By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
This article is the third in a series of how to use poles in trail and ultrarunning. If you missed article one (when poles are beneficial and when they are not) and two (how to choose the right type and length of poles), go check them out!
While research drives much of what I do as a coach, oftentimes (most of the time, actually) it is a trailing indicator of sorts. Athletes are smart. Given the opportunity, they will figure out effective techniques, gear and training through intuition and trial and error, typically before the research community proves the athletes’ assumptions are correct. Such is the case with poles. Athletes were using poles in mountainous ultramarathons long before the research had a chance to tease out exactly how and why they can provide a benefit. Nonetheless, it is important to understand what the evidence suggests about how using poles affects performance in trail and ultramarathons.
Current science on trekking poles
Research on the effect of poles during walking (or Nordic walking, as will appear in the literature) has been focused in the following areas:
- EMG activity of the legs and arms (the muscles electrical response to activity)
- Biomechanics (ground reaction forces and stride length/frequency)
- Locomotion economy (the rate of oxygen consumption at a given speed or speed/grade conditions)
Walking is intentionally emphasized. To date, there are no known studies on the effects of poles while running (or at least none I could find). If anyone out there knows of research that exists, by all means send it my way. And since we’re on the subject of caveats, I’m only going to cover the science relating to pole use in level and uphill conditions as the research for pole use in the downhill condition is limited.
Let’s start with the no-brainers. Using poles reduces lower limb muscle activity and increases upper limb muscle activity (Knight 2000, Pellegrini 2018, Pellegrini 2015, Sugiyama 2013). While hardly a revelation, the practical take home message for athletes is that using poles can take the workload of the legs and place that work onto the upper body. This work comes at an oxygen cost (that will be discussed later). But the old anecdote that poles ‘saved’ an ultrarunner’s legs deep into a race has some scientific merit behind it. Also, because muscle activity is increased in the upper body, it reinforces that if you are going to use poles in a race, you better train with them. Your scrawny noodle arms aren’t going to provide much benefit without some prior conditioning.
Second, your biomechanics change when you use poles. Stride length increases (and therefore stride rate decreases) meaning that at the same speed and grade conditions you are taking slower, longer steps using poles compared to without (Grainer 2017, Knight 2000, Perrey 2008, Willson 2001). This happens almost universally, at every speed and grade combination studied. For athletes, this once again reinforces that you have to train with poles if you plan to use them during a race (how many times have I said that now). Your stride mechanics are different enough that training will make a difference. Additionally, the ground reaction and joint forces are decreased with poles (Knight 2000, Willson 2001).
Finally, using poles in the vast majority of conditions will cost more oxygen than walking without them (Church 2002, Duncan 2008, Hansen 2009, Pellegrini 2018, Pellegrini 2015, Porcari 1997, Saunders 2008, Schiffer 2006, Sugiyama 2013). Utilizing the current research, the ‘metabolic crossover’ point where using poles becomes metabolically more economical than without is somewhere near a 26% grade. While in my opinion this exact crossover point is a bit fuzzy (it could be as shallow as a 15% grade or steeper than 26%), the point to remember is that in all but the steepest conditions, using poles will cost you more oxygen, making the effort cardiovascular harder.
To put a 26% grade in perspective, below are some common climbs in trail and ultrarunning with their gradients (all data obtained from Strava segments).
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|Hardrock 100||Cunningham Gulch to Little Giant Ridge||1.9 miles/2,432 feet||25%|
|Leadville Trail 100||Hope Pass- South Side||2.53 miles/2,456 feet||18%|
|Western States 100*||Devil’s Thumb||1.53 miles/1,577 feet||19%|
*The Western States 100 does not allow poles. This climb is included for perspective.
As you can see, many of the steepest climbs from the hardest ultramarathons on the planet fall short of the 26% metabolic crossover point.
Contradicting Evidence for Use of Poles
Imagine I came up with some new running invention. Let’s call it the Koop-a-ma-bob for argument’s sake. If I went to the starting line of any ultramarathon and stood there with this bright, shiny Koop-a-ma-bob and proclaimed ‘Use this during the race! It will make your stride unnatural and the race will be harder!’, no one would take me up on the deal. If I’d invested any money in the Koop-a-ma-bob, I’d be broke. Sales would be zero. To top it off, I would be ridiculed into oblivion because the name is stupid.
Cheekiness aside, this is the contradiction with pole use. In almost all cases, they increase the cardiovascular demands on a runner, a proposition no one in their right mind would take. The saving grace is that in ultrarunning, while locomotion economy is important, most of the time you are running at far below your lactate threshold. Therefore, there’s some O2 to spare in the process. Because the intensity is so low, slightly increasing your cardiovascular effort with the benefit of reducing the muscular effort stemming from your legs is usually worth the trade off.
Truth be told, ultrarunners sacrifice locomotion economy a multitude of ways. We change our gaits when our knees get sore, wear more protective shoes and carry (sometimes superfluous) gear. Some runners even adopt a low-carb, high fat diet, which makes locomotion economy worse by burning more fat as opposed to carbohydrate (i.e. it takes more oxygen to liberate energy from fat as opposed to carbohydrate). All of these endeavors make locomotion economy worse by demanding more oxygen for the same speed/grade conditions. And yet, they each have a potential positive trade off for the increase in oxygen demand. Note- if you want to dive deeper into this concept, I would suggest this presentation by Guillaume Millet.
In my opinion, the fact that you are going to sacrifice economy in some form or fashion during ultrarunning actually puts more emphasis on the fitness of any runner going into an ultramarathon. Knowing that your locomotion economy is going to be compromised in some way (or perhaps many ways) should give you all the ammunition you need to train hard and smart and try to maximize your fitness in the weeks and months leading up to an event. When all the research on pole use is said and done, that might be the biggest lesson of all. Maximize your fitness so you can afford the benefits of poles (which is mainly a reduced muscular effort). Don’t use poles to try to cover up a lack of fitness as it will compound the problem.
Next week, I will cover how to use poles for both uphills and downhills and the variety of techniques you can employ. Stay tuned!
Big thanks to our summer intern Jackson Brill for his research assistance in this article.
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