Almost every time I am asked whether to use poles or not, before I can answer, some runner jumps in and says, “I NEVER use poles,” with a deep scowl that suggests we are discussing group sex after marriage rather than an optional and perfectly legal piece of trail running equipment. The implication is, poles are cheating.
Trail running is not like soccer, where you strictly use your legs (and your head a little). It’s a whole-body exercise and at times you have to use your arms, your hands, your core, your back – everything you can to get an advantage, stay safe and avoid injury. In alpine trail running, for example, everyone uses hiking poles – even the top runners.
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In typical Australian trail ultramarathons, the benefits of using poles are less than they can be in other parts of the world. The slopes are often less extreme and trails can have a lot of fixed rocks on them to get your poles stuck in (and risk snapping them!) or the paths are very narrow due to the undergrowth that keeps snagging your poles. On a fire trail, however, they can work very well.
I advise many people, especially those doing their first ultramarathon, to take poles or at least keep them at checkpoints or with their support. This way, if you get an injury or bad blisters the poles can take some of the weight off a leg or foot, which might make the difference between finishing the race or not. Also, if it’s your first ultra and/or you are going through the night, then you’ll probably walk more and a good poling technique can considerably increase your walking speed with little effort.
In general, poles are also great for:
open trail that is not overgrown
relieving pressure on legs and feet as fatigue &/or injury sets in
speeding up your pace when walking is required, e.g. steep slopes, night, managing fatigue in legs.
There are a few key things to check when choosing your poles. If you’re not so strong in your upper body, lighter poles can reduce soreness around the shoulders. A more important decision is probably what strength of pole you need and whether to choose foldable or telescopic poles. A heavier runner will need a more sturdy pole, especially in terrain where the pole may get caught between rocks or in tree roots – a carbon fibre pole might snap, whereas an aluminium pole will just bend and can be knocked back into shape. Poles with anti-shock springs are really only for people who have weak or damaged ankles – but make sure you can turn off this feature going uphill.
If you’re very tall or very short, telescopic poles will give you more options and a better chance of having poles that are an appropriate length for you (on level ground, your forearms should be parallel to the ground when you grip the handles). They are also more sturdy. However, I’m a big fan of foldable poles because they are easier to put away when you need your hands free, and quicker to pull out and use when you need them. With telescopic poles, there’s always a tendency to either keep them strapped to the bag or keep them in your hands simply because you can’t be arsed pausing to get them out or put them away.
Another important feature is the grip. Make sure it feels good and it isn’t too thick. If your hands sweat a lot, consider cork handles rather than rubber ones (although if using poles for long periods, use gloves, even in warm conditions). On foldable poles especially, look for long grips that allow for a high and low hand position, which will simulate changing the length of the pole for uphill and downhill.
Good handles are anatomically aligned to fit the left or right hand. Indicate the right-hand pole with a silver or glow-in-the-dark tape so that you can quickly put the poles into the correct hands, even in the dark.
Of course, you need some strength and muscular endurance to ensure that you get the most out of your poles and don’t get sore or locked-up shoulders during a race. This is worth training separately so that you don’t overload your legs or eat into your running training. A simple way to do this is to loop a long resistance band over a firm object at chin level. Stretch out the band and stand bending forward a little with arms stretched out ahead of you, then push down and back behind your hips with arms still straight, with either both hands together or one arm at a time (the latter works best if you have a band with a handle at each end).
On level ground and reasonable slopes, an effective poling technique is to strike the ground with the pole opposite your front foot. So as you step forward with your left foot, your right-hand pole will hit the ground at the same time as your left foot, at a point level with the middle of the foot. Now here’s the important bit – you then push the pole down and keep pushing down until the pole is behind you (the ‘pushback’). You should not just daintily tap the ground then hold the stick in the air like you’re Earl Sprattly of Pottyshire. When you get this right, you should feel the weight being taken off the front foot, the propulsion forward as you do the pushback, and your hips are always being pushed into the middle. This is important,because as you get fatigued, your core muscles get a bit slack, causing your hips to move about, which in turn can cause too much movement around the knees and ankles, stress the ITBs or simply cause you to lose balance.
Plunging two poles at once into the ground ahead of you is a technique best reserved for added stability on slippery and unsteady ground, or for an uneven and sharp rise or high, rough steps.
Going downhill, there are three techniques you could use depending on the terrain, and one you definitely should not. If the trail is winding or has switchbacks, then it’s best to use the poles like a skier, lightly tapping out to the sides to control and assist your changes in direction, pushing more on the side furthest away from the direction you are turning. On steeper or unsteady terrain, aim to hit the ground with both poles vertical either side of your foot as you take fast, small and light steps. Done well, it looks like you are bouncing downhill. What you should not do is poke the sticks out in front of you and rely on your poles for braking. If the terrain is really gnarly, dig one pole hard into the ground near your rear foot as you step forward, and have the other pole ready to land near your font foot in case there is any slippage.
On many occasions, however, it will be better to put the poles away on a big descent or for terrain where it’s simply better to rely on your hands,e.g. tallus fields, going over or through large rocks and boulders, places where there is a lot of undergrowth and trees to grab onto. This also applies on climbs along narrow ledges or where there are chains, ropes or spikes to assist you – holding poles will get in the way and can actually become outright dangerous for you and other runners.
If you’re running or walking and not using your poles, hold the poles more towards the centre (not at the handles) and point the tips down towards the ground out in front of you, not behind you. Too often people have the tips swinging around behind them, completely unaware (or they don’t care) about how much they are annoying or endangering runners.
Finally, make sure your poles are easy to identify and never leave them at a checkpoint– nothing worse than making the round trip back to a checkpoint because you forgot your poles or grabbed someone else’s!