Walk Softly
November 2010
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... and Carry the Right StickWalking

The mythical Riddle of the Sphinx asks, “What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening?” The answer is man, who starts out crawling, then walks upright, and finally needs the assistance of a cane. Specialized sticks and poles also have evolved over the ages for use in pursuit of recreational fitness.

Whatever the technology, the primary function of any type of pole is to retain or regain one’s balance. Whether schussing a frozen ski slope or making the ascent of a rocky hillside easier, that extra leg can serve as a pivotal accessory. The instrument itself even can be turned directly to the purpose of fitness, when it is used in Nordic pole walking.

Extreme Versatility

Just the names of Henry David Thoreau or John Muir evoke the romantic image of a nature lover wandering the virgin landscape, hiking staff in hand. This is a goal that we can all still achieve, given suitable surroundings. From a fallow tree limb to a finely machined, telescoping rod, hundreds of models are available to aid in tackling mountain, forest or stream, including those that sport attached seats or fold up for backpacking. Some aficionados even collect them.

Besides saving us from a spill into a babbling brook, poles come in handy for testing the depth of water, knocking down spider webs, parting bushes and fending off wild animals. They can also be used to dislodge a piece of ripe fruit from its branch. From day to day, using a pair of trekking poles saves strain on the knees, especially during descents, according to the American Hiking Society.

In skiing, other key considerations come into play. Jen Butson, director of public affairs at Ski Vermont (SkiVermont.com), explains: “Poles are used to enable the skier to gain more speed, as well as improve balance. Alpine ski poles help with improving the timing of the more advanced ski turns in steeper terrain, or in moguls, serving as an extended platform for better balance.”

Regarding another popular winter pastime, hiking in snowshoes, Butson elaborates on the similar, yet distinctive benefits. “When snowshoeing, poles also provide stability and balance in varied terrain, deeper snow conditions and during side-slope traverses. Poles further serve to engage the upper body of the fitness-minded snowshoer, offering a total body workout and incremental caloric expenditure.”

New Nordic Workout

A unique regimen called Nordic pole walking was brought to the United States in 2004, via Naples, Florida. Klaus Schwanbeck, Ph.D., a German track coach, has devised a way to adapt ski-like movements to provide a low impact, aerobic routine.

Naples Community Hospital (NCH) was the first to train instructors under Schwanbeck’s tutelage. NCH Group Fitness Coordinator Bobbie Lee Gruninger says, “The benefits are that you can burn a high ratio of body fat. You get the heart rate in the mid-range and it stays in the mid-range the entire time, because of the speed and distance that you’re walking. We do about seven miles out on the beach.”

Any climate will do, as long the attire is appropriate. Don’t just buy the lightweight, adjustable poles and have at it, though. As Gruninger advises, “It’s important to be trained properly to do Nordic pole walking, because a lot of people just dig the pole in and take big steps, and they don’t get the rotation in their upper body. It’s not really much like skiing.” (Video lesson at PoleWalkingUSA.com).

Rather, specific technique is required. Gruninger points out, “With Nordic pole walking, the poles have to be adjusted so that when you put the pole on the ground, you want your elbow right at your waist and your wrist will be slightly lower than that. If you’re doing it correctly, your shoulders are actually slightly rotating side-to-side, which engages the outer obliques in the core.”

In addition to facilitating an abdominal workout, results include an overall toning effect on the entire body. Gruninger notes that pole walking provides an acceptable, low-impact cardiovascular routine for people recovering from injury, as well.

Whatever the season or reason, there is a pole designed to help sportsters remain upright. Adventure, excitement and athletics are all on tap as we take care to use this versatile extra appendage gently and wisely.

Martin Miron is a freelance writer in Naples, FL. Contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .