Category Archives: History

More on Santa Monica

Laying differences aside and picking up poles to advance Nordic Walking

A week ago, I was in Santa Monica, bearing witness to the new cooperation and collegiality among Nordic Walking training organizations, and I’ve been thinking about it (and smiling about it) ever since. Earlier this week, I posted some captioned photos of the Walking & Nordic Walking Health Expo, a public event for members of the public to take their first Nordic Walking steps guided by leading coaches, listen to free lectures and test-drive various brands of poles. I also posted a brief report about goals these leading Nordic Walking educators set in order to stress common interests despite very different backgrounds and somewhat different techniques.
Nordic Walking coaches and trainers came from the US, Canada (both English-speaking provinces and Francophone Quebec) and Australia, and three of the participants (one from Canada and two from the US) are originally from Sweden, so this pioneering event had a distinct international flair. Below from left are Malin Swensson (Nordic Walking USA), Tom Rutlin (Exerstrider) and Suzanne Nottingham (Nordic Walk Now), the trio who spearheaded the event and who gave targeted half-hour lectures to an attentive public on various aspects of Nordic Walking.


Nottingham, who came to Nordic Walking from the fitness world, is aware of the gap between the fitness industry’s ongoing efforts to get Americans off the couch and on the move, she recognizes that the majority of the country’s population is too sedentary, too heavy and often unhealthy. She has been a personal trainer, fitness instructor and program developer, and she believes Nordic Walking to be a practical, approachable way to help people change their lives. She packs a lot of cred. As an award-winning program developer, she hatched Outdoor Cross Training, Winter Sport Training, Adult Play Fitness and Balance Awareness & Conditioning programs and now Nordic Walking. Her personality is ebullient and her enthusiasm inflectious.

Rutlin is a soft-spoken, cerebral innovator who developed his poles and his technique (or perhaps his technique and his poles) in the Midwest in the mid- to late ’80s, thousands of miles from the Scandinavian nexus of classic Nordic Walking. Exertrider poles have no straps and are recommended at a couple of inches longer than other Nordic Walking poles. Exerstriding Nordic Walking Technique uses an unforced, comfortable stride length, a softer heel placement and less heel-to-toe motion during each step. Comparing his technique to classic Nordic Walking, he likens it to a crunch rather than a sit-up.

Svensson is cool and classy. Her roots are mainline Scandinavian and her Nordic Walking USA is derived from the original, classic technique developed in Finland for Exel poles. She worked under the personal instruction of international master coaches Marko Kantaneva and Urs Gerig and became the first INWA Certified Master Trainer in the US. Nordic Walking USA is INWA’s American affiliate organization, and she started Nordic Walking North America to build a bridge to other forms of Nordic Walking in this country.

During this weekend of exposure to the fine points of each others’ techniques and philosphies, these three and other participants learned from each and in dealing with the public, sent a clear, positive and inclusive message that Nordic Walking is outstanding exercise for all, no matter whom one learns from as long as the instructor is qualified — and the qualifications don’t get any greater than those present in Santa Monica who teach newcomers and also train and certify instructors. Very few people looking for basic Nordic Walking instruction have a choice of techniques yet, because there are so few instructors in the US certified in any of them, but the techniques are all sound, and the enthusiasm of the those who teach it and lead recreational groups is palpable.

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A Big Piece of History on YouTube

Tom Rutlin shares his first instructional video

I received the following message from Tom Rutlin, the pioneering developer of Exerstrider poles and technique to go with them:

“In 1992 I made my first instructional video to distribute along with each
pair of poles I sold. From 1988 until that time, those new to Exerstriding had only my early printed instruction manual to use as a learning tool. Having
struggled a great deal attempting to learn to Nordic ski with only the aid of a
few illustrated books on the subject back in the 70s, as soon as I could afford
to buy what was at the time a “high tech” video recorder, I enlisted the help of
my brother-in-law (a photographer) and we put together this rather crudely
produced video.

“Recently Marko Kantaneva asked if I had any copies of my original
video, and after digging through some dusty boxes in my warehouse I found a few
remaining VHS tape copies of this original video. I told you David that I
was already thinking about putting my instructional video up on You Tube.
Since I knew that Marko would certainly not have access to a VHS tape
player, I decided to have a friend of mine transfer the VHS tape to DVD and then
load it on You Tube for not only Marko, but others who might finally like to take a
look at my technique. I think it holds up quite well for a 16 year old
video. As you will see, very little has changed in terms of the technique
I have advocated since 1988.

“I thought both of you might want to offer the links to this two part online video (because You Tube has a 10 minute limit) both for its instructional and historical value.

“Part 1 can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWKqAYw2r0g

“Part 2 at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idQ_Ioi1NVc

“I hope that this tape will serve Nordic walkers around the globe as an
introduction to that ‘other’ version of Nordic walking. Please feel free to
distribute these links to anyone else who you think might find them of
interest.” – Signed by Tom Rutlin

Tom asked me to share these links, and so I have. Enjoy them.

Anniversary Discount from Exerstrider

Pioneering US pole-maker celebrates 20th anniversary with an appreciative discount

In my view, 1988 was a VIY — a very important year. I moved from the New York area to Colorado. The first steps of what would some years later be called Nordic Walking were taken by members of Finnish cross-country ski racers as part of centennial celebrations honoring the birth of a national sports pioneer during a particularly snowless January. I previously related that story, which you can find here. Meanwhile, in the US, the innovative Tom Rutlin (left) introduced Exerstrider poles and a fitness walking technique that he called Exerstriding. His innovations were deliberate and carefully thought-out efforts to address specific problems like those he himself had faced.

Three years earlier, Rutlin, a competitive runner and all-round smart guy, had started using his cross-country ski poles to enable him to maintain his aerobic conditioning after a heel spur dropped the curtain on his running. He liked everything that we now take as common knowledge: total body workout to develop a higher level or cardiovascular health, endurance, joint flexibility, etc. Even after he recovered from the heel spur, he never returned to running. Instead, he developed his first Exerstrider strapless poles and launched a company called Exerstrider Products Inc. to market them. He also developed a technique to use them. For two decades, he has been passionate about growing the sport and fitness activity of walking with poles. The original Exerstrider pole was a one-piece model. It is still available, and adjustable poles are now also offered.

These strapless poles remain unique in a product category in which other poles feature straps of various types. Rutlin designed his ERGO/SC grips (right) for maximum comfort and what he describes as a “15-degree rear-flared design [that] allows a relaxed hand to control the grip while maintaining a comfortable, neutral wrist.” Exerstrider’s legions of fans like that fact that there is no chafing, which some users experience in hot weather when walking for a long time with poles that have straps, and that heavy gloves or even mittens can be worn without interference in really cold weather. Rutlin designed the Cushiongrip tip, which he describes as “a durable rubber compound designed to provide great durability and a soft, cushioned landing as well as sure traction on paved and other stable natural surfaces.”

Ironically, given the European side of the sport’s family, Esquire magazine’s German edition was the first among major media to recognize Exerstriding. The February 1989 edition contained a short item specifically on Exerstriding. It called Rutlin’s approach “Mit Schuhen und Stöcken” (with shoes and sticks) and tagged it as “der neue Trend aus USA” (which needs no translation).

EPI is now celebrating its 20th anniversary by offering a 20 percent discount on Exerstrider poles and other products. Click here for product details. Poles come with a free instructional manual with a DVD. All products are available online.
  • OS2 Fitness Trekker – Two-piece telescoping pole, regularly priced at $89.95 (before the discount) for use primarily in urban and suburban environments
  • OS2-AT/S – Full-featured two-piece telescoping pole for all-terrain, all-season use, $99.95.
  • Activator Medisport – Adjustable pole with a locking mechanism that is suitable for people with limited hand strength, $99.95.
  • Special Edition – The original one-piece Exerstrider, introduced in 1988 for $44.95 (I think) , $69.95.
  • Accessories: carrying bag for two pairs of adjustable poles ($10.95), grip socks ($9.95), bell-shaped balance tips that resemble cane or crutch tips ($8.95) and Cushiongrip replacement tips.
Exerstrider Products Inc., P.O. Box 3087; Madison, WI 53704-0087; 608-223-9321.

Finland Celebrates Nordic Walking’s 10th Anniversary

Although the roots of what would become Nordic Walking can be traced back to cross-country ski racers’ inventiveness in the 1930s, and although it is still in its infancy in North America, Finland has set 1997 as the birth of the fitness activity as we know it. According to a report in Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, there was even a birthday celebration yesterday.

“The tenth anniversary of the outdoor activity pioneered in Finland and known as ‘Nordic walking’ was celebrated at the Paloheinä recreational area in the north of Helsinki on Sunday…A group braved the rain to mark ten years of organised Nordic walking at Paloheinä. The Finnish outdoor recreation association Suomen Latu estimates that 720,000 Finns regularly practice Nordic walking. Last year 1.5 million Finns tried it at least once. The group has organised collective Nordic walking events Tuesdays and Sundays for ten years. At first there were about 300 people taking part in the [twice-weekly] events [at Paloheinä]. It has since tapered off to about 50….The first public event was organised by Suomen Latu in 1988. However, it did not take wind at that time.”

I have no idea why it took so long from the first organized event until the first one was actually held, but it would thrill most Nordic Walking leaders in the US if 50 people showed up for a group walk. The concept of “tapering off” is still in the realm of fantasy here.

Nordic Walking: An Alternate History

I had previously read that what is now Nordic Walking began as a dryland training regimen for Finnish cross-country ski racers. Now, the international edition of a Finnish newspaper called Helsingen Sanomat presents another story of the sport’s origins. The paper’s English edition ran an article called “When Finland ‘Nordic Walked’ Its Way Onto the World Map”. It traces Nordic Walking to January 1988 as an ad hoc part of a tribute to Finnish sports legend, one Professor Lauri “TahkoPihkala. The good professor’s accomplishments included competing in the discus at the 1908 Olympics, inventing several sports including Finnish-rules summer baseball (called pesäpallo) and founding the nation’s sports institute. He also was an ardent proponent of cross-country skiing — as befits a Finn.

Because Pihkala was born in January, the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth was to feature cross-country skiing. The plan was for a ski procession from the Manula ski lodge in a park in the middle of Helsinki to the Olympic stadium, built for the 1952 Winter Olympics. Problem was that in 1988, as in 2007, there just was not a lot of snow on the ground.

Tuomo Jantunen, executive director of the national federation for sports and recreation, decided to haul a load of cross-country poles to Manula anyway. The skiers grabbed the poles and strode down the procession’s route., where a statue commissioned by the Tahko Pihkala Assocation statue (right) was unveiled. It stands atop a pedestal with Pihkala’s name, date of birth and death, and the quote: “Urheilun avulla kansamme parhaaksi.” (“With sport for the best of our people.”).

The paper noted, “The Nordic Walking pioneers recognised pretty soon that they had invented an exercise discipline that was eminently well suited to the autumn and to the snow-starved winters of Southern Finland.

“Nordic Walking found a potent lobby-group in the country’s sports institutes, who advocated heavily on its behalf. However, the real breakthrough only came when technology and business caught up, and when Exel — a leading player in the manufacturing and development of carbon composite poles for alpine skiers and the cross-country crowd — came up with specialised poles just for this fitness sport. “

The article concluded with a startling statistic about participation in Nordic Walking, citing participation in what it calls “the Nordic Walking superpowers”: Germany (2.7 million), Finland (1.5 million), Austria (900,000), Switzerland (500,000), Norway (400,000), and Holland, Sweden, and Denmark (300,000 each).