The continuing narrative in Finland
In 1994, a university physical education and sports student named Marko Kantaneva began teaching walking with poles at the Sports Institute at Vierumaki, Finland.
In 1996, Tuomo Jantunen, director of the Finnish Central Association for Recreational Sports and Outdoor Activities, along with some others, worked to develop special poles for use with pole exercising. They referred to it as "pole walking" (aka "Sauvakävely" in Finnish, "kävely" meaning "walking".) One of the people he brought onboard was Marko.
They had an idea they wanted specially developed poles for this activity, so they got a Finnish company called Exel to come to the table and work with them. Among other things, Exel made cross country skiing equipment. Not only did Exel already have expertise in the general area of making poles, but also, owing to a warming of winters at the time, and a consequent diminishing public interest in winter cross country skiing, Exel was very pleased to develop a new outlet for their ski pole manufacturing expertise.
Over 30 pairs of walking pole prototypes were developed by Exel and tested in conjunction with the fitness institutes. Marko was a key liaison with the company. The tests with athletes immediately showed the benefits of poles in general for heart rate, circulation, leg and upper body muscles, and in April 1997 the two institutes jointly published a brochure outlining their findings to date. They also endorsed their private-sector partner Exel as a maker of the poles.
The poles they came up with had several defining characteristics:
The poles differed from regular ski poles in that the feet were designed with a forward angle to best suit the walking technique advocated. The poles were shortened from regular cross-country ski poles "to make up for the fact that the athlete, without skis, has a shorter stride."5
Marko later wrote: "Three standard sizes were proposed. 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.6
The poles had straps to allow walkers to maintain a more relaxed hold on the poles, to avoid sore shoulder muscles.
At the same time, Exel also developed the rubber bootie for the poles: "The next step in Exel's product development process was creating an asphalt paw. A rubber paw attached to the spiketip of the pole made it possible to practise Nordic Walking in cities on asphalt roads."7
They focussed on promoting the activity first in Finland, as a pilot, to get it established. From the beginning, it was promoted as a health activity. In the fall of 1997, the first television program about the new sport was broadcast. Organized pole walking events were held shortly afterward in response to the interest generated. Shortly afterward, the Finnish Heart Association and the Heli Pulmonary Association began requesting cross-training courses.
When it came time to promote their newly designed poles and the activity for them abroad, the Exel company decided to coin the name, "Nordic walking." Exel released its first "Nordic Walker" poles in 1997. Exel called the poles "Walker" at first, then later "Nordic Walker."
"To gain acceptance around the world, the Exel company named the sport "Nordic walking" and the trademark walking poles were changed from "walker" to "Nordic walker". 'Even we were surprised how easily the words Nordic and Nordic walking have been accepted in the countries we've been importing to. They seem to evoke the associations people have with the north, Nordic countries- fresh air, pure nature, healthy lifestyle. It's been pretty easy to get those ideas through to people.'"8
Outside of Finland, Nordic walking was introduced first to Sweden and Denmark, then to Switzerland, then to Austria and Germany and then to Poland and Slovakia.
2000 — The International Nordic Walking Association is founded.
2004 — Estimated 3.5 million Nordic walkers in Europe.
2013 — Estimated 10 million Nordic walkers in Europe