The activity isn't as easy, breezy as it sounds.

By Karen Asp
February 11, 2008
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Nordic walking sounds like the Scandinavian way of performing an intuitive activity you already do every single day, but it's actually an intense full-body workout.

The activity takes a standard walk in the park up a notch with the addition of Nordic walking poles, which are used to propel the body forward. By engaging the upper body—something you don't typically do with standard walking—you'll work your arms, chest, shoulders, and back, as well as your abs, legs, and butt. In all, you can work up to 80 percent of your muscles and burn more than 500 calories an hour, almost as many as you would while jogging, but with significantly less impact on your joints.

Though Nordic walking is frequently used as a way to train for cross-country skiing in the off-season, it has become a simple and effective way for people of all fitness levels to stay active. Think Nordic walking is the right exercise for you? Here's how to get started. (Related: Try This Walking Butt Workout Next Time You're Taking a Stroll)

Choosing the Right Nordic Walking Poles

Save the kind you ski with for the slopes. "You're best off using poles that are designed specifically for Nordic walking," says Malin Svensson, president of Nordic Walking USA in Santa Monica, California. You can choose between adjustable and nonadjustable Nordic walking poles. The adjustable versions store easily and can fit more than one user; the nonadjustable models are generally lighter and won't accidentally collapse on you. (If you are hitting the slopes, stock up on this winter sports gear.)

Your height also needs to be a key consideration when purchasing Nordic walking poles. If you're testing out a set in-person, hold the grip with the tip on the ground and the pole vertical, arm close to the body. In this position, your elbow should be bent 90 degrees. If it's not, you may need to go up or down in size, though beginners who are between sizes should go with the shorter model, which will allow for a more fluid motion, says Mark Fenton, an International Nordic Walking Association master coach. You can also refer to outdoor equipment company LEKI's pole length advisor page, which will tell you your optimum pole height if you're buying online.

Here are some poles to start off your Nordic walking adventures:

  • EXEL Urban Skier Nordic Walking Poles (Buy It, $130, amazon.com): These poles made from a lightweight, durable carbon composite, so they're strong but relatively light, which translates to greater comfort and efficiency on longer walks.
  • Swix Nordic Walking Poles (Buy It, $80, amazon.com): The best feature of these poles is the incredibly comfortable mesh strap, which feels soft against your skin without getting too clammy. The rubber tips are slightly rounded, not angled, so they won't trip you up if they twist.
  • LEKI Traveller Allu Walking Poles (Buy It, $150, amazon.com): These poles can easily be adjusted to meet your height, so you won't have to put up with too-tall poles if you purchase the wrong size.

Perfecting Your Nordic Walking Form

Yes, you learned to put one foot in front of the other in toddlerhood, but Nordic walking does have a small learning curve. The biggest challenge is coordinating your arms and legs. Here's how to nail the technique. (And try this workout if you're looking to boost your agility.)

  1. Nordic walking poles come with rubber tips, which work best on paved surfaces. If you're walking in grass, sand, dirt or snow, remove the rubber for better traction. 
  2. Start by carrying the poles. Hold a pole in each hand, grasping it lightly. Walk with the poles at your sides, letting your arms swing in natural opposition to your legs (i.e., your left arm and right foot move in tandem). Do this for several minutes, until it feels natural.
  3. Like shoes, poles come in left and right models. Find the correct side, then slide your hand through the strap. If there's an additional Velcro strap, wrap it securely around your wrist. As you starting Nordic walking, open your hands and let the poles drag behind you. (You'll skip this step once you move on.) Notice how the poles angle back behind you.
  4. Next, you plant. Plant the poles on the ground, rather than dragging them. Lightly hold the grips and keep the poles angled at about 45 degrees backward. Hold your elbows close to your body with your arms straight but relaxed. Focus on making good contact with the ground.
  5. Then, you push. As you get more comfortable Nordic walking, firmly push the poles backward with each step, applying force through the strap. Push your arm past your hip, opening up your hand at the end of the arm swing. As each arm comes forward, pretend you're reaching forward to shake someone's hand.
  6. Finally, perfect it! To maximize your Nordic walking workouts, tweak your form. Roll from your heels through to your toes. "If I were standing behind you, I should see the sole of your shoe as you push off," says Fenton. Maintain good posture (these strength training exercises can help) and lean forward slightly from your ankles. Also, lengthen your stride: You'll get a fuller arm swing while giving your legs a better workout.

Week-Long Nordic Walking Workout Plans for Beginners

If you want to learn the technique...

Sunday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 30 minutes: Focus on a full but comfortable range of motion in your arms.

Monday

  • Level of Difficulty: Moderate
  • 30 minutes: Push forcefully with the poles while maintaining a fast pace. Keep your eyes looking forward on the horizon so your chin is level; avoid hunching your shoulders.

Tuesday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 30 minutes: Skip the poles and give your arms a break.

Wednesday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 45 minutes: Concentrate on form during this Nordic walking sesh. Reach your palm forward as if shaking hands with someone, keeping the elbow slightly bent. For a full push-off, push your hand past your hip.

Thursday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 30 minutes: Same as on Sunday.

Friday

Saturday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • 45 minutes: Find a route that allows you to work hills about half the time. Uphill, lengthen your stride and lean forward slightly. Downhill, decrease your stride slightly.

If you want to maximize your calorie burn...

Sunday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 30 minutes: Focus on a full but comfortable range of motion in your arms throughout this Nordic walking workout.

Monday

  • Level of Difficulty: Moderate
  • 50 minutes: After 20 minutes of easy Nordic walking, do bounding drills (ideally on grass); take extra-long strides for the length of a football field, driving the front knee up and pushing vigorously with poles. Recover for the same distance and repeat; continue for 15 minutes, then walk at a moderate pace for 15 minutes. (Related: The Best Outdoor Workouts to Mix Up Your Routine)

Tuesday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 30 minutes: Skip the poles and give your arms a break.

Wednesday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • 60 minutes: Walk on rolling terrain. Uphill, lengthen your stride and lean forward slightly. Downhill, decrease your stride slightly.

Thursday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy
  • 40 minutes: Focus on posture. Keep your eyes looking forward on the horizon so your chin is level; avoid hunching your shoulders.

Friday

Saturday

  • Level of Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • 75 minutes: Walk on trails (ideally) or pavement; build up to 3 hours of Nordic walking.
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