Trail running – The use of poles: Are they a help or a hindrance?
Ultra-running has kind of become my thing over the last year, more through organic growth rather than an intension, and with the hills getting bigger and distances getting longer I wondered what all these people around me were doing with poles!? So running with poles is a thing and although you may write them off as cheating or gaining an unfair advantage, don’t knock it until you have tried it. I am now a massive fan and convert after recently trying them in the Mozart 100, a 103km ultra in the Austrian mountains, with 4500m of elevation. Without them it would have been an ugly affair. Also, if it’s allowed in the rules and regs of the race, which it is in most mountainous ultras, why not use the kit allowed to gain the most benefit within the race.
After a bit of research into the potential benefits, reading blogs and articles about how they are like Marmite, you love them or hate them, I thought it was worth a try. I have always known of the benefits of hiking with poles. They keep you more upright, therefore reducing the load on the quads and calves giving you more power from the glutes as well as off-loading the lower body and utilising the upper body. Some articles claimed a 40% increase in upper body use whilst using poles which is a huge aid to the lower body.
When my friend who I ran the Mozart 100 with was suffering from a knee issue leading into the race it seemed to make sense to use poles a bit earlier than intended. I had planned to practice running with them leading up to the Arc50, a 50 mile ultra in Feb 2019 when ground conditions would be treacherous and very hilly on the Cornish coast path. I decided to invest in a pair, not lightly though as they come at a cost! Made from carbon fiber or aluminum they are designed to fold up smaller for ease of packing away and also to save weight when running/carrying them. This makes them expensive £80+.
I bought a pair of Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Trail* Poles off eBay but not long before realising I couldn’t take them on the plane in my hand luggage. So, I ended using normal light weight trekking poles borrowed from a client’s client who lived in Salzburg. Amazingly they do give you a lot of extra go, even on the level. They definitely take some getting used to but my friend wouldn’t have made it around the 103km without them and I would have been in a lot of pain! I found on the flats you could use them in an alternating swing pattern, and the same on ascents however you could double pole to give a big power uphill walking or running. I found the double pole most beneficial downhill to help reduce the load and impact also stabilising yourself on uneven/slippery descents. They definitely take some getting used to and wouldn’t be for everyone, but I was sold on them in 5-10minutes of using them, and that was just a normal light weight walking pole, not even a specific running pole. However, they do throw up a few logistical things to consider like where to carry them, feeding on the go etc.
1. Offloads the legs and aids in the mechanics of ascents, descents and flats.
2. Increase upper body work out and opening up of the chest by being upright making it easier to get your breath when working hard.
3. Reduces the risk of injury / falls as helps stabilise yourself on your feet.
4. Reduces the likelihood of early fatigue.
1. Your hands aren’t free to eat, drink or perform other tasks which can be annoying but just takes some time to get used to.
2. They aren’t permitted on airplanes in hand luggage so can be a pain if traveling light.
3. Consideration has to be given to where you store them on yourself when not using them as running holding them can be arduous.
4. They can be an expensive bit of kit if you don’t like running with them / utilise them enough within races.
Top tips if your considering using running poles:
1. Try before you buy, even if it’s with a trekking pole. You will soon find out a rhythm or whether it is for you or not.
2. Practice makes perfect. This is something I didn’t have the luxury of and had to play with it on race day (not ideal) but it will make you far more proficient and economic with your energy.
3. Think about how you will store them whist running that is easy to access and perform whilst fatigued.
4. Read reviews before you buy as there are pros and cons relating to the brands, material they are constructed from, wrist straps and the construction of them (Z folding or telescopic). *I have found the wrist straps on my new poles invaluable as they mean you don’t have to grip them to hold on to them when used correctly freeing up some dexterity.
5. Make sure you get the right size too as most aren’t adjustable to save weight. A rough guide is multiplying your height by 0.7 or a pole length allowing your elbow to be at 90 degrees whilst you are holding the grip and the tip on the floor.
Hopefully this gives you a brief overview of a few things I experienced in researching, buying and using poles in the last month or so within my silly Ultras. For me it will be an essential bit of kit, first to be packed in my bag alongside my toilet roll, whistle and phone.
*since writing this I have invested in some Raidlight Compact Carbon Ultra Evo Poles RRP ~£80-115 and would highly recommend them if you can get them at a reasonable price.