How to Choose the Best Type and Length Poles for Trail and Ultrarunning

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

This article is the second in a series explaining the proper selection and use of trekking poles for ultrarunning, and the science behind it. It is also a (hopefully welcome) reprieve from last weekend’s marathon-centric content bonanza, which I will succinctly summarize as yowza!

If you have not had a chance to read article one, you can do so here. This article will cover the pros/cons of various pole types, as well as selecting the right length. This articles is not meant to be a review of all of the different models on the market, I will leave that to the gear reviewers.

Types of Running Poles

When considering your weapon of choice (seriously, they can be considered a weapon, just try to carry them on an airplane), you really have 2 fundamental options.

  • Fixed length, foldable: Foldable poles are by far the most common poles you will see in an ultramarathon. They are stiff, lightweight, convenient and reliable, and will provide the broadest utility across most use cases. While not best in category across any one area, they have no glaring drawbacks. To boot, packs and other accessories now often come with built-in storage features that fit almost all foldable poles, adding to the convenience. 
  • Fixed length, non-foldable: As the name implies, these poles are one length and will not fold or collapse. They are typically made out of one continuous piece of carbon. They will be lighter than foldable poles and will feel oh-so-slightly stiffer. Because they have fewer sections joined together, they will subject to fewer failure points as compared to foldable poles. However, unless you want to jury rig your pack, they must be carried by the runner the entire time. These poles are great if you are trying to shave every ounce from your kit, you use poles significantly on the downhills or sideslopes, and you don’t mind the inconvenience of having your hands tied up (or at least one of them). Word of warning, these are a pain if you are going to travel by air to a race. They won’t fit in any standard luggage and will cost you whatever the airlines are charging to check whatever carrying contraption you devise. I have traveled with non-foldable poles using a storage tube meant for engineering drawings.

There are also varied length, foldable or collapsible poles. I don’t think it is worth considering a varied length pole. While the versatility of changing your pole length mid run and the precision of having the perfect length can seem attractive, the weight (which is only 2-4 oz per pair in most cases), bulk and hassle (micro adjusting the pole) penalty you pay for these types of poles simply is not worth it. Plus, if you really think you are going to get an extra benefit from having a 121.3 cm length pole (vs. one of the standard lengths), think again. Things are rarely that precise out in the field. However, if you are unsure of what exact pole length to get, these types of poles might be a good option as you can try out different lengths during training and then upgrade to a lightweight fixed length kit when the time comes.

Determining the right length of poles to use

Open up any instruction manual for hiking poles and you will see a diagram like the following-

running poles instructions

Figure 1- from Black Diamond Z-poles manual

Pretty much all of the hiking pole manufactures recommend your elbow to be between an 80 and 100 degree angle (10 degrees above or below horizontal) when the pole is held perpendicular to the ground and your elbow by your side. This is a good starting point for most runners under most conditions. However, to be frank, there is almost no science behind 80-100 degrees determining the perfect pole length choice. While elbow joint angle/force relationships have been studied extensively, the fact of the matter is in real world conditions, how comfortable you are using poles will drive performance (wait for next week’s science section to tease that out).

The one caveat I will add to the manufactures’ sizing charts is that if you are more experienced you can size up. Runners with more experience using poles will use them in a wider array of cases (uphill, downhill, side slopes, etc.) and the extra length can come in handy on a downhill, side slope, or at the end of the push phase. If you are less experienced, size down. A shorter pole length will be more conducive to the way you use poles and you will be more comfortable using them.

So, what type of pole and what length are right for you?

As with many coaching answers, it depends! But I’m not going to use that as an excuse to get out of the answer. It depends on your experience level, use case of the race as well as how you think you will use poles in the real world.

In most cases, fixed length foldable poles will be the best choice. They are easy to use, lightweight and stiff. You can get them out of the way when you need to scramble up a rock, are running on a flatter or downhill section, or need to grab something out of your pack. If you want one set of poles for everything, this should be your choice. Similarly, if you don’t have much experience using poles, or will be limited in your training when you use them (you live in a flat area, etc.), foldable poles will be the best choice simply for convenience.

If you plan on using your poles a lot on the downhill, you don’t mind running with them, and you don’t need to store them, then you should at least consider a pair of fixed length non-foldable poles. They are lighter and stiffer than foldable poles. They are also generally more reliable (i.e., they won’t break) because there are no joints. I only recommend fixed length poles for athletes who have a lot of experience using poles and will use them uphill, downhill and on side slopes.

non-foldable poles

Figure 2- Non-foldable poles jury rigged to a pack. http://www.ansa.it

The Leadville Trail 100 is a great use case for fixed length non foldable poles if you plan on using a pacer. The unique rule where pacers are allowed to mule their runner (carry stuff for them) means you can take advantage of the weight and stiffness of a fixed length pole and simply give them to your pacer when you want your hands free or are not going to use them. Note: the Leadville Trail 100 is the only race (to my knowledge) that has this unique rule. In any other race, runners are not allowed to offload their stuff onto their pacer.

So, to sum it up, if you are less experienced athlete, or if your use case primarily involves using poles on the uphill, a pair of fixed length, collapsible poles, perhaps in a slightly shorter length will work for you.

If you are experienced using poles, will use them on uphills, most downhills and sideslopes, you should at least consider using a pair of non-foldable fixed length poles and also consider using a length slightly longer than manufactures’ recommendations.

The Poles I Use

running with poles

Personally, most of the time I use a pair of fixed length, non-foldable 125 cm FK Pole from Ultimate Direction. I used these poles for races like the Leadville Trail 100 (where I could give them to my pacer) and the Tor Des Geants (where I used them uphill, downhill and generally to avoid falling on my face).

hiking with poles

While both of these races represent a bit of a narrow use case, the poles are a good choice for me overall as I use poles a lot on the downhills and I don’t mind running with them in my hands when needed. During training, I use these poles 60% of the time. The other times I use a pair of Black Diamond Carbon Fiber Z-poles. I use these poles mainly when I know I will be running on flatter surfaces for long periods of time and will want to have the poles stowed.

Note- In an effort of full disclosure, both of these poles were provided to me for free. I will say, though, that after losing my original pair of Ultimate Direction poles (it’s a long story), I bought another pair at full retail.

Tune in next week, and the week after

Next week we will cover the science of using poles and what the literature says about their advantages (or lack thereof). On October 28th we will cover how to train and race with poles complete with some how-to videos on uphill and downhill use!


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Comments 4

  1. Pingback: Maxi Race Winelands 40km – now with sticks – Weekend Warriors

  2. I thought you would eschew poles based on the first article in the series. It would seem that the 4-7% penalty of using them would be hard to recover through using poles.

  3. Pingback: The Science Behind Using Trekking Poles in Trail and Ultrarunning - Jason Koop

  4. Great article and ideas. My only suggestion is that if you’re fastpacking over multiple days, adjustable poles can be very helpful with supporting a tarp/tent for shelter.

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