How to incorporate running poles into your trails

Following on from my article about techniques for running uphill, I mentioned the use of running poles was a serious consideration when looking at improving your technique on running up hills. In this article I’ll take a quick look at what the benefits and effects of using running poles are and what techniques there are to use them.

Trail running poles remain a contentious issue in the world of running and that’s partly because of their history, and also perhaps due to the lack of our understanding of their impact in scientific terms. Not much else divides opinion in the sphere of running as much as running poles, other than maybe barefoot running! So, let’s get stuck into the world of sticks…

Origins

Running poles were born into the modern imagination from two parents – the Nordic variety (skiing which in the late 1970s formally led to its cousin Nordic Walking) and the good old-fashioned walking stick. Nordic Walking, has a passionate following and found fame in the fitness craze it invoked by those wishing to burn more calories vs merely walking back in the 80s. However, in reality people have been “Nordic Walking” for centuries, as a way of getting about and also for training for skiing in the off-season, it wasn’t until recently though that this term was coined and the activity given its own special accreditation. The walking stick which has been around for millennia, has been an aid to anyone willing to yield, or whittle it; whilst yomping over tough terrain and even acting as a defence against wild beasts or foe. In the last 30 years modern day hikers steadily replaced the wooden sticks with man-made poles, often at the disdain of the previous generation who regarded such things as more of a hindrance than a help, and similarly Nordic Walking and its enthusiastic swingers of poles found a place in popular walking groups and the world’s imagination. At last the modern-day walking poles, telescopic or otherwise found themselves on the kit list of hikers, trekkers, mountaineers and ultimately trail runners. This is where the trouble started!

Benefits

I will briefly mention what we do know scientifically thus far according to the long list of research papers that are appearing to investigate the effects of the trail running pole. We know they increase stability, they also reduce impact on the lower limbs during flat and downhill sections. They increase propulsion, level of intensity of exercise and also calorie burn during flats, swapping some of the intense reliance on lower limb muscles with that of the upper body. However, so far no one has conclusively proven that using walking poles increases vertical force though, i.e., propulsion in getting uphill, although recent research in 2012 does actually show it can increase your propulsion for downhills in a similar way to flats*. There is however some distance to go on further research as most studies look at moving on treadmills and also use the classic Nordic Walking method (not really true to reality for trail runners), however, what I have quoted above, were researched in the field with trail runners. What can we conclude? Well if you use them well, they will serve you well, and yes, your joints will certainly thank you on the downhill sections and you should get some extra push on the flats and downs, even if at expense of additional energy burn. Trail running poles can certainly be an advantage, but as other writers have concluded too, only if you use them correctly and in the right context.

Technique

How do you use a trail running pole correctly, the answer is not like a Nordic Walker! Seriously, the answer depends on the slope angle, whether you are running or walking, the distance that you are using them over, and also what technique works best for you. One thing is for certain though, if you are interested in getting maximal benefit from these pricey carbon fibre numbers, then you’ve got to be prepared to learn when to use them and to push the effort level. There are many aspects of each technique and some I believe is common sense, but I’ll talk a little bit about how each type of terrain and style dictate which technique works best below. The trail runner will want to incorporate all the most beneficial styles of Nordic Walking, Cross Country Skiing as well as developing their own in order to maximise efficacy. Common to all the techniques is deciding whether “double poling” or “alternate poling” will be more effective. Double poling is when both poles are being used in synch and simultaneously with each other, as opposed to alternately. The ideal position for holding the pole, will allow your elbow to sit at 90 degrees, that will mean a longer pole is needed for downhills, and a shorter one for uphills. One final note, is as a pole user make sure you keep an eye out for other trail users, when in a race it is the responsibility of those behind you to keep enough distance so they are not impaled but by keeping your poles under control you will be less likely to cause an injury!

Flats:

This technique is probably the most similar to Nordic walking. The aim being to drive yourself along at a quicker pace than you would do normally. By its very essence you will end up burning more calories than you would do without the poles and involve your upper body. One considered side effect is that you move along quicker with less perceived effort (something which is a common theme in using poles). In my view the best view, it works best with alternate poling, but can be used with double poling too. For alternate poling, the pole should strike the ground at the same time as your opposing foot, the pole should land either in line with your opposing foot or behind, that way it will propel you forward. 

Pros – you will cover ground more quickly and with more stability, particularly over uneven or soft ground (eg sand). In addition, they will reduce impact on your joints.

Cons – you will use more energy and that may not be useful in a longer distance scenario, also if you don’t use the technique correctly you will still burn more energy and yet gain little, don’t forget Nordic walking was designed to burn more energy over the same distance as walking! It’s also worth noting that when running on the flats, there is a good chance you might be better off putting the poles away and getting on with running!

Downhill:

This is where things start to get more interesting and your technique will depend on the gradient. For descending, the pole length will need to be a bit longer than for the flats, it’s length will depend on the gradient too.

  • Gentle Gradient – the poles strike behind you, enabling you to sit back into their support. The poles will land behind your feet.
  • Medium Gradient – the poles now strike next to your feet.
  • Steep Gradient – the poles land in front of you, but importantly to the side in order to avoid tripping over them, balancing your movement downhill. The grip on the pole is used to slow you down and provide stability.

Pros: The overall benefits are more stability (there are many occasions they have prevented me falling!), more propulsion (not on steep) and less impact on lower limb joints. If you were not using poles, your stance should be with knees and ankles bent, allowing you to lower your centre of mass, using poles however enables you to remain more upright.

Cons: There are more risks in using poles on downhills. The risk of jamming a pole in the ground, tripping over a pole, dropping a pole etc. Make sure that your hands are out of the straps, it’s an easy way to snap your wrist if you fall when strapped into the pole and you take a fall. Also, if they are used incorrectly, rather than simply free running down a slope and using gravity to your favour to gain controlled speed you could risk slowing your progress. Sometimes it’s better to pop the poles away stick your arms out for balance and run down!

Uphill:

Similar to downhill in that the gradient will really dictate the technique but also just as importantly will the length of race. Is this just to help take some of the pressure off your legs or are you willing to put everything into it to get up the hill?

  • Gentle Gradient – the poles strike behind you, giving you some stability and also involving your upper body more. The poles will land behind your feet.
  • Medium Gradient – the poles now strike next to your feet.
  • Steep Gradient – the poles land in front of you and you are using the poles in the initial phase as a climbing aid, then to aid propulsion as you push off. By swapping the thigh push off (previous article) for running poles, enables you to maintain your posture better, which helps visibility and breathing. You will also make more ground with less perceived effort (this is the bit that needs proving scientifically, is it just perceived or is it real??). You will be able to save your leg muscles as you will be calling on your upper body to step up to the plate and take some of the strain. This technique has to call on you to give it all you can. Just as you cannot run faster than your arms can swing (don’t believe me, try it!) you need to have some upper body strength to call upon. This is unusual for legs and lungs runners, but if you haven’t trained for this technique and not put in some upper body strength and conditioning you will fail in this technique! If you want to use this technique proficiently you will find it’s a full body work out, planting poles and pushing off, take a look at what Kilian Jornet does!

Pros: Greater perceived propulsion, better posture, more stability, 4 wheel drive vs 2 wheel drive.

Cons: Some races don’t allow them, not great for narrow paths, easy to develop tendonitis in the elbow for the untrained. If you are not fully utilising the poles then they become a hinderance, requires practice and robust, lightweight poles which can take strong downward force.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

Trail running poles can definitely aid you in trail running, that is scientifically proven. Whether you can or want to use them is up to you. If you do, then it’s worth training with them and learning the techniques to employ them so they do offer you an advantage, whether that is for going quicker, adding to your endurance, saving your joints, adding to your stability or just packing them in the bag in case you encounter stampeding cows (used for this purpose on many occasions!!). Whatever you decide to do, make sure you get out on the trails and have some fun and encourage each other, pole user or non-pole user, barefoot runner or otherwise! Our passion is the trails.

Written by: Simon James, Run the Wild

*Effect of using poles on foot–ground kinetics during stance phase in trail running, Yannick Daviaux, Frédérique Hintzy, Pierre Samozino & Nicolas Horvais, 2012