Nordic walking Update: Europe hot, Portland Marathon adds NW division

As North America tries to figure out where to position the activity – is it fitness? Is it outdoor? Is it sporting goods? Is it for personal training? – it's important to realize the acceptance and breadth of Nordic walking in Europe wasn't always so. And the United States may be where those countries where about four to five years ago.

Love it or hate it, it's clear that Nordic walking is here to stay. In Europe, it's made such inroads to sporting goods and outdoor stores as well as urban workouts and resort outings that manufacturers right and left have product and marketing geared toward the activity.

In the United States, where it's just starting to gain a foothold although some remain a tad skeptical, the major recognition of it came in early August when the Portland Marathon added a Nordic walking division to its Oct. 9, 2005 event known for welcoming walkers.

As North America tries to figure out where to position the activity – is it fitness? Is it outdoor? Is it sporting goods? Is it for personal training? – it's important to realize the acceptance and breadth of Nordic walking in Europe wasn't always so. And the United States may be where those countries where about four to five years ago.

Euro update: accepted activity
At the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, this year, a "Nordic walking" greeting table was set up in the foyer offering several short clinics and walks each day. SNEWS® had a chat with the teachers and found that this is the first year that they didn't feel as if they were trying to explain it and introduce it to retailers who had no clue. In fact, most mini-classes for the duration of the show only had a small handful of students each and a few had none.

Teachers Christina Eckmann and Petra Hettich told SNEWS® that most seem to know what it's all about now that they're on-site for the third year (The first year they offered classes hourly and they pulled 20-40 people each time, they said).

"There're a few retailers who missed the opportunity at the start," Hettich said, "and now they're noticing it's important."

But it wasn't always so. In the late '90s, she said trainers would go to stores and "they would laugh us out the door."

The retailers would say things like, "That's goofy," "what are you doing walking with poles," or "where are your skis?"

Now that the activity has hit a growing ground swell with growth forecast to continue strongly for another couple of years, the giggles have stopped and most want in. It's only since about 2002 that it began to spread more strongly.

"It's important that the retailers get some education and then they see the potential," Hettich said. "They need to see it as an opportunity to reach another demographic."

It's a demographic that once introduced will want and need to buy not only poles, but also shoes, clothes and accessories since many have none of the above.

Both noted that although the person attracted to the activity is mostly a previously sedentary or not-very-active woman since women typically aren't intimidated by the idea, the base seems to be changing with more younger people and a few more men coming aboard.

"It's not just a trend sport," Eckmann said. "It's a wellness activity."

Anke Faller, master trainer in Germany, recently also began a school program that requires parents to take part with their kids – a way to get more people active and losing weight.

"The kids are motivated," Eckmann said since they have to get at least one parent to come along if they want to do it.

Back in the USA: Marathon pole walkers
Back in the United States, pole company Leki will sponsor the new Nordic walking division in the Portland Marathon, where just over a quarter of 8,500 finishers in 2004 are walkers, from fitness walkers to judged race walkers.

"Our company is honored to partner with a high-profile event like the Portland Marathon, which attracts a high concentration of dedicated walkers," said Leki USA vice president Greg Wozer. "This is the perfect venue to introduce Nordic walking to a large number of people."

Leki will have a group in the marathon walking with poles, supported by The Mountain Shop in Portland. Leki spokeswoman Lindy Spiezer also said there will be awards in the division too, plus they will be at the marathon expo and participating in the national event directors' three-day workshop that is tied to the marathon.

In other U.S. news, Exel presented classes at a fitness instructors and personal trainers conference in April put on the American College of Sports Medicine. Tracy Ferland, vice president of sales and marketing, told SNEWS® the company took 40 sets of poles and the three morning classes and two afternoon classes were all over-sold. "They're just a smarter crowd in terms of wanting more options," Ferland said. The image "is becoming less and less of a barrier."

SNEWS® View: We have said before and will say again that we believe Nordic walking has a future in the United States – at least in some more metro or resort areas. We have enough fitness walkers and enough people who need more activity that it's just one more offering. And since some folks still feel silly walking for fitness, maybe they need poles in their hands to legitimize they are doing something. We've watched Nordic walkers in Germany for a couple of years and definitely noticed more this summer. That's not to say that many are really powerfully pushing along with their poles. Most are walking so slowly they really don't need poles. But, you know, if it gets them out there walking along, more power to it. For the industry, that means they also bought poles and shoes and who knows what else. Who wants to miss that sales opportunity? We actually only saw one person doing really strong Nordic walking – a pretty athletic looking women who was about 30. No one was laughing at her!

We applaud Leki and The Mountain Shop for putting themselves on the line at the Portland Marathon. That'll be great marketing, we think. The only problem we have is if they truly do give awards for first, second and third. It's too difficult to judge if someone is Nordic walking – as if there are rules? – and how will they know if someone didn't decide to jog with the poles for awhile? Lots of room for argument there. With one SNEWS® editor having quite a bit of experience with race walking, we know all about the ire that can arise. The Portland Marathon in fact remains one of the few large-scale races with a race walk division, but it is also judged with judges shuttling around the course on bicycles to make sure legal race walkers are doing just that. Not that you could judge Nordic walking since no one would know how to define it other than walking with poles. We say, dump the prizes other than ones for participation, and you go.

The problem in the United States may still be the name, however. There needs to be a recognition that most U.S. citizens have no idea what "Nordic" means or where it is, and it may be best to call it simply "pole walking, " or – if the powers-that-be insist, at least "Nordic pole walking." That aside, it's all about marketing and we bet, as has happened in Europe with persistence, that one of the powerful shoe companies will soon jump into the U.S. market. As if they're going to miss an opportunity like this? And once that happens, it'll be an all-comers event. We will lay money that will happen in the next year, if not sooner.