Nordic walking for beginners—discover the benefits, how to get started and the mistakes to avoid
Nordic walking will take your walks to the next level while supporting your joints
If you've ever been hiking before, you may have already tried Nordic walking without even knowing it. It's a form of fitness that's been growing in popularity over the last few years as a way to garner the benefits of being active outdoors, without the joint and muscle strain that can come with alternative cardio like running.
While running and casual walking are good low-impact exercises, Nordic walking can help to take your fitness up a notch by offering full-body support, while also working your upper body, core, and helping you to maintain your posture.
All you need to get started is a pair of the best walking boots and some walking poles and then you're all set to begin exploring all the benefits of walking - Nordic style. Here you'll find a step-by-step guide to everything that, as a beginner, you need to know about the activity from the founders and instructors of Nordic Walking UK (opens in new tab).
What is Nordic walking?
Nordic Walking is a technique of walking that delivers a full-body workout outdoors, explains Katharine Green, an instructor who runs Nordic Walking East Anglia (opens in new tab). "Suitable for a range of fitness levels and ages, you use specially-designed Nordic walking poles, which are attached to the hands via a strap and angled behind, so the walker can propel themselves forward," she says.
The activity came from Finland, as the name suggests, and it has a fascinating history behind it. "Nordic walking began in Finland as a summer training method for cross-country skiers," says Riikka Williams, a Nordic walking instructor and founder of Move Nordic (opens in new tab). “It first started to gain popularity amongst the general public in the 1990s, and now there are over 10 million people around the world regularly participating in it.”
What are the benefits of Nordic walking?
1. Exercise without injuring yourself
As effective as strength training is, it's certainly not for everyone right away. Whether you're looking for how to get fit after time away from exercise, or you're recovering from an injury, it's important to work out in a way that's not going to make it harder to move down the line.
That's where Nordic walking's biggest feature comes in. "With the poles, you’re basically turned into a four-legged animal, with your weight spread across all four limbs,” explains Green. "This reduces the impact going through the leg joints, which therefore lowers the risk of back, neck and knee pain."
A study by the National Institute of Fitness and Sports (opens in new tab) in Kanoya looked at the effects of Nordic walking in comparison to other types, including the conventional hike, and found that all modes of exercise increased participants' fitness but Nordic walking offered the most benefits.
The research found that by using these poles and walking in this way, participants were able to drastically improve their upper-body strength, cardiovascular endurance, and even flexibility.
It's a finding that Gill Stewart, sports therapist and now director of Nordic Walking UK, isn't too surprised by. "I have been teaching health and fitness for over 40 years and it's, without a doubt, the most effective way to exercise without injuring yourself," she says.
2. Build better posture
"The continual contraction and relaxation of the neck and shoulder muscles leads to reduced tension in those areas, and there's also an emphasis on building good posture," Green says.
So if you're looking for an easy way to build up your fitness and learn how to fix your posture, Nordic walking could certainly be for you.
3. Counteract the symptoms of menopause
A lesser-known menopause symptom is the gradual decline of muscle mass and bone density. While we often associate menopause with being one of the causes of hot flushes and other outward symptoms, this is a side-effect that can also have a significant impact on your overall health.
"Nordic walking is particularly helpful during perimenopause and menopause," says Williams. "Estrogen deficiency, which happens at this stage, is associated with decreased skeletal muscle and strength, which this type of walking movement can help to counteract."
4. Improve your fitness and lose weight
Even if you regularly work out and don't have any injuries to think about, Nordic walking is an incredible full-body exercise. It looks like quite an effortless activity, which should certainly be one of the selling points as you end up challenging your body a lot without realizing it.
"You'll enlist 90% of major muscles, compared to the 45% of regular walking, and will burn around 46% more energy because the muscles in both the upper and lower body are all under tension at the same time, meaning the calorie burn is higher for every step," Stewart says.
While weight loss and achieving a good overall level of fitness are different health goals, if you are looking to learn how to lose weight in a week or even how to lose a stone in a month then Nordic walking can certainly help. Research from The Jerzy Kukuczka Academy of Physical Education (opens in new tab) shows that Nordic walking alone can be an effective tool for weight loss, with participants losing 5kg on average by just starting Nordic walking. Those on a modified diet lost even more weight over the 12-week period, but only by 3kg.
5. It's a social sport
Let's also not forget that - unlike going to the gym or doing Pilates for beginners at home - Nordic walking is normally done as part of a group, bringing an extra social element to this form of exercise.
"It is important to highlight the mood and energy-boosting benefits of being outdoors, which can help people learn how to deal with stress and lowers blood pressure,” adds Williams. “Anyone can give it a go, and many people also enjoy a self-confidence boost from learning a new skill.”
How to start Nordic walking
- Find a qualified instructor
- Get the right poles
- Master the correct technique
- Stay safe
1. Find a qualified instructor
"It is best to seek tuition from a qualified instructor, since it is hard to know if you are using the correct muscles without their guidance and feedback," says Stewart. "They'll teach you how to angle the poles, use a straight arm swing, utilize the straps or ledge, and roll through from the heels to toe as you plant the foot."
She recommends visiting the Nordic Walking UK (opens in new tab) website and using your postcode to find walks and instructors in your area.
Green says you can also find a qualified instructor local to you by visiting the British Nordic Walking's ‘find an instructor’ page (opens in new tab). She explains that they will be able to teach the International Nordic Walking Federation's 10-step technique, which research has shown to be particularly beneficial. "You can usually learn them in a four-hour workshop, or about six weekly lessons," she explains. "Joining a friendly, encouraging group will also help it become a regular lifestyle habit." Ideal for a little extra workout motivation.
2. Get the right poles
Fortunately, the activity doesn't require much equipment. "However, you do need poles that are specific for Nordic walking, not to be confused with poles with loop straps," says Stewart. Some of the best walking poles are suitable for Nordic walking though, as long as you pick the right ones.
"You can identify the correct ones from the fact they will have a glove-like strap or a power core ledge, both of which allow you to push into them to gain propulsion. You simply can’t do this with typical walking or hiking poles. They will also have a removable shaped rubber ‘boot’ on the bottom that enables you to use the pole at the correct angle on hard surfaces."
But, as a beginner, it's worth getting to grips (literally) with the activity before you take the plunge. "Instructors are usually happy to lend out poles, and it is advisable to borrow from them until you are happy with the length of pole that suits you best, which also allows you to try a couple of different brands, since they have slightly varying styles of straps," notes Green.
"Once you are hooked, it is then worth investing in a set of your own, you will only need to buy one pair so opt for the best that you can afford. Good quality poles reduce vibration and are light and strong, which enhances the enjoyment of the technique."
3. Master the correct technique
There are a couple of pitfalls to be aware of. "The first common mistake is what we call tick-tocking, which is swinging the arm forward at the same time as the same leg. Normal walking is a bilateral movement, meaning opposite arm moves in time with the opposite leg," explains Green.
"The other is that people tend to bend at the elbow and engage their biceps, which is what we all do in normal life when we pick an object up. However, since Nordic walking is an extension of normal walking, the movement should come from the shoulder socket, so we always encourage beginners to imagine that their arm is a pendulum swinging from the shoulder. This enables a clear swing of the pole and ensures that the upper body is engaged effectively."
However, much like when you ride a bike or learn to swim, try not to overthink it. "The full technique does take a while to master and there is a lot to take on board at the start," notes Green. "We remind clients to focus on ‘progression not perfection'. When it comes to practicing alone, we tell people to focus on one technique point per walk, in order to consolidate the muscle memory for that particular movement."
4. Stay safe
"Other than the poles, you should have weather-appropriate footwear and clothing, because it is, after all, an outdoor activity," insists Williams. You should invest in a pair of the best waterproof hiking boots and best walking socks if you're considering taking up Nordic walking for the long haul, especially as there will be times when you won't be able to use your poles.
"The only time we do not venture out with poles is when there’s thunder and lightning, for obvious reasons," says Williams.
5. Go in a group
Nordic walking can, of course, be done solo. "You can walk pretty much anywhere urban or rural," explains Stewart. "But there are additional skills to master in relation to hill walking, so that’s why it’s good to be in a group. The instructors pre-plan the routes according to your ability, making sure it's safe and at the right degree of difficulty."
She adds, "If you do go on your own, it’s important to wear bright clothing, let others know where you are going and make sure you know the route so you don’t get lost."
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to Womanandhome.com she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss.
While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.
- Grace Walsh Health Editor
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