If you are struggling with running injuries, it’s time to grab a pair of poles and make Nordic walking a key part of your training programme. Nordic Walking instructor Helen Murray explains how it can help

If someone mentions Nordic walking to you, chances are you picture a group of retirees walking with poles around their local park, doing more talking than walking. But a growing number of runners and endurance athletes are discovering that there’s far more to Nordic walking than the stereotypical image would suggest. Could those poles, in fact, carry a bit of magic when it comes to dealing with injuries, rehab and recovery for athletes?

What is Nordic walking?

Nordic walking is an enhanced version of normal walking which uses specially designed poles, similar to those used in skiing. The poles use the power in your upper body and propel you forward as you walk, so you get your heart going, while using 90 per cent of the body’s muscles. The technique was first used by Finnish cross-country skiers in the 1930s as a way of training in the summer to maintain their cardio fitness, as well as their muscle mass in their upper and lower body.

Another way to train

While Nordic walking is often promoted as a recreational physical activity for health and wellbeing, it is also a fantastic alternative for runners and endurance athletes.

Nordic walking uses more major muscles than running, cycling or swimming, so it is a great option for cross-training. However, it doesn’t involve the same constant pounding as running, so you can reap the cardio and muscular endurance benefits by using poles, with less impact on your knees and other joints.

Perfect for the injury-prone athlete

If you’ve ever been injured or unable to run, you are probably familiar with that sinking feeling when it really hits that you can’t just pop your trainers on and head out for a steady run to clear your head, get some fresh air or catch up with friends.

But Nordic walking can replicate some of the feel-good factor you get from running. You can choose the intensity of your workout, and you really can get a sweat on when you use the poles correctly and walk vigorously!

If you are recovering from injury, Nordic walking can also help build your confidence quickly, because the poles give you extra stability and support.

Like running, Nordic walking can be a really social activity, and you can find a local group or head out with friends. You also can keep things interesting by varying your sessions, as you would with running. You can hit the trails, do an urban walk after work, head out on a head torch walk in the winter, use the poles for a strength and conditioning workout, go for a steady, long walk or do a more intense, interval style workout on hills.

Endurance athlete Ali Macdonald discovered the benefits of Nordic walking when he badly injured his knee whilst training for an Ironman triathlon.

‘Training came to a rapid halt,’ the 46-year-old said. ‘After surgery and 8 weeks of recovery, I had to find a way to get the mileage back in, without putting too much pressure on my knee.’

It was his coach, Robert Herring, who suggested he tried Nordic walking, but having run at school and during his time in the Army, Ali admits he took some convincing to give it a go.

‘Having spent a lot of time running, I thought it was the only way to get serious endurance cardio work done. But I had a Nordic walking taster session and that was it, I was back on track and smashing it up and down the Hampshire hills with a pair of Nordic poles! Nordic walking accelerated my recovery from the knee operation. If I had waited any longer I would have lost a lot of performance, so I was able to get back in the game sooner. By combining arm and leg movement, I ramped up the cardio effect without putting on the pressure of running too early.’

Ali loved it so much that he has since become a qualified instructor with Test Valley Nordic Walking. He now uses Nordic walking as the foundation for all of his endurance training and ultra-running.

‘I tend to spend most of my time walking hard with the poles and then I add in shorter, more intense, interval running sessions. I also do a weekly running session with my poles over varied terrain, to practice moving as fast and efficiently as possible, and I add in a few Strength & Conditioning and HIIT sessions. Robert and I did the Montane Spine Race last year with poles, and we just adapted this base to fit into a regular cycle to get ready for the distance and terrain. During the race itself, the poles made a huge difference because they helped with stability throughout, took some of the pressure off the quads and glutes, gave us an advantage uphill and were a godsend on the descents,’ he said.

It’s for everyone, including World Champions

Four times Ironman World Champion, Chrissie Wellington, tried Nordic Walking for the first time when she was pregnant, and she still uses it as a key part of her training and recovery for running and ultra-running.

‘There is a general misconception that it is only for older people, or those who can’t or don’t want to run,’ she said. ‘But I really enjoy it and I think it can be a really effective part of an endurance athlete’s training programme throughout the year, regardless of injuries or whether it’s the off season. I use it to add variety and to promote recovery after races, because it’s lower intensity and lower impact than running.’

In her role as Global Lead for Health and Wellbeing for Parkrun, Wellington also recognises it’s a really accessible activity.

‘We really encourage Nordic Walkers at Parkrun and it’s great because, apart from the poles, you don’t need any special equipment,’ Wellington says.

So if you are looking for an activity to complement your training or fill the injury void, and an activity that you can do anywhere and doesn’t cost a fortune, then you could do far worse than give Nordic Walking a try.

To find your local instructor, check out the Nordic Walking UK or British Nordic Walking websites: nordicwalking.co.uk and britishnordicwalking.org.uk