The Pros and Cons of Poles for Trail Running and Ultrarunning
By Jason Koop
CTS Coaching Director
Author “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
The use of poles in ultramarathons has become increasingly popular. Once largely confined to European races, ultrarunning-specific trekking poles can now be seen in nearly every mountainous ultra in the United States. Advancements in materials and construction have helped to make poles lighter and easier to carry and stow. Poles can be used to aid in propulsion and stability and to help spread out the total load of running uphill and downhill. The use of poles is always a personal choice, and here are some of the pros and cons to using them.
Pros of running with poles
They may help with posture
Some runners find poles help them maintain a more upright posture while climbing, and especially when they are fatigued. While the long-term remedy for hunching forward should be training so you don’t need the poles, in the short term they may help minimize back pain caused by altered posture due to fatigue.
They may help with propulsion, but at a cost
Using poles may help you maintain a faster pace, particularly uphill, by adding propulsive force over four contact points instead of just your two feet. However, they may not save you any energy and in some instances will be less economical and thus require more energy. Training consistently with poles may improve your economy when using them.
They spread the load
One of the biggest advantages of using poles is simply taking some of the workload off of your legs and onto your arms. This can be an advantage, even if you are not necessarily faster while using them. By reallocating some of the work necessary from your legs to your arms, you can reduce the localized fatigue associated with the many thousands of contractions your leg muscles will have to manage during the course of an ultramarathon. This, in theory, will leave your legs fresher for longer, delay fatigue, and leave you better off for the last half of the race.
Cons of running with poles
They’re something else to carry
Most athletes use collapsible poles that can be strapped to a pack. They may not weigh a whole lot, but they are pretty bulky and sometimes just get in the way. Before your event, examine the course and determine where you’re most likely to want them. Consider picking them up at an aid station and dropping them at a later station, if the rules permit.
They can get in the way
Taking a drink or eating while on the move can be less convenient when you’re carrying poles. It’s not overly complicated to hold both poles in one hand while getting food or fluids, but for a fatigued ultrarunner it can be just enough hassle that they delay or skip eating and drinking, or stop completely to eat/drink. Either or both typically negate any pace advantage using the poles may have provided.
Tips for using poles effectively
Consider these factors before deciding to use or not use poles in your ultra:
- Generally speaking, the more you are going to power-hike and the greater the amount of vertical change on the course, the more aid you will get from using poles.
- You should train with poles for at least four weeks leading up to the race. This is to acquire the necessary skill, strength, and stamina in your arms to use the poles effectively. It will also give you time to decide if you want to use the poles only when moving uphill or in both the uphill and downhill portions.
- You can use your poles for stability (uphill and downhill), for propulsion (uphill only), and as a means of coping with the forces associated with downhill running. You will get the most benefit if you learn to use them for all three.
- Find the right pole size. Your elbow should be bent at an approximately 90-degrees when your elbows are at your sides and the poles are touching the ground. You should be able to grasp the handle grip higher or lower, depending on the situation.
- If using your poles for propulsion, align and time the pole strike with your foot strike, step for step. This will maximize the work done by the upper body.
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I found poles hugely helpful when doing a 35m walk with an ITB injury which stopped me running. Poles were the difference between being able to walk and not.
I’m recovering from Achilles Tendinopathy and use poles to take some of the impact weight away from my lower body. I run until there is the sensation of pain onset and then power walk until it dissipates. One month on – I can say the poles are helping. It’s now only three months since my injury started and I’m running again having gradually built up strength through using poles.
Clearly, using upper body has helped, so dismissing arm use as ‘utter foolishness’ is a bit of a broad stroke.
Don’t be so quick to condemn something you can only apply to your own experience- it’s a big world out here…
There is a new development in running with poles – see search “knee-saving running poles” on youtube. These poles take practice to learn to use effectively, but clearly reduce lower extremity impact loading and can make walking/jogging/running more comfortable, especially for those with knee, hip, or foot arthritis.
I think you miss a main advantage of the poles. On steep climbs they help maintain a rhythm and cadence when power hiking. I never use my arms to pull myself with poles; this is utter foolishness. Instead I use them like a nordic skier, light grip and not coming in front of me when pushing off. Once atop the mountain, stow them and run. For a mid packer, they make a big difference.
Agreed, Matt! (From a back of the pack runner who attributes finishing to poles! LOL)
Speaking of nordic skiing… why the 90 degree angle with the arms? Why not have a longer pole and create an athletic movement in which the core is far more engaged the arms are simply the power transfer mechanism? Nordic skiers extract a huge amount of efficient power from their core via proper poling technique, which would be completely lost if their arms connected to the pole at a 90 degree angle, no?