Nordic Pole Walking
Walking with poles: the fashionable walking stick morphs into essential hiking gear.
This past spring my friend Ute and I walked the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail in the “perfect storm.” Overnight rain had been churned up by the hundred hikers who had gone before us on the first leg of the annual end-to-end hike. What should have been a glorious 20-plus-kilometre route was hikers’ hell. Ute and I spent seven hours slipping and sliding in a failed attempt to keep our bums mud- free. Making matters worse, fellow trekkers using hiking poles zipped by us as we tobogganed clumsily down steep slopes or, on the uphill, slid back a step for every two we took.
Both Ute and I own hiking poles, and we kicked ourselves for not bringing them along. I was too proud to use mine, a common attitude in North America. Ute said she had left hers at home because she didn’t know how to use them. You don’t know how to use them? I thought. What is there to know about using walking poles?
After an hour-long class with certified Nordic-walking instructor Tina Daalderop of Bolton, I discovered there is a lot to learn, especially if I wanted to get vigorous about it.
Nordic walking is a training technique developed by Nordic skiers to keep fit even when there is no snow. The technique can turn an evening stroll or a morning hike into a full-body workout that tones arms, shoulders and core, as well as legs. According to Nordixx International, a Canadian company that makes walking poles, when used properly, the poles engage 90 per cent of the body’s muscles and burn up to 46 per cent more calories than regular walking. You’ll go faster and the chances of turning an ankle or falling are reduced.
Weight control and fitness weren’t much on the minds of the shepherds who used hooked staffs to guide their sheep and protect themselves from thieves and wild animals. Nor were they of importance to medieval bishops who took to toting a crooked stick to symbolize their role as shepherds of their congregations, according to a history of walking canes on the Fashionable Canes website. The article explains that in the early 1700s, dapper Englishmen began carrying canes. They were, however, an accoutrement available only to those of a certain status. Gentlemen – in London, at least – were required to obtain a licence that permitted them to carry the prestigious item.
Some form of walking stick continues to be used by people with precarious balance. My father was particularly well-suited to his cane. Never without his pipe, he wore a cravat and a freshly starched white shirt every day. He had a patrician nose – a nice way of saying he’d broken it several times – and after a stroke affected his eyesight, his black, hooked cane gave him an elegant look as he used it to navigate. My sister inherited this relic, whose end is scorched from its double duty as a fire poker.
These days athletic hikers and casual walkers, especially in Britain and Europe, have appropriated walking sticks, referring to them as hiking or trekking poles. Feather-light and made of brightly coloured aluminum or carbon, they come in pairs. You can go for the full-body workout of Nordic walking or simply use them for balance and to protect your knees when descending a hill. The poles can also be useful aids in difficult situations, like those muddy hills Ute and I were navigating on the Bruce Trail. When faced with a particular situation, Tina advised, “experiment with your technique,” and adapt it to what works best for the conditions of the terrain.
“Stand tall, chin up,” Tina said as she began her instruction. “Walk along dragging your poles to begin with, while letting your arms swing naturally.”
Once we got going, Tina had us start using our poles as a means of propelling ourselves from behind. This was new to me, as I was inclined to use my poles to pull myself forward. The new technique made me walk faster and improved my posture. Tina quoted the now common adage that sitting is the new smoking. “Our backs round with age and with computer use,” she said.
Everyone in our small group raved about the speed and ease of walking with poles. Even 10-year-old Senna was sold. “I’m going to buy some poles for me and my sister,” she promised.
Overflowing with enthusiasm about the health benefits of walking with poles, Tina explained she has a degenerative disc in her neck. “Before I began walking regularly with my poles,” she said, “I could hardly turn my head from side to side. I still have a degenerating disc, but now I have perfect movement” – which she demonstrated convincingly.
Similarly, her one-time student Elizabeth Bundy, an 88-year-old Bolton resident, managed to shed her walker for a pair of walking poles. Formerly an avid golfer, Elizabeth was forced to use a walker after her legs gave out as a result of nerve pain. “[Pole walking] is almost like using a cane, but more like a sport,” she says.
It’s experiences like these that keep Tina actively teaching pole walking to people of all ages. Meanwhile, she stretches her lean frame as she demonstrates a series of exercises we can do using our poles. She has us place our poles horizontally behind our backs, looping them through our elbows. This automatically forces us to stand up straight with our shoulders back, a move that stretches our pectoral muscles and enables us to breathe more freely. “It feels great,” she said and we all agreed, thoroughly convinced our counterparts across the Atlantic know what they’re doing.
Soak up some fascinating local history and stroll the sidewalks of our towns and villages.