nordic walking.

What Are the Physical Health Benefits of Nordic Walking?

Nordic walking is a mode of exercise, so it should come as no surprise that it offers an assortment of physical benefits for the entire body. Some of these physical health benefits include:

  • Increased Calories Burned – Nordic walking is one of the most effective exercise activities you can do. In fact, when compared to conventional walking, the Nordic method can burn upwards of 20% more calories per hour. This has to do, in part, because walking with trekking poles engages your upper body but also because the intensity of exercise tends to increase when you go Nordic walking.
  • Minimized Impact on Body – Walking on hard surfaces puts a lot of pressure on your ankles, hips, back, and knees, which can be painful if you suffer from overuse injuries or conditions like arthritis. But with the proper technique, the trekking poles you use while Nordic walking can greatly reduce the impact on your joints, all while allowing you to get the exercise you need.
  • Improved Heart Health – Since Nordic walking is a full-body workout, it increases your cardiovascular activity. However, studies have found that it doesn't seem to make you as exhausted as the equivalent amount of regular walking. As a result, it may be able to help you improve your cardiorespiratory fitness by allowing you to exercise for longer than you'd otherwise be able to. Other studies have even found that Nordic walking can improve your overall lung capacity, which is great from a fitness perspective.

What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Nordic Walking?

Although we often focus on the physical health benefits of this fun form of walking exercise, Nordic walking also provides a number of great mental health benefits, too.

In particular, research has found that Nordic walking can help people with a variety of mental health challenges, such as depression and difficulty sleeping. 

Additionally, Nordic walking is often done in groups, such as through organized exercise classes. As a result, it offers superb opportunities for socializing while also keeping up your exercise intensity.

This added socialization can make a big difference in your overall well-being. In fact, one study found that some of the mental health-related positive benefits that come from vigorous exercise may actually be the result of the social aspects of being around others and not necessarily from the activity itself.

Who Can Benefit Most from Nordic Walking?

Although Nordic walking started out as a resistance exercise and training system for cross country skiers, it has since become a popular activity for people who want a full-body form of exercise that also lets them socialize and get outside.

As a result, anyone can benefit from this fun form of walking. Whether you're a young athlete that wants to improve their range of motion, muscle mass, and cardio-respiratory fitness or you're a retiree that's interested in staying active and making new friends, there are plenty of benefits of Nordic walking for you to enjoy.

Essential Nordic Walking Equipment

Now that you understand the basics of Nordic walking and its many benefits when compared to conventional walking, it's time to focus on how you can get started with the sport. With that in mind, we'll first turn our attention to the different equipment you'll need to launch your personal Nordic walking journey.

Nordic Walking Poles

If there's one piece of gear that's critical to Nordic walking, it's this: Nordic poles.

In fact, without the right pair of Nordic poles, you'd just be outside doing some regular walking. Of course, conventional walking is great, too, but there are many mental and physical benefits that you just can't get without a quality pair of Nordic walking poles.

It's important to note that Nordic walking poles and regular trekking poles are not the same things. They're both very similar, but poles that are made specifically for Nordic walking have specialized rubber tips that are better for use on pavement. Most models also have unique grips and wrist strap systems that you don't normally get with hiking poles.

There are both one-piece poles (i.e., a fixed-length pole) and telescoping poles available for Nordic walking, so it's up to you to decide which style you like best. The important thing is that you get a pair that feels comfortable in your hands and that doesn't inhibit your range of motion.

Nordic Walking Shoes

After Nordic walking poles, the next most important piece of gear you need before you can head outside is the right pair of Nordic walking shoes.

There are hundreds of different shoes out there that can work well for Nordic walking, so what's key here is that you get shoes that fit well on your feet. As a general rule, shoes that are designed for activities like hiking and regular walking will work well for Nordic walking.

However, if you primarily plan to walk off-trail, it's worth investing in shoes that are specifically designed for hiking as these will provide better traction, durability, and support on rocky terrain. 

Apparel 

As is the case with all forms of outdoor activity, you'll need to have the right clothing for your adventures. 

There's no set uniform or any rules that you have to follow when you dress for Nordic walking, but dressing in layers, much like you would for any other form of outdoor aerobic exercise, is a great idea.

In particular, consider wearing clothing that's breathable and that wicks away moisture as this will keep you more comfortable as you walk. If cold or inclement weather is in the forecast, you may also want to layer with insulating fleece or puffy jackets. A lightweight windbreaker or rain jacket is also a good idea if wind or rain is expected during your outing.

Additionally, don't forget to wear a hat and potentially even a lightweight pair of gloves if you're venturing outside to Nordic walk during the colder months of the year. Ultimately, the more comfortable you are while you walk, the more likely you are to continue exercising over the long term and reach your cardiovascular fitness goals.

Nordic Walking Technique: The Basics

Congrats! At this point, you already know a lot about the benefits of Nordic walking and the gear that you need to get started. 

But what about the different Nordic walking techniques, you might ask?

Worry not, we're here to introduce you to the basics of Nordic walking and how it differs from conventional walking.

Proper technique is actually critical to getting all of the physical benefits of Nordic walking and reducing your risk for injury in the long term. So perfecting your technique is key before you start setting out on longer journeys.

With that in mind, here's what you need to know about proper technique when Nordic walking.

Step 1: Hold Your Poles Correctly

The first step toward learning the proper Nordic walking technique is mastering the art of holding your walking poles correctly.

Your grip is particularly important with Nordic walking because over gripping can cause hand fatigue while under gripping can cause you to lose control over your poles—neither of which is ideal.

That said, the correct way to grip Nordic walking poles isn't a static motion. Rather, when you grip Nordic walking poles, the strength of your grip will vary with each step you take.

The general idea is that your grip needs to be firm as you plant your pole into the ground and propel yourself forward. Then it needs to loosen as your hand swings backward toward your hip. Finally, your grip will tighten again as you bring your hand forward to prepare for your next pole plant.

Throughout all of this, as your hand tightens and loosens its grip, the pole itself should stay attached to your hand, thanks to the included wrist straps. It's important that you follow the manufacturer's guidelines for how to wear your Nordic walking poles' wrist straps as the proper fit can vary from model to model.

While this might all seem a bit over-complicated, the reality is that you'll get the hang of the correct pole grip with just a few outings' worths of practice. The primary goal is that you maintain full control of your poles at all times without letting the tips scrape across the ground and without tiring your hands out in the process.

Step 2: Stand Upright & Master Your Form

Now that you know how to hold your Nordic poles correctly, it's time to focus on what the rest of your body is doing as you walk.

As is the case with normal walking, standing fully upright with good posture is important while Nordic walking.

Doing so is arguably even more important with Nordic walking because you want your body to be comfortable if you're going to be active for an extended period of time. You also want to avoid any breathing or balance issues as well as the unnecessary stress on your knee joints and hip joints that comes when you slouch while walking.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you want to get a full stride with each step to maximize the efficiency of your leg muscles. Getting a fuller arm swing can help, but it's also important that you walk heel to toe as this can help extend your stride beyond what's possible if you land primarily on the balls of your feet.

If walking heel to toe is painful for you or if you have issues with maintaining good posture over an extended period of time, be sure to consult your doctor to decide whether Nordic walking is the right form of walking exercise for your needs. Alternatively, if you're struggling with your form, consider signing up for a class with a Nordic walking instructor for extra guidance and support.

Step 3: Maintain The Correct Pole Angle

One of the most overlooked aspects of Nordic walking technique is the position of the Nordic poles themselves.

When you go Nordic walking, your poles should never swing out in front of you. Doing so is not only dangerous to the people around you, but it throws your body off balance and it makes you less efficient as you walk.

Therefore, whenever you go Nordic walking, it's imperative that your poles stay pointed at the ground and at a slight angle toward the ground behind you so that they don't hit anyone as you swing your arms forward and backward. You don't want them to swing too high behind you, either, as this can be dangerous for the people that are following you on the trail.

The good news is that maintaining the right grip on your poles normally helps to prevent them from swinging wildly as you walk. However, you'll need to be conscious of keeping your poles at a slight backward-pointing angle at all times to minimize any issues as you walk.

Step 4: Plant & Push With Your Poles

Although Nordic poles can also help you with your dynamic balance as you walk, they're primarily designed to help engage your upper body with every step you take. Therefore, whenever you go Nordic walking, you need to be sure that you're actively using your poles to propel you forward.

The best way to do this is to plant your pole into the ground so that it's located between your two feet—not out in front of you. This allows you to push off your pole with each step that you take. Doing so will help engage the major muscle groups in your upper body and will help engage your core.

If you're struggling with this technique, the size of your Nordic poles may be to blame. If you have adjustable poles, you may need to test them out at different sizes to see which option works best for your needs. That said, can't adjust the length of fixed-length poles, so it's important that you know what size you need before you buy.

Step 5: Find Your Rhythm

Last but not least, don't forget that Nordic walking is all about finding your own personal rhythm.

The basic rhythm you'll want to follow while Nordic walking goes a bit like this: You'll plant your right foot and your left pole on the ground at the same time. Then, you'll take a step with your left foot and plant your right foot at the same time. 

You'll continue this same technique of using the opposite arm and leg with each step throughout your walk. Doing so makes you much more efficient as you walk so that you can keep your heart rate up and make the most of your time on the trail.

But as is the case with all forms of exercise, perfecting your Nordic walking technique and rhythm takes time. Joining a Nordic walking group or heading out with a Nordic walking instructor for an introductory course can help you perfect your technique if you're struggling to find your rhythm.

Make Nordic Walking Part of Your Adventure Routine

There are few better ways to exercise and enjoy the wonders of the great outdoors than Nordic walking. At this point, you're more than familiar with the basics of the sport, so you're ready to get yourself some Nordic poles and hit the trail. See you out there!

Gaby Pilson is a professional outdoor educator and climbing instructor with over ten years of experience delivering outdoor experiences. She holds multiple outdoor safety and education certifications and specializes in guiding expeditions to the polar regions. Gaby also works as a Wilderness Medicine Instructor and Climbing Wall Instructor Course Provider.
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