February 27, 2013
I came upon my new winter activity almost by accident.
I was heading out for a hike through my local forest preserve when I decided to take a pair of trekking poles. I'd fallen in love with them on a summer hiking trip, and thought they might liven up the walk.
The trail was covered with snow. I found myself walking faster. The poles were urging me forward and also secured my footing in the snow. I zipped up and down with them, speeding through the hushed woods, my cheeks pink and my breath frozen.
This didn't feel like a walk; it felt like cross-country skiing without the skis. I loved it.
But what was it?
Nordic walking? Snow hiking with trekking poles?
I took the question to Nancy Trock, an Oak Park personal trainer who teaches Nordic walking and kindly took me out for a miniclinic.
Clearly, I had not been Nordic walking.
Nordic walking is fast walking using specially designed poles. They are lighter than trekking poles, and attach to the wrist so firmly that you don't need to grasp the handles. Their pointed tips are covered with angled rubber pads called paws, or feet.
Trock led me through the basics: Reach one hand out as if you are shaking someone's hand. Then pull that hand back and reach forward with the other hand.
Now walk, arms swinging with each hand naturally moving forward with the opposite-side foot, dragging the poles behind you. Gradually start using the poles, reaching forward with one arm and pole, then the other.
This was Nordic walking, and within minutes I was doing it decently on the sidewalk.
And loving it. My arms were working, my heart pumping. I was taking a walk, but I seemed to be almost running.
"You work the upper body and the lower body very much like cross-country skiing," Trock said. "When people experience it, they feel more like a quadruped than a biped. It's especially good for people who have back problems, hip, knee, ankle and foot problems. It becomes a way of getting outdoors and getting a good cardio workout without stressing the lower body joints."
How good a cardio workout?
It has been shown to increase oxygen uptake, heart rate and energy expenditure by about 20 percent. It burns about 400 calories an hour, compared with regular walking's 280 calories an hour.
And it's easy to learn, easy on the joints and easy to talk through, making it an enjoyable activity with friends.
"You feel really good afterward," said Cindy Gronkiewicz, of River Forest, one of Trock's students, who Nordic walks with a group once or twice a week in warm weather.
"It's fun and it's good exercise," said another walker taught by Trock, Peter Geraghty, of Oak Park. "I like the way it works the upper body."
But I had been getting a great cardio workout and using my whole body on my snow hike. So what was I doing, if not Nordic walking?
I was hiking over snow with trekking poles.
The difference, said Jayah Faye Paley, who lives in Northern California and has taught both for 20 years, is purpose and terrain.
She drew an analogy to bicycling. "Nordic walking is like road biking; you're going to be using it more for exercising and cross-training," she said. "Trekking poles are like mountain bikes. You go out, and you go hiking."
She loves both.
"Nordic walking poles are designed to propel you, so you get whole body movement and spinal rotation," she said. Rounded spines straighten; back pain vanishes.
Trekking poles are great for hiking on hills and mountains. "On uphills, you're going to have increased power and endurance with lower perceived exertion," she said. "Going down, you get support for your joints."
And trekking poles are readily available in outdoors stores.
Nordic poles are another matter entirely.
I found only one store that sold them — Erewhon Mountain Outfitter — and it only had two pairs and was not planning to order more because of lack of demand.
There is little interest these days in Nordic walking, said Bill Moss, owner of Running Right in Highland Park, which no longer sells the poles.
"It seemed like a really good idea — you're going to walk, why not swing poles, you're going to get a better workout — but for whatever reason ... it never got any traction," he said.
And the Nordic walker must put up with a certain amount of bystander curiosity.
"People always ask us where the skis are," Geraghty said.
"It looks very dorky, yes," Trock acknowledged. "You have to tolerate the looks."
I have started tolerating them. I've been using my trekking poles on snowy days on my morning walk to the "L." The looks come not only from passersby on the street, but my fellow riders on the CTA.
I'm not sure what to call my latest twist on the concept. Nordic commuting? Sidewalk snow trekking?
But call me a believer, especially at this time of year.
Winter activities are hard to come by, and walking with poles is perfect. You can do it with snow or without; it keeps you warm; you don't need skill or coordination; and the equipment is minimal.
And if you don't snigger at me, I won't snigger at you.
IF YOU GO BOX:
First, should you get Nordic walking poles or trekking poles?
If you want to do both exercise walking on pavement and hiking on hiking trails, Paley advises that you get both.
In flat Chicago, however, we may be able to get away with Nordic poles alone. Trock regularly uses hers hiking at the Morton Arboretum, and says they even stand up to snow walking; just remove the rubber pavement paws and use the metal tip, or buy snow baskets.
You can buy trekking poles at REI, Erewhon, Uncle Dan's and Cabela's.
For Nordic walking poles, if you don't nab one of the last pairs at Erewhon, you can by them online. Paley offers an extensive guide to buying poles — and a free phone consultation — at polesformobility.com.
Trock, who can be reached at Ntrockster@earthlink.net, offers introductory clinics in Nordic walking and leads walks in Oak Park.
There are numerous Nordic walking videos on YouTube, including one by Paley http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKTufkzpo8E. On her website, Paley also sells instructional DVDs on using poles for hiking, trekking and walking.