By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
To pole or not to pole, that is the question! Over the next 4 weeks, this blog will explore how, when and why to use poles in ultrarunning. Aided by the poignant research of our summer intern Jackson Brill, we will review the science of how poles can aid (or hinder) your ultramarathon performance as well as what types and length of poles are most suitable for you and the races you hope to do. We will also discuss different pole techniques, complete with videos from Coach Adam St. Pierre. For brevity, each blog during the month of October will focus on one aspect. The schedule will be as follows-
- October 7th– When poles are beneficial and when they are not
- October 14th– Choosing the right type and length of poles
- October 21st– What the research says on the benefits and detriments of using poles
- October 28th– How to train and race with poles
So sit back, have a cup of coffee and read on!
Do you even want poles?
Poles are not for everyone nor every race. Yes, they can provide benefit but in many cases can be more of a hinderance than a benefit. So, before you go out and plunk down a couple of Benjamins for your pole setup, you will need to figure out if poles are worth it in the first place.
The cost of using poles
Using poles comes at a cost. While I will discuss the energetics and economy of pole use in two weeks’ time, the simple fact is that fundamentally, they can compromise running performance in two ways:
- Adding weight
- Adding skill and complexity
It’s not a lot of weight and you don’t have to have ninja skills to use poles, but nonetheless, these two points are absolutely something to take into consideration.
On the weight side of the equation, most lightweight carbon fiber poles weigh between 8-12 oz for a pair. I’m no weight weenie and this is not a huge amount, but it’s enough to take a pause and see if lugging that extra weight around is even worth it. To provide some perspective, on flat, level ground that weight penalty alone might be worth 1% from a performance standpoint for most runners. Add in the ups and downs of a trail ultramarathon, and the weight penalty alone increases to 2-4%, depending on the runner’s body weight and amount of elevation gain.
From a skill perspective, the (what should be small) nuisance of having to stow, deploy, stow again, deploy again and repeat process of moving poles from your storage system and into action takes some skill and time to practice. Not to mention, performing said actions will slow you down in a race no matter how much you have practiced. I figure, and this is totally anecdotal from experience and through athletes I work with, that the penalty you pay for all the rigmarole from simply keeping track of your poles is worth about 2-3%. The number of times you will have to deploy and store poles, how efficient you are with the process, and a host of other factors will ultimately determine how much of a penalty you have to pay for this side of the equation.
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All combined, the weight penalty and rigmarole penalty add up to anywhere between 4-7%. Meaning, you need to gain 4-7% somewhere by using your poles to offset the penalty you pay for carrying them around and taking them in and out of whatever storage system you use. In this context, poles will provide an advantage in some situations. In others, adding poles to the mix is literally dead weight and detracts from performance.
When I evaluate whether or not using poles will benefit an athlete, I use the following strategy:
- Does the athlete have time to train with poles?
This is an easy one. If an athlete can train with poles twice per week for greater than 4 weeks, they are a good candidate. Any less training than this and it’s just not worth it. The skill of using poles takes time to adapt to, particularly if you don’t come from a downhill skiing or cross country skiing background. Additionally, just like the adaptations that occur in your leg muscles, your arms and shoulders need time to adapt to using poles. As we will see in a few weeks, it does take additional upper body muscular effort to use poles. The more your upper body is conditioned to this, the better, and it will take about 4 weeks of training to create these adaptations.
- What limits performance more, oxygen consumption or localized fatigue?
If you’ve determined you can take the time and effort to train with poles more than twice a week for more than four weeks, congrats! This is the first step in determining if poles are going to be worth it. Now, it’s time to figure out if you are likely to benefit from using poles at your goal race. Without getting too far ahead ourselves, here’s a preview of what the current research says about the benefit (or detriment) of using poles.
- In almost all cases, using poles will reduce your running economy. Meaning, it will take more oxygen to run/hike at a given speed while using poles than without.
- On very steep grades, there might be a slight benefit in running economy.
- Using poles will require more from your arms and less from your legs, compared to not using poles. I put this firmly in the ‘no kidding’ category of research. Practically speaking, though, using poles will reduced some of the localized fatigue on the legs and replace it with extra strain on the arms.
After all is said and done, here’s the situation are you are left with.
- If the terrain you are racing on is very steep (has grades of >20%) using poles can be beneficial by reducing your cardiovascular effort. However, this effect, as currently studied, is minimal.
- If the course you are running is not very steep, the choice to use poles will be rooted in whether you can gain an advantage by reducing the muscular stress on the legs and replacing it with stress on the arms.
Of these two points, B will be the most impactful for most runners. This is also the area I feel ultrarunners should focus on when determining to use poles or not, particularly in the US where there are very few trails that are steep enough to receive a significant economic benefit.
So there you have it. Steeper terrain and more anticipated muscular fatigue make the case for using poles. When races are flatter and the intensity will be higher (greater cardiovascular demand), poles make less sense. I will refer back to and expand on that basic framework in the next few weeks. Don’t worry, the final answer will come by Christmas, so you will have plenty of time to bargain with Santa on your trail running presents!