hen I first started Nordic walking four years ago at Parco Nord in Milan, people would stare and ask, “Where are your skis?”
The technique looks a lot like cross-country skiing. It is a variation of walking; pushing with lightweight poles while alternating them with opposite legs. There are videos on YouTube.
Nordic walking with correct technique helps tone 85 percent of the 600 or so muscles in the body. The poles lengthen the stride without altering the natural, fluid motion of walking. Usually made of carbon fiber, they have a little give to them to absorb impact. They lighten the load on the joints and stabilize the gait of the walker while giving a gentle work out to the upper body. It’s especially good for loosening tight shoulders and necks — familiar to those of us who spend a lot of time over computers.
Research shows that Nordic walking helps maintain good posture, mobility and coordination. It burns more calories than ordinary walking. It’s aerobic and increases heart function. In short, Nordic walking is great for getting into and then staying in shape. It’s ideal for people like me with back problems who can’t run and find treadmills boring.
Shepherds and pilgrims were certainly acquainted with canes. When man’s ancestors first stood upright, they probably invented walking with a stick. Nordic walking traces back to Finland in the 1930s and before, but in the 1980s the Finns started researching summer pole training for competitive skiers. By the 1990s, the name “Nordic walking” was coined, companies began mass producing poles and a new sport was born.
The great thing is anyone at any age can Nordic walk anywhere. I do it when I can’t hike in the mountains or when the trails are really easy. My poles have propelled me beside canals and rivers and through city parks. I peer at gardens, watch birds and the changing seasons. Now I am starting to cross paths with other Nordic walkers on my jaunts.
To start, you really need an instructor and three or four lessons to get the technique and full benefit of the sport. They will set you up with the right pole length. There are courses in tourist villages in the mountains and most cities in Italy. Over 600 instructors are registered in the Associazione Nordic Walking Italiana (ANI).
Nordic walking poles are slightly different from other types. They end in a point for soft terrain but can be covered by removable rubber treads, the shape of mini golf clubs, for hard surfaces. They attach to the wrists to allow opening and closing of the hands while extending the arms. This part of the technique, while tricky to learn, is important. It helps blood circulation.
I often Nordic walk in Parco Nord, a regional park that borders Milan and five other municipalities north of the city. It’s got lots of parking and public transport services. It offers paths for those on wheels and those on foot. I like to walk early in the morning with the die-hard runners on dirt paths before the cyclists invade the trails in the woods. I haven’t been hit yet but my husband once had a renegade bicycle run up his backside. Fortunately, no harm was done.
Parco Nord sits on agricultural land that was somehow ignored during the uncontrolled industrial and urban cementificazione of north Milan in the 1960s. The park began its transformation in the 1980s and is still a work in progress. Trees of poplar, oak, birch, beech, maple, alder, hawthorn and blackthorn, planted twenty-five years ago, now fill the forested areas. Walnut, hazel and fruit trees grow at the woods’ edges. Flowering shrubs guarantee a walk with different blooms each week.
The routes are marked with arrows for five and 10-kilometer runs in an extended area of about 600 hectares. It’s perfect for Nordic walking. You can start anywhere. There’s always something new to see.
In winter, frost marbles fields and trees, ice covers the pond and marsh. Suddenly, it’s spring and moorhens nest in rushes and warblers in leafing trees. In warm months, the flowering buds become fruit and we stuff our faces with cherries, figs and hazelnuts. I find sloes for sloe gin and gorge on mulberries.
“You think the red ones are good. Try the white mulberries over there,” a gentleman once said. He was right. They were divine.
On this warm early morning in June, the dew is still on the ground. The cherries are ripe. A green woodpecker, with yellow rump and red crown, darts overhead. We spot a heron in the marsh. As we Nordic walk past an air-monitoring station, we quicken our stride and head for the woods. Here, I silently thank the people who protect these oxygen-producing trees.
Later, we throw our poles into the back of the car and greet three volunteer guards starting their morning round.