Nordic walking

Germany on sticks: the Phenomenon of Nordic Walking

Rosi Mittermaier and Christian Neureuther at the Karstadt Sport Walkingday in Cologne. Copyright: obs/Idko GmbHGermany’s woods are much known, much-celebrated and much sung about. They serve as water reservoirs, fresh air repositories and recreation areas for millions of citizens. In particular, people from the cities and urban areas appreciate the peace and quiet to be found between oak, beech and pine; it is here they can find a moment of leisure for their stressed-out bodies and souls.

But in many places that peace and quiet is over. “Klack-klack, klack-klack, klack-klack”, “And left and right and three and four. Look out for your breathing. Use the sticks!” More recently this is what has been ringing out in woods, parks and recreation areas. The Germans, it appears, have discovered a brand new sport: Nordic walking. With sticks in their hands and running shoes on their feet, these up-to-the minute sportsmen and women are out and about at a smart tempo as they try and shift that winter fat.

It all started in Finland

Nordic walking comes from Scandinavia, where cross-country skiing is very popular. Finnish sports student Marko Kantaneva is generally considered its inventor: in the late nineties he had noticed how members of the Finnish national ski team went running in the summer with their sticks. And so what was originally training for serious sportsmen developed into a trend for everyone, and has now become very popular in Germany.

In the meantime there are approximately 3.2 million “stick-walkers” in Germany, only hiking and cycling are more popular. Nordic walking is a gentle endurance sport that brings quick results in terms of fitness and helps with back pain, a complaint that continues to be on the increase. Sports medicine doctors say that this forced running with sticks is an ideal starting point for people who have not done any sport for a long time, because Nordic walking is gentle on the joints and yet energetic.

If you do it properly “then it stands comparison with other kinds of sport,” maintains Martin Lames, professor at the Sports Institute of the University of Augsburg. “The continuous swinging gait makes similar demands on the heart and circulation to jogging, and yet the supporting structure of the body (bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles) are less stressed. As long as the walking motion is done correctly.”

Ski-Aces are promoting the trend

Germany would not be living up to its reputation if a trend like this was not organised in a structured way. There is the German Nordic Walking Verband and the Nordic Walking Union – two German organisations, and all over the country Nordic Walking Centres are opening and virtually every sports organisation has absorbed this way of walking into its programme. They all offer courses and ways to walk “correctly”. Prominent protagonists in the service of this Nordic walk include one-time downhill skiers Rosi Mittermaier and Christian Neureuther. “On any given day four out of five Germans move less than 1,000 metres. In our increasingly technical world this poverty of movement is leading to health issues such as obesity or intervertebral disc and joint problems,” says the winner of the 1976 Olympics in a bid to encourage Germans to become more active.

It ‘s all in the technique. One foot has to remain on the ground, the sportsman or woman does not jump, he or she simply places one controlled step after another. The use of the sticks is particularly important. “One hand stretches way out front, then swings back along the body to behind it, thus opening it up,” Mittermaier explains – a movement that is missing in jogging. “There you are running on the balls of your feet, whereas with Nordic walking you place your heel down and then roll the entire foot along to your toes. So something is happening to your feet and toes as well.”

Walking Technique and Material Technology

More groups of muscles are engaged by using the sticks properly,than would be without using sticks at all. Above all, they are there to increase walking speed, not to take the pressure off the joints.

Walking technique is one thing, the materials are another. An industry has developed around the Nordic walking boom that wants to participate in this trend. Whoever tends not to be sporty at least wants to look as if they are. So sports accessory manufacturers have developed suitable products: shoes, trousers, jackets - and of course sticks: genuinely innovative, as it says in the adverts. It is all about the “best possible power transfer”, about the “ergonomically correct hand-positioning”, which by means of straps create a perfect “system”. The cheapest products cost about 50 Euros, but the top end is – and why should it be different here – quite open.

The main objective: get the Germans moving.

Copyright: www.adpic.deNevertheless, sports medicine scientists and doctors agree on one thing: the main objective is to get the Germans moving. Body fat and obesity are a social phenomenon with repercussions that can be countered by sport. Nordic walking is one of those kinds of sports that was originally laughed at but is now being gradually accepted. Even if the occasional stick walking has to put up with the occasional remark whilst walking wooded German paths: “Er, have you forgotten your skis?” or “You must be waiting for the snow to come?”

It has to be said that the forward motion of some self-taught people, who were originally encouraged to take up Nordic walking by their GP, can look really peculiar. “You have to be taught how to use the sticks properly”, emphasises sports medicine scientist Iko Bebic from Freiburg. “Otherwise people might as well be walking through the woods with broomsticks.”

Jens-Peter Krull
works as a sports journalist for the broadcasting channel ZDF.

Translation: Penny Black

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2009

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