Nordic walking update: Euro market matures, U.S. gaining awareness

Two worlds they are, the Nordic walking world in its birthplace in central Europe and Scandinavia and the nascent one in North America. In the United States, awareness and interest is increasing oh-so-slowly, but is nevertheless on the rise. In Europe, where SNEWS® sat in on a German roundtable discussion in the outdoor hall at the ispo show in late January, progress is several years ahead. We take a short look at what the latest winter shows revealed.
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Two worlds they are, the Nordic walking world in its birthplace in central Europe and Scandinavia and the nascent one in North America.

In the United States, awareness and interest is increasing oh-so-slowly, but is nevertheless on the rise. At the recent Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, Leki hosted its fourth series of morning Nordic walks, with representative Lindy Spiezer pleased with 14 to 20 each day coming to participate. In addition, others would stop by just to take a look and ask questions, she said. Plus, Leki now has about three dozen so-called "test centers" – retail stores and other locations where consumers can get education, take classes, try poles and the like.

"We're not giving up," Spiezer said about both the show interest and the turnkey test center concept. "Our exposure is starting to pay off."

In Europe, where SNEWS® sat in on a German roundtable discussion in the outdoor hall at the ispo show in late January, progress is several years ahead. That means that the discussion – in past years, more about explaining the activity and answering questions from retailers how they can become a part – this year was a bit of a pro-con discussion with some concern being raised about whether improper technique is now causing injuries. In fact, the session was called "Nordic Craze?" and was standing-room-only with passers-by in the aisle stopping to listen from the sides.

"We want people to move more, period," said Jean Pierre Schupp, editor at the Fitness Tribune. "Otherwise we'll have a collapse in public health, and we're already on the verge of that."

Nevertheless, skeptics still abound when it comes to discussions of technique and the need – or not – of education about how to Nordic walk. Some panel members said that short courses offered at retail shops and resorts aren't just about technique but give those who are new to exercise a way to find out more about how much they can and should do. In addition, the courses serve as place for users to meet people and to find good equipment.

"These people are thankful for instruction," said Berne Neuhardt, from the buying group Intersport. "We pack a lot into a course, including muscle and exercise instruction."

Still, Urs Weber, from Runners' World magazine, which also writes about Nordic walking, said potential participants need to hear about technique to be able to do it correctly with less potential for injury. But, he added, "One can't over-complicate this."

Said Ernst Jakob, team physician for the German Sports Federation (DSV), "It's all about getting people to move more. It's not about WHAT people do. I can certainly say, as a doctor, that I am really glad for the Nordic walking wave."

Neuhardt stressed that this is a chance for the specialty retailer to connect to new customers – ones that may be more interested in weight loss or gaining fitness after years of doing nothing.Â

"It's a connection to a different type of customer," he added.

He also addressed the opportunity for retailers, who he called entrepreneurs and smart enough to tap into a market that extends way beyond poles.

"There is a lot of potential for the specialty retailer," Neuhardt said.

European weekend events are becoming more common
In other Nordic walking news, the activity has progressed far enough in Europe to have entire weekend events culminating in group walks up to a half-marathon distance. On June 9-11, 2006, in the Black Forest in the south of Germany, the second annual Nordic Walking Summit offers a weekend of walking, lectures, music and instruction. On the final morning, participants can choose to take part in a half-marathon (13.1 miles), 12.5-kilometer (nearly 8 mile) or 7.5-kilometer (nearly 5 mile) walk. More is here, including pictures of last year's event, but it's in German. www.sz-breitnau.de 

Another treadmill for Nordic walkers
Also, a second Nordic walking treadmill for home use debuted at the ispo show, this one by U.N.O Fitness. It is very different from Hammer's treadmill, which had a narrow moving band on each side of the large walking belt where users could plant their poles. The concept was a bit awkward. This new one for home use (Euro 1,500, or USD $1,785) follows on the heels of U.N.O Fitness' commercial version that was introduced in May 2005 at the FIBO show (click here to see that), and the concept is similar: A walker holds onto poles that are basically extensions of the treadmill that come from behind the user. The treadmill poles force the user to perform good Nordic walking technique because of their placement. There is one characteristic that is a plus and a minus: The pole attachment has resistance so a user gets upper-body training as a part of walking, but that resistance could quickly develop into too much resistance for many walkers.

SNEWS® View: Being the first to write about Nordic walking in the United States a number of years ago, SNEWS® has followed the market in Europe and finds it fascinating as both seemingly are progressing on the same tracks but at different paces. No, the United States may never have the numbers as they do in Europe, but Nordic walking is still a legitimate activity that is adaptable to both utter beginners and quite advanced athletes. But whether in Europe or North America, technique is indeed still needed to help people get out of Nordic walking what they can. Even in Europe, where the trend is several years ahead, we still see a lot of people who may say they are Nordic walking, but are hardly doing more than taking their poles for a walk. Granted, when it's snowy and icy as it was during this winter in Munich during the ispo show, the poles may allow someone to feel safe getting out for a walk when they normally might not – and that is all good.

What is funny in a way is how wrapped up some of the Europeans seem to be getting about the potential for injury. We're not sure if that comes from actual injuries or from manufacturers deciding to tag into the market – we saw neoprene knee wraps and back braces labeled for Nordic walking in store windows and on the show floor. Every activity goes through this scare-the-public, sound-the-alarm phase – even fitness walking went through it here – so we're not too concerned that all the Nordic walkers in the world will fall injured and put an end to the activity. Nordic walking is itself a good activity that can be added to the menu of possibilities from which someone can choose to add more movement to their life.

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