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How To Make The Most Out Of Your Running Poles

 An article on how to use running poles in ultra marathons and trail races

Ultra marathons and trail running are challenging and require a lot of endurance, especially when you are running a hilly or mountainous course (think UTA, GSER or Buffalo). Running poles are an essential tool for many ultra and trail runners, helping them maintain balance and stability, reduce fatigue, and increase overall speed. However, using running poles can be tricky, and many people don't know how to use them to their full potential. In this article, I will discuss how to make the most out of your running poles during an ultra-marathon or trail race.

Choosing the Right Poles for You

 The first step to making the most out of your running poles is choosing the right pair. There are many types of running poles available in the market, and choosing the right one depends on your personal preferences and the terrain you'll be running on. Generally, lightweight and collapsible poles are best for ultra running, as they can be easily carried in a pack and won't weigh you down, other considerations are size, grip and whether you want a collapsible pair.

Running poles come in varying size and you need to ensure you have selected the right size.  A simple exercise of using a brush or broom, and the elbow at right angles will give a good indication of the correct running pole height you need.

There are now also a number of different options for the grip.  Some vendors have a detachable grip where the runner wears a glove type option that can detached easily from the pole.  Alternative there is the traditional grip, the same as the better-known ski pole.

Master the Technique

Technique - Running with poles requires a different technique than running without them. You'll need to learn how to plant the poles correctly and how to use them to propel yourself forward. One of the most common techniques is the double-pole plant, where both poles are planted at the same time, and you push off with them to move forward. Another technique is the single-pole plant, where you plant one pole at a time and use it to push off.  All require practice on similar terrain as to what you will be racing.  Keep in mind the three phases you will go through, pull, push and swing.

Top Tip - For poles with the standard strap, push your hand up through the strap and pull down. The strap should go around the back of your hand, return up the palm of your hand between your thumb and forefinger.
Initial pole grip
Secondary pole grip
Final pole grip

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice and more practice - Once you have chosen the right poles and begin mastering the technique, the next step is to practice. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel to use running poles, and the more effective they will be in helping you tackle challenging terrain. Try to incorporate running poles into your regular training routine to get used to them.  The other action to practice and master is the removal from your pack and assembling.  Initially just practicing whilst stood, then progressing to completing this whilst running will save you precious time on race day.

Top Tip - Incorporate using poles in your training.  Your long run is a great opportunity for this.  Even if it is just getting used to carrying them and practicing packing and unpacking.

What does the Science Say?

In the world of trail running, the debate over whether trekking poles can truly enhance your performance while climbing steep mountains has raged on for years. Recently, an Italian mountain runner, coach, and sports science professor, along with his team, conducted a groundbreaking study to settle this ongoing discussion. Their work is of significant interest to both mountain and trail runners.

The research involved a custom treadmill capable of inclines up to a jaw-dropping 45 degrees – the steepest in the world – equipped with an extra-wide belt that allowed subjects to use trekking poles. The key question was whether these poles saved energy and improved climbing speed.

Previous studies suggested that using trekking poles increases energy expenditure by about 20 percent but enables you to walk faster with a longer stride, and in some cases, reduces your perception of effort, primarily on level surfaces. However, this new research aimed to determine their impact specifically on uphill climbs.

The latest study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, examined whether poles "saved the legs" during steep ascents. Interestingly, previous experiments had found that poles either saved no energy on uphills or only a marginal amount. However, the subjects were 2.5 per cent faster when using poles on inclines of just under 20 degrees.

The researchers conducted tests with 15 trail runners both on the custom treadmill and on outdoor mountain terrain. The runners wore portable VO2 analyzers to measure their aerobic efforts. Force-sensitive poles and insoles measured the forces exerted by the runners' arms and legs.

The results revealed that as the incline steepened, the reliance on trekking poles increased significantly. The harder the subjects used their poles, the more their leg force reduction increased, highlighting the importance of actively engaging with the poles during climbs.

The most valuable data came from the outdoor tests, where terrain irregularities made it more challenging to coordinate arm and leg movements. Despite this, the study still demonstrated that using poles reduced insole-measured leg forces by about 5 per cent during all-out outdoor hill climbs, while subjects were 2.5 per cent faster when using the poles.

In essence, the study's findings suggest that trekking poles help you climb steeply uphill faster, not by saving energy but by redistributing some of the load from your legs to your arms. This revelation challenges the common belief that trail runners should travel as lightly as possible. In mountain trail running, European runners, who are more willing to use poles, often outperform North American runners, who tend to be more hesitant in adopting this equipment.

Of course, when it comes to trail running, the terrain isn't always a steep uphill climb. The benefits of trekking poles are less clear on level, undulating, or downhill trails, where you need to consider trade-offs between the weight of the poles and their portability. However, if you're tackling a trail with a long, steep ascent, this study makes a compelling case for bringing your trekking poles!

In Summary

Running poles are an excellent tool for ultra and trail runners, but it's important to choose the right ones, master the technique, practice, practice, practice, and use them strategically. By following these tips, you'll be able to make the most out of your running poles and tackle even the most challenging terrain with confidence.

Happy trails!