Jul 15, 2014
By Lou Dzierzak
It’s said that More than 10 million Northern Europeans regularly participate in Nordic walking. But while the popularity of fitness walking with modified ski poles may be growing across the Atlantic, Nordic walking’s acceptance in the United States has been much slower.
Launched in the United States in the early ‘90s, Nordic walking ambassadors initially enjoyed media attention from the Today Show and other media outlets. But that blast of publicity had mixed results. Participants in Nordic walking demonstration videos often depicted participants as senior women. Certainly an important and valid audience segment for increased fitness activities, but the images alienated a broader, younger athlete who would also benefit from Nordic walking’s cardiovascular workout.
More than a decade later, outspoken and passionate evangelists continue to battle misperceptions about Nordic walking. Slowly and surely, their efforts are making a difference.
Greg Wozer, president of , Leki US Inc., reports, “People see Nordic walking as something that’s perfect for my mom. Or that would be great for my dad. They say, ‘ I have to get them up and moving.’ At some point along the way, whether people are doing it with their mom or dad or taking the poles out and trying it under the darkness of night or early morning, athletes are changing their perceptions.”
Known one of the most recognized ski marathons in the world, the American Birkebeiner, is doing its part to validate Nordic Walking. Held in September, the Birkie Trail Run and Trek includes a 13.1 km Nordic Walking division. More than 125 people participated in the 2011 event.
“I was skeptical when I first heard about Nordic walking. I used to make fun of it before I tried it, recalls Ned Zuelsdorff, American Birkebeiner’s Executive Director at that time. “Now I realize what a great activity it is. It’s great exercise.”
Zuelsdorff notes that he’s seeing more Birkebeiner participants with Nordic walking poles during the summer. “It’s true the average Nordic walker is older than the average Birkie skier, but the folks I know who are Birkie skiers use it as a cross-training tool.”
Wozer notes that shifts in attitude like those Birkebeiner skiers are an important step. “The perception is that is that Nordic walking is a low perceived exertion and anyone can do it. But if you have a skilled trainer take you through it, they can take a highly trained athletes to their knees, begging for mercy,” says Wozer. “Like other forms of dryland training you can make this as brutal or intense as you want.”
Known as the “Queen of Nordic Walking,” Linda Lemke of Minneapolis, Minn., has been a certified Nordic walking instructor since 2006. A tireless promoter of Nordic walking, Lemke enthusiastically reports increased interest in Nordic walking from a new audience segment. “The active baby boomer is going to be a big part of this market,” she says. “We’ve seen a real change. Nordic walking is attracting young professional women,” reports Lemke. . “They want to know, ‘How do I get more out of it? How do I engage my upper body? Is there interval training I can do with this?’”
Any new fitness activity follows a life cycle. If the basic concepts of a new sport catch on, the next step is usually a debate about equipment and technique.
Pete Edwards, founder of The American Nordic Walking System, is an outspoken advocate of proper technique and well-designed equipment.
In recent years, Nordic walking poles have evolved from single- piece poles to collapsible and multi-piece models. Edwards doesn’t think that’s been good idea. “One- piece poles will always prove to be safer, lighter and much more durable than cheap/flimsy collapsible two-piece or three-piece twist-lock or flip-lock poles,” notes Edwards.
Pointing out that consumer feedback has lead to the introduction of the multi-segment poles, Wozer says, “Nordic walking poles are evolving from two- to three- section poles. More and more people are going to three- section poles. They are easier to transport as people move around.”
Don’t read this wrong. Nordic walking does have a broad base of participants who are passionate about their sport. With the efforts of brands like Leki, Exel and Swix, and evangelists like Lemke and Edwards, the Nordic walking market is certain to change mistaken perceptions and grow.
Lemke describes the experience of clinic attendees who have never tried Nordic walking before. “There’s been enough exposure that people are curious about it. Even after the first workout they are surprised at how much of a workout they got,” she says. “They feel it in their shoulders, back, triceps and even in the back of their legs because they are actually engaging those muscles when stepping out.”
As evangelists spread the word, Edwards believes the original older, less- agile demographic is a perfect niche. “They just have to try it to believe it. There’s so many just silly and ridiculous products that people spend money on and never use them; here’s a product that simply works.”
Wozer believes Nordic walking will carve out a significant niche in American fitness. “It’s been a long slow process. The sport will grow with evangelists behind it.”
American Nordic Walking System
Nordic Walking Queen
Leki Nordic Walking
Swix Nordic Walking
American Nordic Walking Association
Exel Nordic Walking