All speed – no substance?

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Recently I have been fascinated about the way some people seem to connect the exercise benefits of pole walking only to SPEED rather than thinking about engaging as many muscles as possible in a way that will maximise the over all training effect . Used correctly, poles will tone the upper arms and provide a highly effective cardiovascular workout but not if you only seek to move fast with them. In fact being too speedy could have the opposite effects and reduce the toning and cardiovascular benefits gained by using more muscles in a controlled way

Yes, its true that using poles will make you feel lighter on your feet and will therefore help you move faster than normal but if you think back to the origins of Nordic Walking and imagine the ‘push’ of the pole into the snow in order to gain propulsion, you can begin to appreciate that it was not a fast action but a strong concentrated effort in order to harness the power of the upper body in order to make you glide forward. Today’s Nordic Walker in the UK may not be using it to train for this precise gliding action but they would do well to focus on the quality of their pole plant and make sure that they are not simply tapping it into the ground and going through the motions in order to move quickly

So, how do we take stock and work on quality pole planting? The best things to do is to think of the cross trainer in the gym, use it with low resistance and you can work all of your muscles and move pretty fast BUT up the resistance levels and slow down to really feel the training effect. Nordic walking is similar and a good way to practise this is by using a one arm pole plant to begin with!

DRILL 1 – The one pole practice drill

Yes, put one pole aside and take care to slow the movement down as you slowly push into the pole strap whilst rolling up onto the opposite toes before pushing off. What you should feel (providing you have kept your arms fairly straight as per good technique) is that there is a point in that movement sequence where your body weight is being held by the upper body via the pole and the foot just before you push into the next step. Now try ‘hovering’ in this position briefly and feel how your core engages too. It’s this element that will be lost if you rush the pole planting in order to step forward again at speed.

Now go through the one pole drill again and simply tap the pole as you quickly step forward on the opposite leg – you should be able to feel far less upper body and core engagement and actually less propulsion too. This ‘tapping’ is a bad habit to get into and results in very fast movements but often shorter strides and minimal upper body work

Here’s another drill that we find very useful:-

DRILL 2 – The buzz or counting drill

This time, go back to using both poles but as you plant them on the ground try counting loudly 1 2 3 in order to keep the pole in contact with the ground for longer with each arm movement. Think of the ‘tapping’ as a brief ‘1’ and now keep the pole on the ground for the count of 2 and 3. 

Another way of thinking about this drill is to imagine that the ground makes a sound when the pole hits it – like the buzzing sound generated by those children’s toys where you try to pass a loop over a fixed wire. Now plant the poles and imagine that the BUZZ sound needs to be a long concentrated buzzzzzz like a bee and not just a short buzz! OK, you may feel odd buzzing your way along with your poles but get this right and your upper body will thank you for it. 

What you will notice after a while is that you can still pick up the speed AND plant the poles to maximum effect as you build up fitness. The key difference is that you are working harder AND smarter and not just faster! 

Tips provided by Gill Stewart Author of the Complete Guide to Nordic Walking and the UK HQ Team.


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