Your cardiovascular fitness level is one of the largest indicators of how happy and healthily you will live your life (and for how long you will actually live it). When you think of performing cardio training, you probably think of the basics: biking, swimming, and — for Spartans, especially — running and power hiking.
And when you're training for an obstacle course race, which requires plenty of trudging up and down mountains, you're likely dialed in on increasing your running volume weekly to get your endurance up. After all, Spartans LOVE putting in the hard work. But if you're getting burnt out on miles and want to swap out a day or two of your overall running-focused programming for a cardio-based modality that's not only insanely challenging, but also unique, a new study suggests that Nordic walking might just be your best bet.
What Is Nordic Walking (and Why Should You Try It)?
Nordic walking mimics the act of regular walking, but involves some movements that many may equate with cross-country skiing. While maintaining proper walking form, posture, and mechanics, you use Nordic walking poles to engage your upper body — not just your legs — and propel yourself forward.
How Nordic Walking Can Enhance Your Spartan Race Training
1. It Can Increase Your Obstacle Efficiency
This added movement recruits 80-90% of your muscles, from your lower-body muscles to your deltoids, pectorals, upper abdominals, forearm flexors, external obliques, and more. These upper-body muscles aren't often targeted with regular walking or jogging, so adding Nordic walking to your training can help prepare your arms and core for the obstacles' push and pull demands.
Related: The 10 Best Exercises for Your Forearms
2. Nordic Walking Can Help You Avoid Injury on the Course
In the aforementioned Canadian Journal of Cardiology study, researchers put 130 participants with coronary artery disease on a 12-week program, performing 60 minutes of Nordic walking. At the end of an observational period, the subjects performed an evidence-based six-minute walk test to test their functional capacity, or the ability to easily perform everyday activities such as cleaning the house.
For obstacles such as heavy carries, you need to have your functional fitness in top shape to avoid injury. The participants' performance in their post-program assessment proved that Nordic walking can boost functional capacity by up to 19%.
3. It Enhances the Physical and Mental Side Effects of Cardio Training
The positive mental side effects of exercise have been well-documented for decades. In the same Canadian study, Nordic walking regularly showed improvements in the participants' symptoms of depression.
And not only will you feel better mentally, but you'll also be breaking an intense sweat. According to a Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport study, Nordic walking burns 20% more calories than walking on its own. Plus, the Canadian Journal of Cardiology study's senior author, Jennifer Reed, stated that the use of poles during this unique walking activity can possibly increase speed, stride length, and postural control — all crucial elements of completing a successful obstacle course race.
However, there is one caveat, physician Jonathan Whiteson told CNN. For Nordic walking to produce a favorable increase in functional capacity, it has to be done vigorously, which takes advanced coordination and balance.
Spartans, however, are always up for a challenge, and performing consistent, vigorous work during training is nothing new. Incorporating Nordic walking into your current running-based training program can give you an extra leg up when you're hacking it up a mountain on some of Spartan's most challenging courses, or trudging across a scenic cliffside during a Highlander hiking event.
So what are you waiting for? Grab a pair of Nordic walking poles and hit the trails.