Up until 4 years ago, over 90% of my running was based around the Chiltern Hills. Although aptly named, the gradients are more rolling hill than mountainous terrain, and as such I have rarely found the need for running poles. A little jaunt in the Sahara led to the acquisition of my first pair of poles, but the focus was for using poles to climb sand dunes, and low weight was the first, second and third priority!
4 years ago, I became part of the Run the Wild storybook, and found myself spending summers in the Alps. I’m not a big skier, so this was really my first introduction to the mountains, and suddenly the word ‘hill’ takes a whole new meaning! Over here, a running pole is not a luxury, or unnecessary add on, but more part of a runners every day kit bag. I have owned Leki walking poles for years, and the name is synonymous for a quality and reliable walking product. I have occasionally borrowed Simon’s micro Leki running poles when out with him, and found them once again to be great poles, but this was my first go testing the new version properly, the Micro Trail Vario.
RUNNING POLES VS WALKING POLES
Running poles vary from walking poles in that they are considerably lighter, with smaller baskets, and the Leki version has a half glove which fixes to the handle, meaning the height remains unchanged by different hand positions, and needs altering by the slider mechanism. They are designed to provide full body assistance while powering up hill, and extra touch points, and stability, while flying down. Since developing plantar fasciitis in October last year, and as turning 40 is appearing all too quickly on the horizon, im all for saving my body as much as I can, so will take any help I can get.
Technically, the Micro Trail Vario is 5-piece pole, available in 105-120cm length, made of 100% carbon, with the Trigger Shark Active grip and strap, and speed lock 2 length adjuster. Each pole weighs in at 191g, and are a fetching grey/orange combo. So, that’s the technical side of things, and allows for competitor comparison, but the real truth lies in the performance on the trail.
First off, I love these poles! There, conclusion made before I provide any more info! I will go into it more I promise, but the reality is these are a really well thought through design that I struggle to identify even minor snags. The pole is light, attractive, easy to use, and super functional. Whether hauling me up a hill and spreading the workload through my upper body, or being 2 extra stability touch points on technical descents, these poles give me confidence. They may not make a vast difference on my 80m 8% inclines back in the Chilterns, but here in the Alps they are a godsend. So…onto the review…
The Trigger Shark Active Grip system requires some practice initially, a thumb press while hand lifting manoeuvre. Sounds simple enough, and honestly it is. Within a few goes the movement becomes pretty seamless, and the advantage of having the glove attached to the pole means the pressure is spread more consistently over the whole hand and doesn’t rely on grip strength. I do find myself delaying detachment, and carrying my poles, and similarly clicking back in, compared to an unattached pole, but given just how light these poles are, that isn’t a bad thing. I find when I’m really tired I have a habit of loosening my grip on the handle, and striding like a determined hiker, and letting the glove do the work in moving the pole in time with my strides. The design means you have a little less flexibility in the positioning of where you hold the pole while clipped in, so you are running with the same length pole whether up steep hill, undulating, or on the flat, unless you make the effort to adjust the pole length, but if you see the terrain ahead is more mixed, just unclip and hold the handle, and it works perfectly efficiently. I’ve had enough wipe-outs to always detach for a downhill section regardless!
Once detached, the handle is super smooth, it is comfortable to hold onto, and doesn’t catch on your hand at all (which I found the previous model did). The weight ratio of handle to shaft, as well as overall light weight is such that you can hold the poles at the end, in the middle, where ever you wish to while in the carrying position. I did find that the lack of discernible size difference between handle and shaft means if you try and too quickly flick the pole through your hand to catch onto the handle, it can sometimes slip right through, but I’m not the most coordinated of people.
The handle itself is made of cork, used for its sweat absorption properties as it remains grippy after a long run, and is very comfortable. Due to the more fixed positioning than a regular pole, my hands got fairly warm, but this would be the case regardless of the material, and the cork looks more hardwearing than the traditional materials, and certainly has given me no rub points as yet.
The poles are reportedly 191g, and to me they feel even lighter than they sound. It’s a huge difference to my walking poles, and means they are very easy to run while holding, whereas my walking poles I always fold up and stash in my pack when not in use. You can literally carry these in your fingertips without any risk of arm ache. The adjustment is via the speed lock 2 system, a catch that lifts away from the pole to loosen, allowing you to adjust, and then tighten back onto the pole. Its super easy to use and feels more reliable than the older systems which unscrew to loosen and screw back to tighten. The test of time will see if the lock holds, but for now, I much prefer this system. To fold the poles away, it’s a simple press in button and then the poles fold away, connected via a cord. Really easy to use. They fit down the side pocket of my backpack with ease and hold in tight with no flap around. The fact the handle itself has no straps actually reduces the flapping about to a minimum if you are carrying them.
The grey/orange colour combo is quite simply cool. The poles look serious enough, while being highly visible from afar, and especially the orange baskets and top of handle reduce any risk of fellow runners running onto my poles if I am carrying them. This means this is a great safety feature, and not purely aesthetics. Gone are the days of black tracksters being the only sort of outfit for runners, the new breed of runner can dress to stand out, rather than blend in, and these poles have moved with the times, fortunately!
GREAT ON STEEP TERRAIN
I tested the poles out on some pretty steep terrain, a mix of grass, rock, gravel and light mud, both up and down, and they held their own. The tip didn’t slip off the rock once, and they felt super secure on each placement. When I caught the end between two rocks, the pole did have slight flex enough to not snap and felt very robust. The poles did not reverberate when I struck rock or tarmac, so saves your arms too.
Now, I’ve mentioned the trigger shark active grip system already, which is the half glove thing you wear with a small loop which slides into the catch on the handle. The gloves are usefully labelled Left and Right and tightened via Velcro overlaps. It’s a small point, but the left/right labels sit on the inside part of the wrist and rub against your running top if you run like me, with both poles in one hand, and the other hand free. As I said, its not a big point, but nobody likes bobble patches on their new running t-shirts!
So, all in all, Leki are once again spot on. Maybe a few small tweaks, but they really are minor. I do find that when I speak to clients about poles, often being first time users, they opt for the cheapest pole on the market in case they don’t take. It’s a slight catch 22. The cheapest poles on the market are often so heavy and impractical, runners don’t like using them. Spend a bit more and get a quality pair, and you really do get what you pay for. Retailing at £159.95 its only really the price of the latest model of trainer, and I can guarantee you the poles will outlast the trainer hands down! Once you get used to the running style with poles on tough terrain, there is no going back. I myself am a lot quicker going uphill when I can share the load onto my upper body from my weary legs, and on the descents, I feel the chance of a superman style wipe out is lower, and as such, my confidence is far higher.
Would I recommend them to a friend: Definitely!
Written by Karin Voller, Logistics Director and Trail Runner
For further information on this and other models check out the Leki website.