So as most of you already know, I have been really focusing on trail running for about the last year. Honestly, my drive to do road races has dwindled and most of the reasoning has to do with my love for trail running. When I run on the road, it is the same repetitive movement step after step. It really takes a toll on my body (I’m not a young buck anymore). The views are incredible on the trails, the sounds and wildlife are amazing, and I am much less injury prone when I run trails. This can due in large part to change your stride when going up and down hills as well as running on uneven terrain. You are essentially strengthening your legs, ankles, and feet while you are trail running, much more than when you run on the road. It is no wonder why so many elite road runners spend at least 30% of their time on trails.
I started looking into trekking poles after seeing many elite trail runners using them on their hill climbs. I wanted to understand why people would use trekking poles, what benefits there were and any disadvantages.
The biggest reason to use trekking poles is actually to help you keep good form, especially going up hills. If you don’t run with poles, many runners tend to hunch over. Some people even use techniques where you push down on your knees with your hands to give a little extra help going up the hill. The problem of not running erect is that you put a lot of stress on your back, hip flexors, neck, and glutes.
You also are reducing the amount of oxygen you can take in (by as much as 30%) because your lungs can’t fully expand. That in turn reduces your efficiency. By using poles, you are using the poles to help you stay upright, especially on the up hills.
Another advantage of trekking poles is that you are using the poles to take some of the load (weight) while you are running. This in turn makes you more efficient over longer distances and reduces overall stress on your body. Your arms are not exactly light. While it not be a big deal over very short distances, it will take a toll, in longer distances. Here is a quote that explains this in more detail.
If you simply take the weight of your arms off your feet, over the day's hike, you can save substantially on what is normally being moved along by your lower body. Once you get good at it, and well-coordinated (as well as a fit upper body), you can press down with just 20 pounds on each stride (left and right step) for a fairly long distance. This is maybe over twice the weight of a big arm. Over the length of a mile you will transfer 40,000 pounds to the poles instead of your legs and feet. This assumes you have something near a left to left foot pace of about five and a quarter feet. This gives you about 2000 strides a mile (times 20 pounds each stride). Trail Space, Seth Levy, May 2010
Trekking poles can also add power to your stride. If you have power-hiked any steep hills, it is easy to lose steam in a hurry. Using trekking poles can add power, using your arms to help propel you forward, taking some of the stress off your legs. This can also be a benefit on the relatively flat or rolling hill sections of runs and races.
The last advantage I will discuss is stability. When you get tired or are running over technical terrain, you can lose your grip or just focus less on your balance. Trekking poles can really help provide a more stable gait and even catch you when your foot slips a little. I have noticed that running downhill, which is my arch nemesis, has become much easier. I have huge confidence issues when running downhill. I hate to fall and am terrified of landing on a huge rock and breaking a rib or cracking my head open on the way down hills. With trekking poles, I can use them kind of like when I ski, planting a pole for stability, especially on more technical trails.
Many people think that the weight is a disadvantage, but many of the poles now are made out of thin (strong) carbon fiber. They are extremely light weight and really negate this concern.
Another perceived disadvantage is that they are hard to use or take more effort than running without poles. While this is true at first, you will quickly learn how to use the poles and you get used to pushing of with your arms after a few uses. With that being said, it is vital that you practice with your trekking poles prior to a race. I will share the proper way to hold poles and proper technique later.
If you are using poles in muddy or soft conditions, the poles might stick in the ground it pulls out of your hand. This does happen on occasion, but the strap around your wrist will help so you don’t have to run back for it.
Different Types of Poles
There are poles that fold and some that do not. The folded ones usually come in 3-4 sections with a string or some other material inside them so they all stay together (kind of like a tent pole). Some poles are made out of aluminum and some are made with carbon fiber. The aluminum is thought of as being stronger, but that is not always the case. IT really depends on how the carbon fiber is used to make the poles. Aluminum weighs more and once it is bent, there is no fixing them. With carbon fiber, they are more flexible and lighter, but in general break more easily than aluminum.
How to Hold Trekking Poles
You should use the strap on your trekking poles. The reality is that you should not have to grip the handles very tightly. If you do, your hands will fatigue and become sore. You want to put your hand up through the strap and then grip the pole. This will put some of the strap between your hand and the handle. You really want to allow the pole to pivot and the pressure to be on the strap, underneath your wrist. See the below video at about 2:15 minute in. The video also shows how to properly use the poles. With that being said, the runner is actually using poles that are a little shorter than they should be. Your arms should be at roughly a 90 degree angle when standing in your running shoes.