Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cross-country skiing on dry land

While I played a lot of tennis as a kid (and still dabble in that sport and pickleball [aka "geezer tennis"] hiking and bicycling have long been my aerobic activities of choice. I was a runner for a few years too and even completed a couple of 10Ks, but it always felt like drudgery.

A Canadian friend asked my wife and me if we'd ever tried nordic walking, and neither of us had ever heard of it. Is is pretty obscure, though at least 500,000 Scandinavians do it, but it really does deserve to be better known and I predict at least a minor uptick in its popularity once fellow aging Baby Boomers learn of its existence.

Nordic Walking was developed as a summer training tool for avid cross-country skiers. The poles used are very different from regular hiking poles, and the technique is also unique (though it will be very familiar to anyone who's done classic (as opposed to skate) cross-country skiing. Nordic walking poles have a strap that hugs the hand and wrist in a way that reminds me of a nice pair of clipless cycling shoes snapping into a pedal: once you're "in" there's no effort to hold the pole and the technique comes quite naturally. The arm is at almost a 90 degree angle at the top of the poling motion - elbow barely bent at all - and the pole strikes the ground behind you in a natural motion that gets your triceps and indeed most of your upper body very involved.

Here's a brief introductory video that shows the basics well. Studies show 40% more calories burned vs. regular hiking at the same pace as well as a significant increase in muscle mass (starting with the triceps). In my own very limited experience one of the joys of nordic walking is that it turns a brisk flat walk or hike on mostly level ground - which wouldn't ordinarily get my heart-rate up into serious training range - into an actual workout, while going briskly up moderate hills with some vigorous poling gets into a harder cardio range akin to cycling up a 6% grade at a brisk clip.

The poles (there are several brands but the best appears to be Leki) come with sport-specific angled hard rubber feet for use on pavement and that seems to be the best way to initially learn the technique. There are also plenty of instructional videos on Youtube. After a few pavement walks to fine tune pole length and technique we took off the rubber feet and used the carbide tips on flat to rolling hiking trails and that's turned out to be if anything even more enjoyable.

No doubt actual cross-country skiing is a lot more flowing and fun, and if we lived near water I'd just get myself a racing shell or high-tech kayak and get my full-body aerobic exercise fix that way but nordic walking is something you can truly do anywhere. It's certainly worth a try, and many cities have active clubs where you can borrow a set of poles and try before you buy.

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