The history of Nordic walking 1997-2007

By Marko Kantaneva
+358 45 214 6681

…Initially, Nordic Walking was practised only by cross-country skiers, because Nordic Walking allowed them to simulate cross-country skiing techniques quite closely. Cross-country skiers had used Nordic Walking as a form of summer training, during long walks in woods, on paths, slopes and swamps at least since the 1930s. Pole Walking exercises are known to have been performed even before that. Instead of the term Nordic Walking the skiers have preferred to use the term ‘Ski walking’, which matches the Nordic Walking techniques employed by skiers better. The skiers’ technique is more dynamic and aggressive than that of a person using Nordic Walking as a form of workout. Ski walking is more like a brisk walk supported by poles. Walking with poles, however, has been practised over the years by a great many people for a number of reasons. Even the Bible makes reference to men who used poles to facilitate walking in the desert. Health care institutions all over the world have used certain forms of Nordic Walking to support their treatment procedures. Many other leisure centres over the years have also offered Nordic Walking as an exotic form of workout to supplement their standard programmes…

…However, Nordic Walking in its current form began its way across the world from Finland in spring 1997. I had already developed various Nordic Walking exercises for course groups during my studies and work at the Finnish Sports Institute at Vierumäki, Finland, in 1994 – 1997. I had even used Nordic Walking as a part of my graduation theses (1996-1997), in spite of the fact that at these times the physical activity itself did not even exist! This fact was known also to my highly respected professor Risto Virtanen, who was contacted by the managing director of Suomen Latu (The Central Association for Recreational Sports and Outdoor Activities) Tuomo Jantunen. Tuomo asked Risto to write an article about this crazy physical activity, and provide a couple of photos showing the technique of walking with poles. Risto told him that due to his pressing schedule he would not be able to help, but that he knew someone, who would definitely handle the request. After I received the contact information from Risto Virtanen, I contacted Tuomo Jantunen and introduced myself. I enquired about the requirements to the content of the article. “Six pages,” Tuomo said, and the writing project begun. To compensate this work, we agreed on an educational scholarship of 1000 Finnish marks of the times, which paid for my studies. The text was completed fairly soon, because I had already previously studied the topic in relation to physical education instruction at the Finnish Sports Institute, as well as in the course of completing my graduation thesis majoring as a physical education instructor.

Soon after sending the text I received a feedback enquiry from Tuomo. “Thank you for the text. Would it be possible to organise a photo-shoot at Vierumäki? I will organise some poles through Exel, would you bring the models for shooting”. We agreed on the day of the shoot, and on the agreed day a photo-shoot was organised on the grounds of the Finnish Sports Institute at Vierumäki. Pictures were taken according to the guidelines that I had laid down in the Suomen Latu member newsletter. After the shooting session we went to have a cup of coffee, where we were joined by the pole line product manager of the time Taisto Manninen of Exel Oyj. Together with Taisto we started enthusiastically to design the very first Nordic Walking pole. The spiketip was taken as the object of the most detailed design work. I considered this the only necessary and absolutely crucial special feature of a Nordic Walking pole. I myself had a number of unpleasant memories of long hikes during my skier years, when my progress was often hampered by branches or pieces of bark clinging to the pole tips. To my mind, this was to be prevented in the future product. The tip had to be blunt, but yet sharp enough to take a grip, even on sandy paths. At that time, I took it for granted that Nordic Walking is only suited for forest paths. How wrong was I! In addition to the tip, I wanted to reduce the size of the spiketip, because the large winter spiketip often got stuck in bushes and grass. I wanted to make sure that this detail too would not disturb progress by Pole Walkers on narrow trails through woods. These notes concluded our first “product development meeting” in the history of Nordic Walking. On the same occasion, when leaving Vierumäki, Taisto Manninen left me a stack of poles for testing. My task was to determine three basic pole sizes. Remember, at these times Nordic Walking did not even exist, and we strongly doubted that sports gear traders would be prepared to include a new product with a large spread of different product versions.

A few days after our meeting, Taisto contacted me again and said that the drawings of the Nordic Walking pole spiketips were ready. We agreed on the next meeting time, and studied the drawings during a coffee break at the Kaskela canteen of the Finnish Sports Institute. The drawings were quite satisfactory, and complied pretty accurately to the design that had been created some days earlier. I managed to convince Taisto that the investment would be worth it, and that the product itself is good. At the end of the meeting we shook hands, and Taisto reminded me once again to study the size alternatives of the poles.

Some weeks after this meeting, my mobile phone rang in the middle of my morning coffee break. The display said TAISTO EXEL. – “It’s Taisto from Exel, hi, I received the text you wrote for the promotional newsletter, thank you, but have you completed the size table already? This is the only one thing needed to start marketing the sport”. I had not even remembered the thing. Yet I responded: “Just a minute, I am in a quite inconvenient spot right now, could I call you back in a moment?” So that’s what we agreed on. I immediately rushed out into the shed, which was standing in the yard of my apartment building. I grabbed a bunch of poles that Taisto had left me. I glanced around, and then I noticed our neighbour Pekka Nakari standing in the yard, watching his children play. I asked Pekka first if he had a moment. He indeed had time, and so two men, both 190 cm tall, started the Nordic Walking poles calculation tests. We walked a bit, and then discussed our reactions to Nordic Walking. I acted as the recorder, and wrote down the results. I had one clear starting point for determining the length of the walking poles. The pole had to be shorter than cross-country ski poles or the training poles for slopes that skiers use. This hypothesis about the length of the poles had been proven through experience acquired in the course of Nordic Walking lessons I had given. After we completed our field tests, I went back home and sat down at the computer. I prepared a dimensional chart based on the walkers’ height from 1.5 m all the way to 2 m. The poles at my disposal had three different lengths. I determined them as 120 cm, 125 cm and 130 cm.

This size spread, which is based on our testing, is still in use for selecting Nordic Walking poles. However, I had no way of knowing the importance of the task that I was fulfilling that early summer day. Later, it has even been fun discussing the proper dimensions of Nordic Walking poles. From time to time, I have discussed this topic – even slightly mischievously - when someone has come up with absolutist visions on proper dimensions referring to the pole selection table. Then I usually ask the reasoning behind their statements and I have been often amazed by the fanatic way people attempt to motivate their position in scientific terms. Developing this size spread has convinced me that accomplishing a functional and practical thing in this world is not too difficult, provided that people have a clear vision on what they are looking for.

By later summer 1997, Exel Oyj had completed the product – Nordic Walker – walking pole. I was the first to receive from Taisto the proper ‘tools’ for my use. Exel had based its very first marketing material on the article that I had written for Suomen Latu. Furthermore, Suomen Latu organised various event nights in order to promote the physical activity in Finland. I did my share of the work from the Finnish Sports Institute. In autumn 1997, I also carried out some training or, rather, informational events for the very first Suomen Latu Nordic Walking instructors. The first winter already showed signs of Nordic Walking becoming an all-year-round physical activity. Over the entire winter season 1997–1998, myself and a number of other instructors lead daily Nordic Walking courses. This was when it was discovered that people wished to practise Nordic Walking not just all-year-round, but from their very doorsteps.

The next step in Exel Oyj’s product development process was creating an asphalt paw. A rubber paw attached to the spiketip of the pole made it possible to practice Nordic Walking in cities on asphalt roads. Moreover, it opened eyes to the fact that Nordic Walking can be practised in any corner of the world, and at any time, because Nordic Walking is not dependent on weather conditions, time of year, or circumstances. Exel started to study this issue, and – initially – cast its glance on European markets, first and foremost Germany, in 2000. I published the first major article promoting the sport for the column titled ‘Next Step’ I wrote at the time for Seura Magazine, Finland. 1998 may be seen as the boom year for the Nordic Walking craze in Finland. The number of enthusiasts leaped from nearly zero to over a hundred thousand people practising Nordic Walking at least once a week. 1998 taught me personally a lot about Nordic Walking and teaching it. At that time, I worked with Nordic Walking around the clock and seven days a week. At the Institute and outside it. I was developing new methods and ways of teaching people swifter and easier ways of learning the sport’s secrets almost every day. The sport indeed spread extremely fast around the country, and was a continuous media subject. The training sessions based on the “all from nothing” principle, as well as completing the instruction book entitled From Nordic Walking to Pole Sports, were challenging tasks, because I had to invent everything from scratch. This period set up the guidelines for the development of the physical activity. From Nordic Walking to Pole Sports, a brochure published at own expense, was completed by spring 1999. Along with performing other tasks, the instruction book was sold and marketed enthusiastically. The instruction book was also used as the script for the Nordic Walking training video 2 released by Suomen Latu. The work done for promoting Nordic Walking was producing results and helped to establish contacts with the Gummerus publishing house. Almost from the start, at our first meeting at the office of Gummerus Oy, we agreed with the general editor Risto Väisänen to prepare a proper book on workout with poles and Nordic Walking. Through numerous co-operation projects related to Nordic Walking and Nordic blading (inline skating with poles), my good contacts with Exel Oyj became even stronger. Furthermore, in late Autumn 1999 I wrote and put together a Nordic blading instruction package for Exel and the Finnish K2 Skate College. Everything seemed possible along with the popularity of Nordic Walking. No-one was astonished any more seeing different kinds of people walking with poles. Instead, one often heard comments like: “Could swimming also be practised with poles?”

INWA was founded in spring 2002 and Exel Oyj’s marketing manager, Aki Karihtala, invited me to be a founding member, as well as a member of the board and a trainer of the organisation. Later that autumn, I established an employment relation with Exel. This is how I started to learn the trade – first as pole product manager for Exel Oyj, a position that was subsequently turned into product line manager. I was in a splendid situation, because now I was able to have an impact on the development of the physical activity in its every individual aspect. To put it mildly – I was enthusiastic then. Meanwhile, Nordic Walking had developed to an extent whereby in 2000 nearly half a million Finns practised it! Under the circumstances, it was a great pleasure to publish in 2001 the world’s very first book on Nordic Walking as well as manufacturing top quality products for the enthusiasts of this physical activity.

In 2001 and 2002, most of my time was spent on learning my new job at Exel Oyj and travelling around Finland and the rest of the world participating in various Nordic Walking training events organised by INWA. INWA’s operations were continuously developing and in August 2002 there were already nearly 30 INWA Master Trainers around the world. The results of this work also began to emerge internationally. Furthermore, a number of sports gear manufacturers had become involved in the market. Nordic Walking had become a truly significant business field. The ‘master’ himself had started to smile a little.

2003 was the year of visible growth in Nordic Walking on an international scale. The number of INWA Master Trainers doubled during spring 2003, reaching about sixty (60) trainers. In 2003, most of my time was indeed spent on providing information about Nordic Walking. The participants of the “tour” came from Germany, Austria, Italy, Norway, Luxembourg, Estonia, USA, Iceland, Holland, England, Denmark, Slovenia and Croatia. In these cases, Muhammad always went to the mountain, so there was plenty of travel involved.

Every training event involving accomplished top professionals of physical education is extremely challenging and extremely educating for any trainer. Many new perspectives have been revealed to me through discussions and contacts with different cultures resulting from these training events. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that the basics of Nordic Walking have not changed since spring 1997. In those days, a person walking with poles, accompanied with amused mockery, had to sneak in shame to seek shelter in woods. Today, in 2007, polls show that in Finland alone there are over one million enthusiasts of Nordic Walking. Since Finnish population is 5.2 million, this means that nearly 20% of Finns regularly practise Nordic Walking at least once a week! Based on different sources, it is estimated that currently there are about 6-7 million Nordic Walking enthusiasts in the world. When Nordic Walking was still taking its first steps, it was called ‘dementia walking’ in Finland because people thought that those who practised it had forgotten their skis at home. Moreover, Nordic Walking was considered clearly as foolish nonsense. Today, this wild craze has captured Finland, and spread evenly around the world where it is practised by various target groups. Internationally, Nordic Walking is still taking its first steps but its foundation is so stable that it is easy to pick up from there…

Marko Kantaneva©