Taking the First Steps / Nordic walking

Nordic walking

Poling, Posture, and Stride

Considering you’ve been walking for most of your life, how tough can Nordic walking be? Beginners often comment that learning is a bit harder than they had expected. Nordic walking requires longer movements of the arms and legs than classic power walking does. You’re also learning to deal with unfamiliar equipment. This article teaches you to use your equipment effectively and efficiently to prevent injuries. Skill progressions serve as stepping stones to help you safely and comfortably improve your technique. Some people learn to Nordic walk very quickly and others don’t. Acquiring this new set of skills takes practice, regardless of your fitness level.
A low-impact approach to conditioning is the safest way to learn Nordic walking without injuring your knees and rotator cuffs. Repetitive-use injuries are common with high-impact techniques that advocate tightly gripping the handles, lifting the poles off the ground, and planting the pole tips with intentional force. This chapter explains proper use of the equipment, specifically the rubber tips, which are your tools for strength training and resistance. When you use the new piece of strength-training equipment, work on your form before adding resistance. Once you’ve learned form and technique for Nordic walking, you can safely add tip resistance to take your training objectives to new levels, including specific cardiorespiratory training, strength, agility, and power.
Given that Nordic walking was originally created as dry-land training for cross-country skiers, some obvious similarities exist between the two sports. Both enhance the body’s natural patterns of movement for walking, running, and skating. They are cardiorespiratory in nature and improve posture. Some of the skills of cross-country skiing do crossover to Nordic walking, but the physics, biomechanics, and skill sets are different because there is no glide time like on snow. The advantage of Nordic walking is that you can practice it throughout the year.
In spite of bad habits, over time, people develop the bodily awareness to sit, stand, and move with efficiency. Many people have lost the natural ability to swing their arms and legs in opposition as they walk. Some people have never learned about posture, walking technique, or seated ergonomics. Others have experienced physical challenges, such as injury or illness, which affect their movements. As a result, the area around the torso and pelvis locks, creating a tremendous muscle imbalance that changes the bone structure of the spine. Some move from the elbows and knees (instead of from the shoulders and hips), failing to rotate the torso or pelvis.
Physical therapists often recommend Nordic walking for loosening up the upper back, torso, and pelvis. Nordic walking builds the structure for a natural and symmetrical gait, helping you improve your posture, muscle balance, core strength, heart function, weight, athletic ability, and overall fitness. Nordic walkers often comment that the techniques bring rhythm and coordination to their normal walking patterns.
Proper pole height is very important in order to correctly use the equipment and prevent injury. See chapter 2 for instructions on determining the correct pole height. Especially for beginners, poles that are too long keep you from fully extending your arms, negatively affecting your shoulders and back. Adjust your poles to the proper height before beginning.
An efficient Nordic walking stride includes relaxed and natural gait in which the arms and legs move in comfortable opposition. As their swing increases, so does the stride length. Practice helps you create resistance with an efficient arm swing that allows optimal contact of the pole tips to the ground.
Choose an area for walking that is free of traffic. You need a space at least 4 feet (1.2 m) wide to accomplish a stride for moderate fitness. If you are walking with others, be respectful of personal space. Your poles can get tangled with your neighbor’s if you walk too close together! Chapter 6 provides more details about selecting the proper outdoor environment.

Skill Development and Injury Prevention 
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommendations for healthy activity and training define injury prevention as the highest quality of any fitness program. Most Nordic walking injuries are due to repetitive use, or repeated jarring, of the shoulders and rotator cuffs. These upper-body injuries happen over time with use of inefficient techniques that produce impact. Rolling through the length of the feet creates less impact for the lower body. Other injuries include bruises and contusions due to carelessness.
You can avoid injury with a combination of knowledge of technical skills and of the body’s learning process. When you begin a new activity or sport, you often attempt to recreate the skill. When you learn sequentially, your skills are positional, as in a still photograph, rather than dynamic, as in a movie. At first, you need to think through the learning process. This book teaches techniques sequentially, or one at a time, to give you time to acquire the skills appropriately. However, you don’t need to think as much as your execution becomes more automatic. Practice results in a dynamic blend of skills. In Nordic walking, this can take anywhere from 8 to 80 practice sessions!
When learning remains sequential, movements eventually become contrived and unrealistic. This happens when walkers fail to see movement and skills as a dynamic continuum. An example of a contrived skill is the release of the poles. Classic Nordic walking techniques mimic cross-country skiing. Still photographs often show the hand releasing the pole well behind the body. However, if an average person attempts this technique with Nordic walking poles, the movements are often forced and unsuccessful. This process is based on a perception, perhaps one of a motionless image, like a snapshot, of “good” technique rather than in the reality of the dynamic needs of Nordic walking. There is nothing flowing or dynamic about this type of effort. Nordic walking movements should feel natural.
The opposite technique involves economy of motion, in which you learn to move only as necessary to accomplish the skills. You adapt to the physical demands instead of trying to plan out your load. The best skiers use economy of motion, moving only to adjust their balance. This principle is as important for athletes doing high-intensity training as it is for elderly people who simply wish to walk around the block.
As you explore Nordic walking, remember that no single technique works for everyone! For example, very skilled Nordic walkers can accomplish a classic cross-country pole release mostly during the high-intensity drills like bounding which takes the place of the “glide” in cross-country skiing allowing enough time for the release to take place. However, most people will never reach that level of biomechanical ability. The best techniques help you feel successful right away, regardless of your limitations. If you’re having a hard time grasping the methods of Nordic walking, you need more information, better information, or more practice.
Pace is important because it affects how quickly your skill develops. At first, your pace is gradual while you slow movements down to effectively learn skills. With practice, your stride length will increase, working the muscles of the feet, ankles, and lower legs with deliberate movements. If you have done fitness walking for a long time, you may try to perform the foot speed and tempo of the power walk, which feels awkward combined with the longer levers of Nordic walking. This technique is unnatural. Instead, practice a calm and consistent cadence. Your objective in Nordic walking is to be coordinated, rhythmical, graceful, elegant, and powerful. 
Remember that even if you pick up the techniques quickly, you must still take time to change the movement patterns you’ve been practicing your entire life. This process usually takes eight weeks. Changing too much and too soon injures muscles, connective tissues, and nerves. Imagine doing a long series of very high kicks, like the cancan. When was the last time you did high kicks? Most people would say never, or that it’s been a long time. Trying the cancan would likely result in some kind of ankle, groin, or back injury because your body does not have the flexibility or strength to sustain that type of movement without momentum. You will get similar results if you try to change your stride length from 13 to 15 inches (33-38 cm) overnight. Your training progression starts with skill development. This chapter provides an eight-week program to aid your progress.

Technique Progressions 
Give your body enough time to adapt to new loads and moving with longer levers by learning in a progression. The following techniques are presented in the order in which they should be practiced. Eventually, these skills will become more automatic, with one blending smoothly into the next. If you start noticing small mistakes, like lack of coordination or bouncing the tips, refer back to these skills. It is likely that you’ve missed a step. Together, these skills create an efficient Nordic walking technique that keeps you free of injury. The following workout gives you eight weeks to get into your Nordic walking groove! 

Progressions for Upper-Body Technique: 
Poling and Posture The first thing you may notice about Nordic walking is how upright and relaxed the posture is (figure 3.1). This is because tip contact stimulates postural muscles. Efficiently connecting the rubber tips with the walking surface requires a lot of practice. However, once those tips make contact, resistance is carried from the ground to your body through the poles, activating the primary postural muscles of the back and core!

(Figure 3.1 Nordic walking requires an upright and relaxed posture.)

As you’ll learn, your primary focus when first learning upper body skills is not tip contact. As my golf instructor always says, “Focus on your swing and forget the ball!” Similarly, forget about the rubber tip, focusing instead on swinging the arm from the shoulder and the pole to find the sweet spot and engage the tips! The swing of the arm originates at the shoulder, carrying the hand and pole as it moves forward (figure 3.2). Many beginners assume they are supposed to lift and “place” the tips on the surface. This is an incorrect assumption—with proper technique via the one arm swing, the tips automatically aeroplane to the optimal spot on the surface. Long Arms is the second of eight basic skills that help you glide the tips along the walking surface.
Along with excellent posture, another noticeable quality of good Nordic walking is the effortless flow of the shoulders, arms, hands, and poles. The pole swing is an enhancement of normal arm movement for walking. Think of your arms as elongated bananas that maintain a slight elbow flex as they move in opposition to the legs. The pole tips propel the body’s weight forward by pushing from behind.
The Nordic walking stride is completed with upper-body alignment. For successful striding, balance your head over your shoulders and keep your chin level with the walking surface. Focus your eyes ahead. Balance your shoulders over the pelvis for a strong base of support. Relax and elongate your shoulders and arms. Gently cup the poles’ handles to keep the wrists aligned in neutral (figure 3.3).

(Figure 3.2 The movements of the arms are like long levers, and the head should be balanced over the shoulders with the chin level with the walking surface.)
(Figure 3.3 Relax the shoulders and elongate the arms while keeping your wrists in a neutral position.)

Once you can travel with speed and a wider stride, attempt to passively release the handle as your hand moves past your hip. However, if you are not travelling with sufficient velocity, you will not have enough time for the release. As you relax your grip at your hip, feel how your arm naturally lengthens as you walk forward to maintain tip contact for as long as possible. As a drill, some experienced Nordic walkers try to form a continuous line of the pole and arm.

Technique Progression 1: Walk and Swing
Rediscover the qualities of a natural gait. Walk and Swing gives you time  to feel the oppositional long lever movements of the legs and arms as they swing, and to feel the location of the swings. Instructors refer back to Walk and Swing more than any other skill. If you do not have an awareness of oppositional movement, you will have difficulty mastering all the other skills.
 1. Before beginning to walk, draw your awareness to your posture. Stand upright.
 2. Begin walking slowly on a flat, paved surface, as if you were strolling on the beach. Your stride should feel slower at first.
 3. Let go of your poles. Forget they are hanging from your wrists, forget the tips and do not be concerned if they are dragging at first. That will disappear with practice.
 4. Use this time to become aware of the oppositional movement of your arms and legs. Work on feeling rhythmical, coordinated, and somewhat automated.
 5. Try not to look down at the ground. Instead, hold your chin level with the walking surface. This practice appropriately balances the head’s weight to maintain excellent posture and promote lower-back health.

Technique Progression 2: Long Arms
The purpose of this skill progression is to build your motor-skill memory for arm movement during forward propulsion with Nordic walking poles. Until now, your arm levers have been short during running or walking. The arm pumps more quickly for traditional power walking, which therefore shortens the stride length. This drill moves at a slower, lankier tempo. Acquiring this skill is the key to mastering all other Nordic walking skills.
 1. Extend your arm as if to shake someone’s hand. This is the appropriate length for Long Arms.
 2. Recognize that in a natural gait, your arms swing to and fro. Half the swing takes place in front of the body, and the other half occurs behind it. But, Nordic walking requires lots more forward movement and much less back swing—hardly any, in fact!
 3. At first, concentrate only on the forward movement of your arm. The arm swings farther in front, finishing its swing as it passes the hip.
 4. As your hand and pole follow your arm, your hand should move no higher than your navel. Lower your hands and relax your shoulders!
 5. At this point of your skill development, you may start to notice an increase in leg length and torso rotation.

Technique Progression 3: Cupping for Grip Development 
Once you have established oppositional awareness and longer arms, develop a better relationship with the pole handles. The most efficient  way to hold the pole handles is to cup them, using relaxed effort to guide the poles. As you practice, you may develop several inefficient movements of the hand and wrists.
 1. Rest the pole handle in the middle of your palm.
 2. Wrap your thumb gently around your forefinger to create a light bond.
 3. Lightly wrap the remaining fingers around the pole. Cupping the poles allows you more control during forward propulsion.

Technique Progressions for the Lower Body: 
Stride Length and Walking Mechanics Almost instantly after beginning Nordic walking, you can feel your lower body change its movements to match the long levers of the upper body. In motorskill development, leg movement tends to follow arm movement. Try walking with long arms and a short, quick stride. Or try the opposite, walking with bent elbows and long legs. Neither process feels like a natural effort.

(Figure 3.4 For the Nordic walking stride, the heel of your lead foot should gently meet the ground as your opposite arm and hand swing forward from your shoulder)

Your lead leg should move forward from the hip. The heel of your lead foot should gently meet the ground as your opposite arm and hand swing forward from your shoulder (figure 3.4). The pole tip should make contact with the ground somewhere between the opposite heel and the middle of your stride distance between the feet. Flex the foot and roll it along the ground from the heel to toes, then swing the other leg through. In order to make technical progress, your Nordic walking stride length should be longer than your typical walking stride.

Technique Progression 4: Long Legs 
Focusing on extending the leg from the hip and making efficient contact between the foot and the walking surface reduces impact on the lower body. The feet and lower legs become alive with sensation. Reduce impact by rolling the whole foot along the ground with each stride. This practice  helps your knees and lower legs cushion surface contact and stimulates key muscles of the lower body that are responsible for balance and stability.
 1. Start slowly with Walk and Swing to establish opposition. Become aware of your legs swinging forward from the hips.
 2. Now bring attention to your feet and ankles. The most efficient strides utilize the entire foot. Your foot makes first contact by gently touching the heel to the ground, then rolls, touching each portion to the walking surface. As the toes make contact, use them to push off for the stride of the other leg. This practice strengthens the ankles and improves balance.
 3. As you walk, extend your stride by an inch (2.5 cm) and maintain your rhythm.
 4. After several minutes of practice, the pelvis may also move in opposition to the upper body

Technique Progression 5: Developing Stride Length Stride 
length is the distance between the feet as you walk forward.
 It is also  affected by limb length. Long legs generate more distance for your effort. A person who is 5 feet 2 inches (157 cm) takes two steps for every step  taken by someone who is 6 feet 2 inches (188 cm). Likewise, tall people  have a difficult time moving slowly enough to match the pace of a shorter person. This is perhaps the only limitation for Nordic walkers. The solution is to walk with friends of similar height, or to get into really good shape!
 1. Use long arms, long legs, and cupping to enhance your stride length.
 2. Draw your awareness to your leg speed and the distance between your feet.
 3. Exaggerate stride length only as a drill in slow motion. Methodically step longer and slower, but do not bend your knee into a lunge. Your knees should remain relaxed, and your legs and arms should be long and coordinated.
 4. Go up a gentle hill. Remain upright with good posture, avoiding loading your back and knees by bending at the waist. Going uphill develops stride length and works the muscles a little harder with every step.
 5. Onthedescent,reduceyourstridelengthandremainasuprightaspossible.

Complex Technique Progressions 
It takes the average person about eight weeks to master concepts and skills for Nordic walking. Once the basics become automatic, other elements of skill come into play. 

Technique Progression 6: Spine and Pelvic Rotation
As one of four recommended movements for a healthy back, spine rotation is a primary benefit of Nordic walking fitness. Notice how the shoulder follows the forward swing of the arm.
 1. Stand upright without holding onto poles and try out a move of the classic dance, the twist. Although not exactly the same, the movement illustrates what opposing rotation feels like.
 2. Perform a style walk by intentionally placing one foot in front of the other. In this exercise, the upper torso initiates rotation and the pelvis then reacts by rotating in the opposite direction.
 3. Keep your chin level with the walking surface as you gaze ahead. Don’t tip your shoulders laterally from side to side, but do exaggerate your saunter! 

Technique Progression 7: Tip Engagement 
This drill is only appropriate when the previous skills have been mastered, particularly long arms and awareness of spine rotation, which enable you to find the sweet spot on your tips and propel you forward with power and grace. At this point, you’ve had lots of practice time. If your arm swing is perfect, you have likely made contact with your tips, although every now and then you may still feel as if the tips are dragging or bouncing. This skill progression should take care of that! When the tip makes contact with the ground, that resistance creates an opposing movement of the torso and pelvis that is similar to how a fashion model walks dow a runway. This practice dynamically stimulates all of your core muscles each time the tip makes contact. When performed properly, achieving tip contact is more of a sensation of contact, then an instant aeroplaning of the tip off the surface.
  1. To engage the tip for fitness, deliberately increase grip pressure, starting at the forefinger and thumb. Cup the bottom of the handle lightly to facilitate a smooth passive release. Too much grip pressure locks your upper body.
 2. Receive the terrain with the contour of the rubber tip, rather than slapping it or planting the tip dramatically. There is no lifting, rather only an arm swing that effortlessly carries the tips.
 3. When you feel the tip make contact, delay the swing of your opposite leg until after you’ve intentionallypusheddiagonally into the tip.You shouldfeel the rotation of the spine and pelvis.Relish in the way it propels you forward!
 4. Prepare yourself to step farther forward as propulsion begins.

Technique Progression 8: Handle Release 
Low-impact  Nordic walking techniques call for a passive handle release, in which the hand relaxes and opens to release the pole as it swings down by the thigh. This economy of motion equals efficiency of movement.
 1. As you walk, pay attention to where your hands and arms start and end their movements.
 2. After making tip contact, hold the tip to earth as long as you can while striding forward. Imagine your arm following the pole backward.
 3. As your hand reaches your thigh, let the handle slip down the palm of your hand by relaxing your fingers.
 4. Cup the handle as your arm swings the pole forward again.

swings the pole forward again. Common Errors in Technique 
The following list outlines primary biomechanical errors that can be eliminated or reduced by using proper skills:
 • Overextending your stride length, or doing too much too soon, strains your lower back, groin, and knees. Take eight weeks to develop stride length.
 • Gripping the handles tightly with bent elbows, lifting the pole tips off the surface, and planting them with force can strain the wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, upper back, and lower back. While grip strength is important, relax your grip to target muscles of your back and core.
 • Repeatedly moving your wrists out of neutral alignment at any point during the arm swing and especially upon tip placement to the surface strains the hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The secret to decreasing impact is to keep your wrists neutral!
 • Leaning forward to begin Nordic walking movements, or leading with the head, strains the lower back, upper back, and neck. This practice is counterproductive for back health because the average walker does not maintain enough speed or forward momentum to support the weight of the head. It also goes against the primary benefit of Nordic walking: better posture. Stand upright, keeping your chin level with the walking surface and your head positioned over your pelvis. As you pick up speed, your body will naturally incline as it needs to.
 • Be wary of bending your elbows at high speeds. When speed is increased, you need longer levers to effectively engage the tip and reduce the potential for injuries. Bent elbows are acceptable during slower, less intense, movements, since lower speeds decrease the chance of impact injuries. After eight weeks of consistent practice, you can play with enhancing speed.
You can further reduce the risk of injuries by becoming aware of the following errors in movements.
 • Lack of opposing-arm action. Your natural arm swing should move in opposition with the legs.
 • Looking down. This practice brings the weight of the head and shoulders forward, creating muscle imbalance in the rest of the body. Hold this heavy segment of the body efficiently over the pelvis. Cast your gaze ahead toward the horizon to promote good posture and muscle balance.
 • Waddling. This error occurs when the upper body moves from side to side, causing the head and shoulder weight to move away from its orientation on top of the pelvis.
 • Failing to rotate the torso. In this scenario, the upper body is stoic and frozen in appearance. Your arm swing should elicit a fluid rotation of the torso.
 • Excessively bent elbows. Bending the elbows promotes a mentality of gripping, lifting, and planting instead of a long lever arm glide forward. Instead, extend your arms as they swing from the shoulder, keeping the elbows relaxed and slightly flexing only at the end of the swing.
 • Excessively flexed or extended wrists. There are several reasons one excessively flexes or extends the wrists during striding. Most often it is the result of poles that are too long, forcing one’s wrists to collapse toward the ground, or of one who is trying to mimic a picture or image of the classic cross-country handle “release”. It may also come from the perception that the wrists should swing the pole tips forward as with trekking on narrow trails. Your wrists should stay in a neutral alignment. The arm swing should originate in the shoulders.
 • Death grip. If your knuckles are white, you’re gripping the poles too hard. Although grip strength is an important element of fitness, too much tenses the upper body and tightens the muscles, preventing efficient, fluid movement in the upper torso and core. Instead, relax your grip and cup the handles.
 • Painter’s grip. Holding the handle with the ends of your fingers (as if it were a paintbrush or a pencil) causes tremendous strain to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Pressure on your little fingers is a sign that you have painter’s grip. Your hands should be relaxed as you maintain full contact with the poles.
 • Thumbs up. Don’t point the thumb upward as you hold the handles. Instead, wrap your thumb comfortably around the handle and rest it on top of your forefinger.
 • Jazz hands. Sometimes walkers actively open their hands and extend their fingers during the arm swing. Often they are trying to perform the classic release and get mixed up in terms of timing for the release movement, opening their hands in front of the body well before it’s time to release the pole. Instead, relax your hands until they reach your hips, and then passively open them to allow the backward movement of the pole tip.
 • Overstriding. This error, which is the second cause of Nordic walking injuries to the groin and lower back, usually happens when you increase speed and intensity too soon. Safely extend your stride over at least eight weeks.
 • Stepping to a full, flat foot. This mistake results from lack of movement of the ankles and pelvis. Swing your legs forward with soft knees, make gentle heel contact, and roll your feet along the ground to the toes.
 • Bouncing tips. When you initiate the forward arm swing with a bent elbow, your hand and arm may not move far enough forward to grip the ground with the contour of the rubber tip. It also happens when there is no grip strength at all. A little bit of grip strength as with cupping helps guide the poles to the sweet spot of the rubber tip, therefore eliminating the bounce. Use long levers to more effectively make contact with the ground. Sometimes the tips bounce with a long lever technique too. This is the sign of someone who simply has not had enough practice, usually because the arms do not swing far enough forward. Tip engagement takes practice to master.

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