Best Foot Forward

16th October 2015

Heather Harris goes Nordic Walking and discovers that it’s not all just a stroll in the park...

Over ten million people do this all year round. It burns 400 calories an hour and uses 95% of the body’s muscles (don’t know why the other 5% are excused?). No, it’s not housework, nor putting the recycling out, but something far more exotic: Nordic Walking.
Like all things Scandinavian – think IKEA, ABBA and those impressive BBC2 crime dramas – the public may take a little time to warm to them, but suddenly they’re hooked.

As Hilary Warrell, who has been running (or should that be walking) her Berkhamsted-based groups for six years, told me, “In other European countries, seeing people striding out with ski poles when there’s no snow has been a common sight for years but in the UK there’s only recently been a sea change in the level of interest.”

It is now the fastest growing fitness activity in the world – shimmering ahead of Zumba, leaving jogging in its slip stream. So just what is the attraction of this seemingly simple pastime which looks literally like a walk in the park? To find out I put my best foot forward and head off to Cassiobury Park in Watford on a rare recent sunny afternoon to meet Jane Thomas, who now teaches over 40 men and women a week in this latest sporting phenomenon.

Knowing that Jane is a regular marathon runner, I express surprise that she is involved in this leisurely activity. “It’s actually perfect for runners as it is a total body workout rather than just the legs and also takes the pressure off the joints,” she explains, as she passes me the poles. At this point I must confess that my previous experience with ski poles is limited to a single trip to Austria in the 1980s with an enthusiastic skiing boyfriend. After a week terrifying myself hurtling down mountains on two sticks of wood, legs firmly in a snow plough whilst sobbing loudly – the ski equipment (and the relationship) were dumped.

Roll on a couple of decades and Jane is showing me how to put on the detachable ‘gloves’ and grip the poles correctly to ensure maximum ‘push off’ from the grass. “The hardest thing for beginners is to hold the poles behind them at 45 degrees, keeping the arms straight,” she says, as I set off using the poles like walking sticks and waving them in front of me with bent elbows.
Exhibiting the patience of a Scandinavian, Jane adjusts my technique and I immediately feel my stomach muscles and shoulders being forced into action.

And then there is the small matter of coordination. Watching Jane demonstrate, it looks so straightforward – left arm swings forward at the same time as right foot and visa versa. As she gets into her rhythm, though, I find myself jogging to keep up, while surrounding dogs are viewing her as an energetic companion. “Think of the pole as an extension of your arm,” she shouts, as I slowly begin to get the hang of it and catch her up.
Until we reach a hill… and then I learn about the different Nordic Walking ‘gears’.

“It’s not as simple as it looks,” she says, “and all instructors will start with sessions purely on technique before heading out on longer walks,” pointing out that compared to your traditional stroll, this uses up 47% more calories. That’s a fact which semi-retired school teacher Liz is keen to acknowledge. “I’ve been walking with Jane three times a week for over a year and, as well as losing weight, it’s also lowered my blood pressure and strengthened my knees.”

At 55, Liz is the average age for Jane’s group which ranges from 34 to 75 years, while Hilary has members from 14 up to close on 80. “My older members often complain that they don’t feel they are getting any faster, but then they compare themselves to their friends who don’t do Nordic Walking and they realise how much more mobile and fit they are. And just being out in the fresh air gives them so much more energy!”

Seventy-year old Sylvia couldn’t agree more. She joined Hilary a year ago after a hip operation stopped her playing tennis and a back problem meant she tilted to one side when she walked. “Because the poles force you to stand up straight when you walk and use your whole body to propel yourself forward I quickly improved my posture and got fitter. I can now walk 18 miles in one go,” she tells me, adding that she walked all through last winter as the movement quickly warms you up as long as you have the correct clothing.

In terms of equipment, a decent pair of walking shoes (and thermal layers in winter) is all that is needed, as most instructors will hire out the poles at each session for a few pounds. If you want your own, you’ll find them selling from as little as £20 a pair up to £100. The Nordic Walking concept has been used for decades by skiers who were desperate to train even when deprived of snow. But it wasn’t until 1979 that the term was first officially coined and not until 1988 that the first poles were specifically designed in the USA and marketed to fitness walkers.

As we finally stepped up to the plate over here, the official body, Nordic Walking UK (NWUK), was set up in 2004 to offer official training courses for instructors, to advise on all the walks in a given area on a given day around the country and basically to be the leading authority on all things pole-based.

NWUK have now trained over 2,500 instructors – including Jane, Hilary and Karen Lem who is keen to present one of her star pupils, Bryan. He first met Karen whilst they were both visiting the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted. Bryan was 71, and struggling to recover from three bouts of chemotherapy for Leukaemia. “She persuaded me that I was fit enough to join one of her groups and it has had a dramatic effect on my general health. I tend to be at the back but I really enjoy it!” he says, adding that there are lots of other men in the group too and the social side is an added bonus.

The thought of men talking without a pint in their hand is shocking enough but the fact that most of them are strangers when they first start is a revelation. As Hilary explains, though, “It’s really interesting how when you are walking alongside someone it is so much easy to talk openly. I find that total strangers share their problems – whether it’s coping with teenagers or financial issues – in a way that they wouldn’t if just sitting in a group. That’s why it’s so good mentally as well as physically. Just being outside eases depression but add to this the ability to share their experiences and get encouragement from the group… it’s what sets it apart from other sports.”

And as I walk the pathways of Cassiobury – arms swinging, shoulders back – chatting to Jane, I can see how the natural rhythm does indeed have a calming effect. “A lot of my younger walkers use it as a stress buster as it’s so much more fun and sociable than the gym!,” she says, opening up her car boot and showing me the latest gadget: the ‘Bungypump’ poles, with added resistance upping the calories burned to 77% more than normal walking. Personally, I feel this might just be one step too far. I genuinely enjoyed my Scandinavian stroll and the next day my shoulders and stomach muscles feel as if I had done a much more brutal workout than my ‘yomp’ in the countryside. Add into this the ability to work my jaw at the same time and not be forced to wear skin-tight Lycra and the benefits of Nordic Walking are obvious.

Yet again the Scandinavians have proved that where they lead we follow – at a brisk pace, back straight, poles in hand.

Nordic Walking Local Contacts:
• Watford: Jane 07885 217352
• Rickmansworth: Alison: 07800 995906
• Berkhamsted: Hilary 07963 252577
• Tring, Ashridge, Chesham & Bovingdon: Karen 07766 366388

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