Do you run? Do you enjoy it? Does your body enjoy it? Are you injured or looking for an alternative that will give you the same fitness gains? Nordic walking might be your answer. It has its origins in cross-country skiing and uses two specially designed poles and a specific technique to turn the everyday activity of walking into a whole-body, low-impact exercise which will improve your fitness, body shape, energy, and wellbeing.
Lots of people think Nordic walking is just for older adults, but this clever exercise is great for everyone and a perfect alternative (or cross-training addition) if you’re a runner.
I’ve taken 5 key questions: calories, injuries, speed, body strength and tone, kit, and competition and looked at what each have to offer.
Both Nordic walking and running are about far more than calories, but if you’re searching for something to help you lose weight, calories burned is likely to be your starting point.
How many calories you burn depends on a whole lot of factors including your speed, the type of ground you’re on and whether it’s flat or on an incline, your weight and own metabolism. Both running and Nordic walking burn more calories than regular walking. Typically running uses about twice as many calories as walking over the same distance and under the same conditions. Nordic walking also burns more calories than walking – around 20% more, but it could be as high as 46% with good technique. This is because you use your whole body (around 90% of your muscles) when Nordic walking – muscles burn energy and the more you use, the more energy you burn. The Nordic walking poles also power you forwards, so you go faster which is another calorie consumer. There’s a bonus with Nordic walking in that it tones and shapes your arms, back and waist at the same time.
A recent Swedish study found that yearly up to half of recreational runners injure themselves, whilst a study of injuries sustained by long distances runners concluded that it could be almost as high as 80%. Many factors are involved of course but by its very nature, running is a high impact exercise. This isn’t a problem if you run with good technique, correct alignment, have built your running up gradually and aren’t doing crazy distances. However, if your running style is slightly off, you will be repeatedly landing your full body weight on your body’s misaligned structure with each stride. Runner’s knee is well-known, shin splints are common and hip and lower back pain are an unwelcome companion for many runners.
The more miles you run, the greater the risk of injury – it’s worth noting that the biggest risk factor for a running injury is if you’ve been previously injured. Running is way more unforgiving than walking (and Nordic walking), where you always have one foot on the ground and, to state the obvious, walkers sustain far fewer injuries than runners.
If you love running but are aware of the injury risk and want to reduce the possibility of that happening to you, using Nordic walking could be a great cross-training tool, especially if you are an endurance runner. It still provides a good aerobic workout but with lower impact. Plus it works your entire body in a holistic, biomechanically correct way ensuring that you’re strengthening your body as a whole.
Whilst you can’t go faster Nordic walking than a good runner, Nordic walkers who are keen on speed can go fast and will frequently outstrip joggers especially going uphill. I’ve completed several half-marathons with an average speed of 8kmh (5mph) and there’s many Nordic walkers out there faster than me.
What’s more, your speed is sustainable whether you’re on the flat, going uphill or down. The pole design and technique are both geared toward propelling you forward; your body stays aligned; your joints are protected; and you rarely out walk your breath. All of this makes for a comfortable and enjoyable exercise experience which you can do for a prolonged length of time and with fewer aches afterwards.
4. Body tone and strength
When it comes to body tone and strength Nordic walking has a bundle of extra benefits that running can’t provide.
In particular, it is a whole-body fitness activity whilst running isn’t. Adding the poles engages the core stabilising muscles in your trunk and strengthens your arms, shoulders and upper body in a way that running can’t.
To achieve the benefits that Nordic walking offers, a runner would need to do additional exercises for their arms, core and back over and above running. If you’re someone who doesn’t genuinely enjoy running but is doing it as an efficient means to an end, I can tell you that you can achieve that pert bottom, trimmed waistline and toned legs through Nordic walking, plus tone the backs of your arms and sculpt your shoulders.
Nordic walking is the outdoor equivalent of a cross-trainer. You don’t have to lose weight to lose inches and you don’t have to go to the gym to strengthen your muscles.
5. Lycra (and other kit)
For running you need nothing more than a good pair of running shoes, whilst for Nordic walking you need a pair of Nordic walking poles. Although you can get poles which fold down small and fit easily in a backpack, it can be annoying carrying them around on public transport or if you’re going on holiday, especially as even travel poles must go in the hold.
However, one thing you don’t need for Nordic walking is Lycra or leggings. You just need something comfortable that allows freedom of movement. Trousers, shorts, skirts, and dresses (including hijab dresses) are fine so long as they don’t restrict your stride or get in the way of your arm and pole swing.
There are masses of running races and competitions and Nordic walking can’t compete on a like for like basis. But Nordic walking racing is a competitive activity in many countries and there’s an annual INWA (International Nordic Walking Federation) World Cup for 21k and 10k distances and a Nordic Walking World League. I’ve listed links at the bottom of this blog if you’re interested.
Nordic walkers are also welcome at local Park Runs and many local 5k, 10k, and half marathons accept Nordic walking entries if you contact them and ask. You’ll usually start at the back so that you don’t disrupt the runners, but that’s quite fun as you will overtake lots of competitors, especially if the route is long or hilly.
At some point in all our lives there’s a moment when we have to assess the exercise we’re doing, whether it’s sufficient, and whether it’s suitable for us long-term. There are certainly runners in the 70s and 80s, but I would suggest it’s the exception rather than the rule. Nordic walking can be done for the whole of your life, right to the very last. It’s actually more sustainable than ordinary walking as the poles act as support, work all the major muscle groups, and give you better balance. Can the same be said of running?
Running-related injuries among recreational runners: https://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/67446
INWA World Cup: https://www.inwa-nordicwalking.com/inwa-calendar-for-2023
Nordic Walking World League: https://nordicwalkingworldleague.com
Public Health England, Muscle and bone strengthening and balance activities for general health benefits in adults and older adults https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/721874/MBSBA_evidence_review.pdf