The Ultimate Guide to Using Poles in Ultrarunning – Part 1
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.
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!
At UTMB this last week – all the top runners used poles, even on the distances below 100km – and amazing new course records were set. Even Jim Walmsley used them!
On a course with lots of really steep hills, there is a definite benefit.
Interesting read. However, I don’t buy the weight penalty of 1% as the added weight is less than 0.5% of one’s total race weight (except very light individuals). 🤓
Vice versa, one cannot improve race time (or VO2max, FTPrun, etc) non-linearly by dropping weight. In addition, based on standard physics work 1% penalty for 0.5% weight increase won’t make any sense.
Also, adding weight has a same proportional effect no matter what’s the grade. I assume you are implying that the time added on uphill is in relation with the overall time but I would still argue that it is already accounted in base weight penalty without multipliers.
Thanks for the great blog!
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I’m curious what you think about poles for 200+ miles. I have some cross-country, nordic skiing experience so I’m not unfamiliar with using poles. But living in Houston, it’s challenging to get true practice with them. Some people I’ve talked to say that they help over the course of a 200, but I have never used them in a race, even for Hope Pass in Leadville (where I only cried in my Wheaties over not having them for about 2 miles on the return over Hope). Headed to Cocodona 250 in May. What would be your thoughts on pole usage as an aid to reduce overall leg fatigue in 200+ mile races?
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Completely anecdotal, and a backpacking example, not a running example:
My son and I shared one pair of poles on a 9-day backpacking trip. As we traded off, we noticed that the person with the poles was always moving faster and waiting for the person without the poles. When he had the poles, I struggled to keep up. And vice versa.
These articles are great, thank you!
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Very cool and interesting post. I would like to concur with Frediric and Blake. I found that on a recent race, although I had very little practice with poles. They actually helped me to finish the race and get me through the (very) rough patches. Did a short post on it here.
It’s a lot more subjective and not very scientific!
Looking forward to the in-depth findings coming up. Thanks for posting!
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I sometimes use poles on steep uphills. My experience is that they slow me down if I’m feeling good and trying to go fast, and speed me up if I’m tired and just trying to keep it together. I never learned to use them efficiently while running, or going downhill. Opinion based on many repeats up the local ski hill (which I always time), and use at Hardrock.
Sage advice from a Master, Blake! My guess is you have some spreadsheet buried somewhere with all of this detail!
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Can’t wait for the rest of a great serie!
I am really confused when I read that : “On very steep grades, there might be a slight benefit in running economy.”
Not sure about other people but when I was going up Grant Swamp Pass from Island Lake last month, I didn’t run much 🙂 In other words, how can one expect a benefit in running economy when it’s technically (at least in ultrarunning) impossible to run on very steep grades ? am I not understanding something ?
I definitely like this study (2008) where it shows nicely the reduction in lower limbs muscular stress : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5392092_Effects_of_Hiking_Pole_Inertia_on_Energy_and_Muscular_Costs_During_Uphill_Walking
But I am wondering, all those studies (and maybe yours included?) were done inside on a nice non-technical treadmill, does that skew the results maybe ?
Fredrick, Maybe ‘locomotion economy’ would have been a better word choice as both running and walking (sometimes referred to as nordic walking in the literature) have been studied.
I agree with Sean. Poles will give you better balance on extremely technical terrains (if it digs in). Else the hand-on-knees method is best for uphills. It will help you finish or hobble to the finish in case of injury (lower body)
Disadvantage: your palms are not free for grabbing onto something, to eat/drink etc. on the go.
I’m very excited to follow this series. I’m not an elite athlete But something not mentioned that I personally find beneficial about poles is their ability to aid my balance and footing on extremely technical terrain. They have saved me from falls more than a few times. While this might not be a performance related factor it is another consideration I personally use if the terrain is super technical especially at night.
Sean, I totally agree with you on the benefits of poles for technical terrain. Putting my weight onto my poles also somewhat lessens the knee pain that I get on steep descents. I don’t actually find they help me on uphills but they’re worth the weight just to feel more confident and in less pain on routes with steep and technical downhills.
Are you going to cover the use of poles and the advantage/disadvantages for steep/technical downhills? Thanks!
You bet Jeff!
What a great topic for a training camp!
I’d be there in a heart beat.