Walking the Birkie Trail, the three post-retirement aged Hayward men don’t think of themselves as trendsetters. But with more than 80 Birkies between them, it’s clear that Wayne Williamson, Paul Pedersen and Darrell Thompson know a thing or two about endurance. And that means that until the snow falls, they’ll be Nordic walking.
Not that they’d call it that: according to Wayne, they’re just using ski poles to help them on those relentless hills.
“Walking with the poles adds a new dimension,” said Williamson, 71. “You get a better workout and it’s easier on your knees.”
Cross country skiers have long used poles for off-season training, but now, thanks to dynamite word-of-mouth buzz - and skillful marketing by Nordic pole manufacturers, the secret is out: the paybacks from adding poles to a walk aren’t just for skiers. Nordic walking can help anyone reap significant health benefits, from north woods uber-athletes to urban grannies.
The sport is rapidly becoming one of the nation’s hottest fitness trends. Using poles as you stride, it looks like cross-country skiing minus the skis and snow. In Europe, where the walking poles were introduced a decade ago, more than 6 million people have embraced the activity.
Now Nordic walking enthusiasts are popping up all across the Midwest, from northwestern Wisconsin’s famed Birkebeiner Trail to the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the sound of the poles’ rubber tips reverberates on paved trails.
The basic motions are simple, intuitive and repetitive: Step forward with one leg while planting the pole with the opposite arm, then repeat. The simple addition of poles engages as much as 90 percent of the body's skeletal muscles, and increases energy consumption by up to 40 percent over ordinary walking, according to the International Nordic Walking Association .
The activity has become so popular that Birkie executive director Ned Zuelsdorff has expanded this year’s Trail Run and Relay to include a volksmarch that will specifically welcome pole walkers.
Two recent converts to the sport are Dani McGarthwaite, 40, and Sally Gagan, 44. With two husbands, two demanding jobs and six children between them, the two Hayward-area women had fallen away from regular exercise routines years ago. But a desire to ski the Kortelopet pushed them to find an activity that would accommodate busy schedules and help them reach their fitness goals.
They chose Nordic walking after reading about its health benefits. Last June, they began spending every Sunday walking the Birkie Trail with their ski poles.
“We thought we can do this,” said Gagan, vice-president of Beehive Botanicals in Hayward. “So we just started walking.”
On their initial outing, they were exhausted after 8k. Soon they were tackling 23k distances, blazing up and down the rugged hills between the OO and Hatchery Park trailheads.
“Every week it’s just gotten better,” said McGarthwaite, an insurance agent. “We walk further and feel even better the next day. I’m not athletic, but after going up those hills week after week, my lung capacity has expanded. My breathing is easier. I feel like have more energy throughout the week, and it’s a great stress buster, too.”
They switched to skiing when the snow came, but were thrilled at the added oomph the poles gave their walks. Both successfully finished the 2008 Kortelopet.
“It’s a good workout, but it’s not so strenuous that you couldn’t do it, no matter what your age,” said Gagan. “That’s one thing Dani and I have talked about: we could keep doing this into our 60’s.”
Good for the Long Haul
That’s aiming low, say local walkers in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond. As many as thirty “Birkie Girls” – a group of fitness-minded women who range in age from 55 to 74 use Nordic poles during weekly walks on area trails and beyond.
The women, who have been meeting for outdoor activities for six years, added Nordic walking to their regime two years ago. One in their group was training to do the Birkie ski race and brought poles to the group’s hikes on the advice of her personal trainer. Soon everyone was using them.
“I don’t know how anyone could hike without them,” said convert Trish Truver, 65, of Hayward.
Armed with her poles, Truver has tackled not only the Birkie Trail but also the entire length of the Superior Hiking Trail and even the Grand Canyon. In winter, she uses the poles with snowshoes.
“What a difference they make!” she said. “They’re just great for hill climbing, especially the rocky down hills,” she said. “I’d be so afraid of falling without them.”
Indeed, health professionals and sports trainers are increasingly recommending Nordic walking for its therapeutic qualities. Besides adding an upper body component, the poles take concussion off knee and ankle joints.
That’s particularly important for folks like Williamson, a former runner who’s had operations on both knees. He’s completed 23 Birkies and plans to notch a few more while he still can.
“It’s pretty much bone on bone now,” he said. “I don’t have much left.”
Thanks to the poles, he’s able to be out on the hills with his friends for two to three hours or more every week. Some weeks, as many as ten men will train together. Although Williamson said he’s getting slower every year, he hopes to finish this year’s Birkie in under four hours.
The training benefits from using the poles aren’t just for veteran athletes, however.
Joel Harrison, a former Junior National Biathlon Champion now in his mid-thirties, used poles to get back in shape after gaining weight a few years ago.
“When I was in my ‘fat’ phase, it was the only thing besides cycling that I could safely do,” said Harrison, a co-owner of Hayward’s New Moon Ski and Bike Shop. “My usual physical activities had become too hard on my knees. I used to go out the door and run for maybe 20 miles, but when I turned 30, got a real job, had a kid, I put on a lot of weight. Nordic walking was a way for me to redevelop that base level of fitness. I built more lean muscle mass, lost a lot of body fat and was able to start running again. It’s very therapeutic.”
The increased stability the poles offer is especially beneficial for those recovering from joint replacement surgery, said Brian Glader, a certified Nordic walking instructor at Midwest Mountaineering. When the store first started carrying the poles two years ago, most of their customers were people who had joint repair and only about 15 to 20 percent were athletes, said Glader, a skier and kayaker who often trains with the poles. Now it’s mostly athletes purchasing the poles.
Jan Guenther, 48, an elite skier, runner and triathlete from Mound, is a big fan of the poles. She uses them to leap and bound up hills for an aerobic workout. To increase her ski stride, the co-owner of Gear West Ski and Run, walks with the poles on level ground.
Upper Midwestern Cities Are Hubs
Thanks to aggressive outreach from recreation stores, Minnesota’s Twin Cities area is quickly becoming recognized as a hub for Nordic walking in the United States. Chicago, too, has an active Nordic walking community.
Hoigaard’s and Midwest Mountaineering, two Minneapolis outdoor recreation stores, each have Nordic walking experts on staff. Both hold frequent seminars that quickly fill to capacity.
“The interest has been phenomenal,” said Linda Lemke, Hoigaard’s Nordic walking expert. “It’s something anyone can do.”
For the past two summers, she’s led Nordic walkers along metro area trails as part of Hoigaard's Outdoor Women program. As many as 30 women show up for the weekly walks, with new people showing up each time with friends.
This summer, Lemke extolled the virtues of the activity at health outreach programs to employees of corporations such as Medtronic, Cargill, Ceridian and Best Buy. And in November, Gottfried Kürmer, a world renowned Nordic walking expert and master coach (and vice president of Leki, the largest manufacturer of walking poles) came to Hoigaard’s to teach advanced classes.
Another urban Nordic walking hotspot is Portland, Oregon where the second annual Nordic Walking World Championships were held this summer. Considered a special division of the Portland Marathon, the top Nordic walker’s time there was a blazing 3:31:52, turned in by a 31-year old man from Salt Lake City.
Walking or Ski Poles
While pole manufacturers are eager to promote poles specifically designed for Nordic walking, many believe any properly sized pole will do.
New Moon Bike and Ski in Hayward carries walking poles, but Harrison said nearly any pole in the shop could be cut to size.
“Poles for walking should be about 10 centimeters shorter than your normal ski pole,” said Harrison. “That’s because there’s no glide. When you’re gliding down the trails on skis, a longer pole has more efficient leverage. The (Nordic walking pole’s) removable rubber tips are for people who live where there are sidewalks. Here in Hayward, we’re lucky to have so many grassy areas that typical ski poles work just fine.”
Riverbrook Ski and Cycle carries two brands of Nordic walking poles at their Seeley and Spooner shops, but co-owner Cindy Swift uses high-end, lightweight ski poles for her workouts.
“As soon as the weather starts getting cooler, I start roller skiing, trail running and Nordic hiking,” said Swift, 46, an elite-level skier and biker. “I run with poles because it’s a lot easier on my joints. I’m taking some of the impact on my arms and off my knees and ankles.”
But Outdoor Ventures owners Marcia Engebretsen and Deno Mense are so convinced of Nordic walking’s value that they’re expanding their product line and planning workshops to introduce others to the sport.
“We’ve only been selling the poles for about a year and we’ve been impressed with how many people are into it,” said Mense. “And the neatest thing that people are coming back just jazzed after they’ve used them. They want to get their friends to join them.”
As an avid outdoorswoman, Engebretsen has been walking with poles for years.
“I love to exercise outside,” she said. “I don’t care what the weather is, I just want to be out there. I just throw on some Icebugs (running shoes with carbide tips) and I’m good to go, even if it’s slippery. I incorporate those with the poles, and I don’t care what it’s doing out there, it’s not going to stop me.”
Mense is quick to point out that Nordic poles are equally valuable for those who desire less challenging terrain.
“You don’t necessarily have to be the type who wants to drive to the Birkie Trail to enjoy Nordic walking,” said Mense. “You can live in town and like to walk in easier conditions and use them twelve months of the year. You don’t have to buy lots of expensive equipment to get outside and breathe some fresh air.”