3 Mistakes Common With Nordic Trekking Poles (and Why You Should Get It Right)

Learn how to use Nordic trekking poles to boost your walking workout

Hands down, walking is one of the most accessible and most effective forms of cardiovascular activity around. The sheer simplicity of throwing on a pair of walking shoes and heading out the door makes it the perfect workout when you're short on time or low on energy. In fact, if you take your walk outside, there's substantial evidence to indicate you'll reap positive mental health benefits as well, including reduced levels of stress, improved mood, and enhanced self-esteem. 

Despite all the positive health benefits associated with taking a simple walk, this basic form of exercise is often overlooked as "too easy," and is treated as though it "doesn't count" as much as trendy, high-intensity workouts, such as group cycling, boot camps, and CrossFit.

This is a shame, because while walking may not have the Instagram cache of these other popular workouts, walking's low risk of injury makes it the perfect starting point for anyone who's taken a hiatus from hitting the gym. Plus, the activity's low injury rate leads to greater adherence, which can ultimately contribute to a more consistent exercise routine. 

Consistency plays a huge role in results, folks, which is why no one should overlook or scoff at walking as an excellent form of exercise. 

That being said, if you're sitting there thinking, "But I can burn a lot more calories jumping rope or running," technically you're correct. Walking isn't the most intense or highest calorically challenging workout around. But what if there were a way to boost your calorie burn during your walking workout, without substantially increasing your perceived effort? In other words, you could have your cake and eat it, too.

No, this isn't some crazy snake oil sales tactic, it's Nordic walking. 

The Benefits of Nordic Walking

1. Burn More Calories

Malin Svensson, a Nordic Walking expert and the founder of Nordic Body explains, "According to a study by The Cooper Institute, Nordic Walking burns 20 to 45 percent more calories than regular walking, depending on the specific technique being used." 

Think about that for a minute. Typically, a 155-pound person can burn about 116 calories during a moderate-intensity walk of roughly three miles per hour. That same person could enjoy a calorie burn somewhere between 140 and 170 calories during the same 30-minute walk, just by walking with trekking poles. That's pretty significant.

2. Challenge Your Upper Body

But walking poles aren't just good for calorie burn, Svensson explains they're also popular because they're a way of adding upper-body strength work to your cardiovascular routine. "You don't get that with regular walking. Because you use the poles during Nordic walking, you apply pressure from the pole to the ground. Your upper body responds and your muscles activate, including your core, chest, triceps, and back."

And because the pole essentially acts as an extension of your arm when you use proper form, you don't have to worry about them altering your gait the way your might when wearing wrist weights or carrying hand weights.

3. Reduce Stress to the Lower Body

Finally, when you use trekking poles during your walk, the downward force of the pole on the ground actually helps reduce the stress placed on your lower body joints, including your ankles, knees, and hips. Svensson puts it this way, "[Walking with the poles] is essentially like walking with two extra legs, which means you end up distributing weight through 'four legs' instead of two."

In fact, A 2006 review study published in Medical Rehabilitation found that Nordic walking is an intensive and safe form of exercise that can comfortably be added to physical rehabilitation programs for groups including the elderly, patients with pain, and patients with neurological or cardiovascular conditions. 

How and When to Use Nordic Walking Poles

While you may feel a little self-conscious the first time you bust out a new set of trekking poles, Svensson can assure you that walking poles are beneficial for any walking workout because of how they're constructed. It is important, however, that you choose a high-quality brand that offers shock-absorbant tips to reduce impact to the upper extremities. For instance, Svensson points to the LEKI Instructor Lite Nordic Walking Pole as an example, "At the bottom of each pole is an Asphalt Paw which can be removed so there's a spike tip exposed. Because of both options, you can use Nordic walking poles on any surface. You can literally start right outside your doorstep to get a full-body workout." 

She goes on to emphasize that this type of pole isn't designed only for hiking—a common misconception, as they're often viewed as a tool for hiking. In fact, "Nordic walking poles are specifically intended for Nordic walking exercises and different terrains—concrete, dirt, asphalt, and more. You don't have to go into the mountains. Any sidewalk, park trail, or field will do." 

Learning Correct Nordic Walking Form

Nordic walking may take a little getting used to since most people aren't accustomed to toting around a long pole in each hand, but it's certainly not rocket science—it's walking. You've hopefully been doing it for years. To get your form right, you just need to pay attention to a few key parts of the movement where common mistakes take place. 

Svensson says, "The appropriate form of Nordic walking looks like someone is cross country skiing. The arm is open, and the pole should angle behind you throughout each step. Essentially, the pole becomes an extension of your arm, forming one straight line." 

The most common mistakes people make when starting out are easy to correct, and Svensson has the tips you need to start off on the right foot (pun intended). Each of the following images shows the correct form of a position during a fluid Nordic walking stride, as well as the common mistake associated with that position. As you test-drive your trekking poles, don't hesitate to walk at a quick clip, using speed, power, and force as you work on your form. 

Choosing Nordic Walking  Poles

Most high-quality Nordic walking poles range in price from about $50 to $150, depending on construction and features. It's important to look for telescoping poles that can be adjusted to an appropriate height for your physiology and mechanics. Lightweight construction and shock-absorbancy are also important features. 

Depending on where and how you intend to use your walking poles, you may also want to use a pole with the dual tip option as mentioned above, that enables you to transition from asphalt to grass or dirt without a problem.

1
Correct Form: Swinging Opposite Arms and Legs

Nordic Walking Rhythm
Aftonbladet and Malin Svensson at Nordic Body

Common Mistake: Swinging the same arm and same leg forward and backward as you stride. In other words, swinging the right arm forward at the same time as the right leg, and vice versa.

For some reason when people grab trekking poles, they seem to forget how they normally swing their arms and legs. With Nordic walking, your gait and arm swing don't change—every time you take a step forward with your right foot, your left arm should swing forward. Every time you take a step forward with your left foot, your right arm should swing forward. 

Correct the Mistake:  Find your natural arm and leg rhythm by dragging the poles with your hands open as shown in the image.provided.

2
Correct Form: Natural Arm Motion, Free From Restriction

Nordic Walking Plant
Aftonbladet and Malin Svensson at Nordic Body

Common Mistake: Keeping your elbow "glued" to your waist, only allowing your forearms to move. 

When you fix your upper arm and elbow to your side, only moving your forearms, you're drastically limiting your range of motion and preventing the natural follow through that takes place when you allow your arms to swing freely from the shoulders. This also results in a vertical "planting" of the poles on the ground in front of you, which again, limits your range of motion and prevents the 'four legged' impact distribution to your lower limbs.

Correct the Mistake: Free your elbow from your waist by reaching your hand forward like a handshake as you plant the pole.

3
Correct Form: Allowing the Pole to Angle Behind You

Nordic Walking Push
Aftonbladet and Malin Svensson at Nordic Body

Common Mistake: Holding or planting the pole so it's positioned vertically.

When range of motion is limited, the vertical "planting" of the pole's tip on the ground is a natural result. This is incorrect, but the fix is simple.

Correct the Mistake: Maintain the angle of the pole with the end of the pole always behind you by using the dragging exercise displayed in the first image above. 

Sources:

Church TS, Earnest CP, Morss GM. Field testing of physiological responses associated with Nordic Walking. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport. Volume 73, Number 3, p296-300. 2002. 

Di Loreto MD, C, Fanelli MD, C, Lucidi MD, P, et al., Make Your Diabetic Patients Walk. Diabetes Care. Vol. 28, Number 6, p1295-1302. 2005. 

Gladwell V, Brown D, Wood C, et al. The great outdoors: How a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme Physiology & Medicine. Vol 2, Number 3. 2013.

Kocur P, Wilk M. Nordic Walking - a new form of exercise in rehabilitation. Medical Rehabilitation. Volume 10, Number 2, p1-8. 2006.

Murtagh E, Nichols L, Mohammed M, et al. The effect of walking on risk factors for cardiovascular disease: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised control trials. Preventive Medicine. Volume 72, p34-43. 2015.

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