The Great Trekking/Nordic Walking Pole Debate

The Great Trekking/Nordic Walking Pole Debate

In October of 2020, the USA based outdoor activity magazine, Outside, published an article entitled “Scientists Weigh In on the Great Trekking Pole Debate.” As this is a topic near and dear to my heart, I quickly read the article and the scientific review it referenced. I  feel compelled to weigh in on this topic, given my passion for both Nordic walking and hiking. I will start by clarifying that in this article, they use the terms trekking poles and Nordic walking poles interchangeably, although there are some significant differences between the two and also in the differing techniques employed by hikers and Nordic walkers.

I was pleasantly surprised in the third paragraph of this article to see they quoted an Urban Poling Instructor:

“People will still say, ‘Hey, you forgot your skis!’” an “urban poling” instructor told CBC News a few years ago. “We’re going to change that. In Europe, they look at you kind of funny if you walk around without poles.”

That urban poling instructor was none other than me!  Please do check out the article from November 2014 on the CBC News website: “Urban Pole walking gaining popularity in Alberta.” My comments in the article were contrasted with the skeptical view of using poles held by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation.

A Balancing Act

One of their criticisms is that using poles “saps” your balance and coordination, which could then endanger you in certain situations, such as crossing a ridge too narrow for poles.  Research in the scientific review supports the fact that walking with poles improves your balance, while you are walking with the poles.  However, it does go on to say that research is lacking on the effects of frequent pole use on your balance when not using poles.  I would agree that the long-term effects of frequent pole use could be detrimental to balance.   The poles do much of the work to stabilize you, allowing your bodies stabilizer muscles to be lazy and under-utilized.  However, whenever I am hiking, I almost always use poles to ensure I don’t fall.  As a fall in back country terrain can be serious and have serious rescue implications, I simply never want to experience a fall.  My poles have saved me from falling hundreds of times over the years.  Personally, I would never be walking on a knife edge ridge too narrow to use poles. Knife-edge mountaintop ridges that are wide enough to use my poles on are scary enough thank you!  Realizing I need to challenge those important stabilizer muscles now, I make sure to incorporate some simple balance exercises into my exercise routine.  In winter time, you will always find me Nordic walking, even in urban environments, to minimize my risk of falling. 

You Burn More Calories

The Outdoors article indicates that you burn, on average, 20% more calories pole walking.  This is because pole walking is more taxing on your cardiovascular system.  Why?  You are using the muscles of your upper body (your core muscles and your shoulder and arm muscles) in addition to the muscles of your lower body.  These working muscles require more oxygen, which requires you to burn more calories.   Once again, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation is critical, stating you are just working harder to accomplish the same thing.  But they are overlooking a very important fact.

It Spreads Out the Workload, Reducing Perceived Exertion

When you hike all day, without poles, by the end of the day, the muscles of your lower body are very fatigued because they have been overworked.  Your calves and thighs could very well be screaming at you.  If there is a lot of elevation involved, your “glutes” - the powerful muscles of your buttocks as well as your knee joints are also stressed.  By using poles and recruiting the muscles of your upper body, it means the muscles of your lower body have a lessened workload.  You can go a lot further before they fatigue.  You perceive the exertion to be less because virtually every muscle in your body is pitching in to help, rather than overworking your poor legs. As Outside points out: “That’s significant, because some scientists argue that perceived effort is what really determines your pace and willingness to continue.”  I would argue the increased aerobic workout you get with poles is not the limiting factor during a day of hiking.  You find a comfortable, not-out-of-breath-pace, which you can maintain for hours.  It still tends to be the legs that are ultimately the limiting factor.  The aerobic workout is considerably more than simply walking (an additional bonus!), but considerably less than trail running. 

You Take a Significant Load Off Your Lower Body Joints and Muscles

Walking with poles takes a significant load off your joints, particularly your knees.  Indeed, health professionals state that for every pound of weight you lose, that is four pounds less stress on your knees.  I did a little experiment and had a colleague do the same experiment.  We stood on the weigh scales, then we stood on the scales pressing down on the handles of our Urban Poling brand Nordic walking poles to see the difference it made.  I was 28 lbs. lighter.  My colleague was 23 lbs lighter.  That averages out to 25 lbs less.  Multiply that by four and divide by two (as you have two legs), would indicate 50 lbs less of a load on each knee joint with every step that you take.  No wonder that many people report less knee pain or no knee pain when walking with poles compared to without!   This benefit is especially important if you suffer from arthritis or if, like me, you are the recipient of a total knee replacement and want to make your prosthetic replacement last as long as possible. 

It Is Like Taking The Gym With You!

Missing from the Outside article is an emphasis on one of the most important benefits of walking or hiking with poles:  the fact that it has a tremendous impact on strengthening virtually every muscle in your body.  When you walk a kilometre, you will take over 1,000 steps, depending on your stride length. That is over 500 steps with your right leg and 500 steps with your left leg.  When you employee correct Nordic walking technique, you contract the muscles of your arms and shoulders the same number of times…. 500 times for your right arm & shoulder….. 500 times for your left arm and shoulder.  Indeed, the scientific review upon which the Outside article was based does mention the increased activation of the arm and shoulder muscles.  Specifically, it states: “Upper extremity muscle activation during loaded uphill treadmill walking with trekking poles was increased, with an almost 300% increase in the triceps.”  Your abdominal muscles contract automatically with each and every step you take.  That means over 1,000 contractions per kilometre walked!  While the intensity of these contractions is not as strong as doing curls in the gym, it is still significant.

Currently, indoor gyms are a more risky place to exercise compared with outdoor exercise, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Isn’t it great to know you can get a good total body workout outside while walking and hiking with poles.  You are also reaping the benefits of inhaling fresh air, absorbing vitamin D and getting the immune system boosting benefits of exposure to nature. I rest my case!

What to wear & bring (Spring, Summer, Fall):

  1. Wear comfy casual clothes.
  2. Bring a warm extra layer & rain jacket, just in case.
  3. Running shoes are fine while light trail or hiking shoes provide even more support and are ideal.
  4. Please no flip-flops or sandals.
  5. Leave purses at home. A small backpack is a great bring-along.
  6. Don't forget your water, sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, insect repellent and your camera.

What to wear & bring (Winter):

  1. Wear a long sleeve t-shirt/thermal underwear top plus 1 or 2 layers (i.e.: light fleece top, heavier fleece top) & a wind/waterproof shell. Heavy winter parkas and snow pants are usually too warm.
  2. Wear winter boots or lined hiking boots. Icers, which go over your footwear to prevent slipping, are provided when necessary.
  3. Leave purses at home. A small backpack is a great bring-along.
  4. Bring water, gloves/mitts, a hat/headband, scarf/buff/neck warmer, tissues/handkerchief, sunglasses and don't forget your camera!

Reserve OnLine:

It’s as easy as 1-2-3! Simply click the "Book Now" button, select your preferred date to check availability, fill in your personal details and then make a secure payment via credit card. The system will automatically send you a confirmation of your session with the relevant details.

Liability Waiver:

Liability waivers are a necessary part of any commercial activity experience. I recommend that you take the time now to review this legal document that you will be required to sign before we start our clinic or walk together:

View the Waiver

Your Health & Physical Activity Readiness:

We ask guests who are experiencing cold symptoms and symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home and practice self-isolation under the direction of the appropriate governing body. For almost everyone, the benefits of physical activity far outweigh any risks. For some individuals, special advice from a Qualified Exercise or health care provider is advisable before becoming more active. This questionnaire is intended for all ages – to help move you along the path to becoming more physically active.

Please review this Questionnaire if you have concerns about your health or fitness level for participating in Nordic walking.

Cancellation Policy:

Full refunds are given if a cancellation is received 24 hours or more prior to the clinic or tour date. No refunds are given with less than 24 hours notice. Clinics/tours go rain or shine. If the weather is extreme, then it may be cancelled with a full refund given.

Malcolm Hotel

Canmore Public Parking

Parking:

Parking is available on-street or in public lots throughout Canmore. It is a good idea to arrive early on busy days to locate suitable parking.

Malcolm Hotel - Onsite

Restrooms:

Restrooms are available at the Malcolm hotel in the lobby.

Canmore Public Restrooms

Restrooms:

Public restrooms are available within a short walk:

Canmore Public Restrooms - Trailheads

Restrooms:

Public pit toilets are available at all trailheads.

Canmore Various

Where to meet:

Starting locations will vary seasonally with instructions included in your booking confirmation.

Parking:

Parking options will vary by location with details included in your booking confirmation.

Tour Canmore

Various Canmore Trailheads

Canmore Walking Tour 1.5 Hour

Canmore Walking Tour 3 Sisters

Hikes Cognito Form

Winter Hikes Cognito Form

Chat Modal