It happens every time I head out on the paved trails just steps from where I live in Indiana to log some miles. Somebody inevitably shouts something at me from their car as they pass by. I’ve heard everything from “Where’s the snow?” to “Are you asphalt skiing?”
Those comments, which used to make me cringe, now make me laugh. I totally get it. After all, I am a bit of an enigma, namely because I’m walking with a pair of poles. I’ve earned a reputation as “that girl with poles,” something I always hear when I meet people for the first time and they realize where they’ve seen me.
Walking with poles might sound odd, but it’s actually a sport called Nordic walking that’s popular in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. I fell so hard for this sport when I was introduced to it over a decade ago that I started competing in it and at one point, held six world records. Although only two still stand (one in marathon distance and another for 20 miles), I’m as passionate about Nordic walking as I ever have been. Here’s why.
Nordic walking originated as a dry-land/warm-weather training alternative for cross-country skiers.
If there's a sport I love as much as Nordic walking, it’s cross-country skiing (classic style). It’s one of the most aerobic sports you can do, and I love that it not only works my entire body but also lulls me into a rhythm. As I slice through the snow, I hear the gentle purr of my skis, I watch my ski tips move steadily as if they were two boats in an Olympic rowing competition, and I feel the steady beat of my heart. I’m also out in nature, usually in a wooded area, and there’s nothing more peaceful than having trees as your exercise buddies.
So it makes a lot of sense that I fell in love with the snow-free version of the sport. Also, because the Finnish technically invented Nordic walking, it's fitting that I like it, since I’m 51 percent Finn.
Nordic walking is not very different from regular walking—you’re just adding ski poles for your hands.
When a leading ski pole manufacturer—that also makes poles for Nordic walking—invited me and a few other journalists a few years ago to learn the sport during a weekend trip to Vermont, and even train with some members of the Canadian national cross-country skiing team, I jumped at the chance.
For three days, I learned the basic Nordic walking technique, which is not much different than simply walking, besides the fact that you have poles in your hands. Opposite arm moves with opposite leg. Yet for many people, putting poles in their hands suddenly makes a motion they’ve been doing since they were maybe nine months old challenging. Unless you’re an avid cross-country skier, you’re not used to moving with poles so there is a learning curve with the sport.
That’s why you start by dragging the poles behind you (you have straps to keep your hands attached). Once you get that, you start planting the poles so that you stab the pole on the ground somewhere between the back of your front foot and front of your back foot. The last step is pushing the poles back (hello, triceps!) when your arms reach your hips.
Once you get the hang of it, you can cruise along and even achieve a similar intensity as running but with less perceived exertion.
In other words, even though a heart rate monitor will tell you that you’re working hard, it doesn’t always feel like it. The reason? Instead of using only two limbs, you’re distributing the workload between four limbs, which explains why we Nordic walkers don’t feel as beat up after doing an intense workout (or even a half or full marathon) as we would if we were running.
Since Nordic walking has you using more muscles in your body at once than regular walking does, you’re also naturally going to up the intensity. Go as slow or as fast as you’d like, but whatever speed you choose, you’re still working at a higher intensity than you would be without the poles. In fact, according to the American Nordic Walking Association, you engage about 90 percent of the muscles in your body while Nordic walking. And although you do use your core when you're walking or running, Nordic walking engages and challenges the upper body in ways that running never did. Truth be told, as a result of Nordic walking, I’ve never felt so strong, not only in my legs but also core my and upper body.
What’s more, Nordic walking is by nature a low-impact sport, which makes this an ideal cross-training option for runners.
I don’t just walk with poles. I’m also doing interval training, speed work, and traversing different terrains.
On days that I’m doing interval training, I might be bounding, leaping, or skipping. I might even run with poles in Fartlek-style training, a type of unstructured speed play where I alternate between moderate-intensity walking and a little bit more vigorous walking. And I don’t have to stick with road surfaces alone, although I have snagged all of my world records on that surface. The poles have rubber booties or “paws” at the bottom to cover their spiked tip when you’re on a road. Yet you can take the paws off and use the poles on dirt trails. You can even buy “baskets” (round disks that slip onto the bottom of the poles) to do this in the snow.
And just like with running, Nordic walking is a great way to work out when traveling, while simultaneously exploring a new place. You can get collapsible versions of poles that pack well in a suitcase, though you just can’t carry them onto planes—they have to go in your checked luggage. You can also buy non-collapsible poles (which is what I use to compete), that are stored in their own bag and checked just like skis are.
The poles provide such a rhythmic experience that every time I use them, I feel not only physically recharged but mentally, too, especially when I’m in a park or nature setting. I wish I could put poles in everybody’s hands. Anybody care to join me for a little asphalt skiing?