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Walking experiences renaissance in Swiss Alps

Walk this way! swissinfo.ch

With a high-tech twist, the oldest form of human motion has become the latest fitness fad in the Swiss Alps.

This content was published on June 12, 2004 - 14:03
swissinfo.ch

“Nordic walking” promises hikers a healthy, and what could be the most complete, outdoor workout.

Casimir Platzer instructs a group of British tourists in Kandersteg in the new technique of walking with the aid of carbon poles.

It sounds at first as if Platzer is preaching to the converted since most holidaymakers travel to the Bernese Oberland resort to take advantage of its extensive network of hiking trails.

Yet most wonder why they need the assistance of poles similar to those used in cross-country skiing.

“You put about 40 per cent of your weight on your arms and upper body and that takes pressure off your knee and hip joints,” Platzer says, explaining that the additional stress is taken by the sticks.

Nordic beginnings

Even though cross-country skiers first used Nordic walking as a summer training method in the 1930s, it was only launched as a sport for the wider public seven years ago in Finland.

Since then, its popularity has grown rapidly with major sporting goods manufacturers developing ergonomically designed and lightweight poles and special shoes.

“You burn about 40 per cent more calories than you would walking without poles, and you use almost all of your muscles.”

In the double role of instructor and hotel manager, Platzer is the driving force behind Nordic walking in Kandersteg because he believes what is good for the body is also healthy for business, attracting more tourists to the Swiss Alps.

Together with the tourist office, Platzer has organised introductory Nordic walking packages, including transport to the resort, accommodation, meals, equipment hire and lessons on specially marked trails.

Similar Nordic walking centres have also been set up in central Switzerland and the Goms valley in canton Valais.

Like Kandersteg, Goms and the central Swiss village of Glaubenberg are renowned for their cross-country trails in winter.

Many other alpine resorts are also trying to cash in on the trend by signposting paths for Nordic walkers.

Learning to walk

“It’s like walking for the first time,” says Jeremy Fisher from Britain, slightly exasperated but keen to master the technique of coordinating legs and arms.

Fisher spends one week a year hiking in Kandersteg with his family but has never put one foot in front of the other in quite this way before.

“You’ll appreciate when you get older that you need more support so I am particularly keen to see how well the sticks work,” says his robust father-in-law, Bobby Robson.

“I’ve seen how fit cross country skiers are so I knew there must be something to this, but I didn’t think it would be quite so exhausting,” adds Robson’s daughter, Sophie.

“I practice yoga and I run, and I used to do a lot of dance so I’ve had problems with my knees,” she says. “I think this will be a very good way of taking the strain off them.”

Uphill

A new association promoting Nordic walking in Switzerland has entered a partnership with several cable car companies to devise a training programme for more performance-oriented athletes.

For a small fee, walkers’ times to the top of any one of several mountains are measured by an electronic chip system.

While the walkers relax by riding back down in a cable car or mountain railway, their times are loaded into a central databank, where they can be accessed by logging onto the internet.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Kandersteg

Key facts

Nordic walking was launched in Finland in 1997.
It promotes the use of 90% of the body’s muscles.
Energy consumption is increased by up to 46%, and heart rate by up to 13%.
Approximately 400 calories are burned per hour, compared with 280 for normal walking.

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