Trekking poles. Probably one of the most hotly-debated topics in our local trail running community, maybe even more so than whether an IPA or a Lager is a better post-run beer. Even though trekking poles might not be as important a topic as that post-run refreshing delight, there is still that age-old debate about whether or not trekking poles actually have any metabolic or physiological benefit to performance.
I’m going to start off with a disclaimer right from the outset. 10 people could write this blog and you would more than likely get 10 different opinions. Not the answer you would have been hoping for I am sure but the purpose of this article is not to try to convince you that trekking poles are the next best thing since zero drop shoes were invented or that they are as bad as taking a bath in dirty dishwater. The purpose of this article is to subjectively tackle a question many a trail runner is asking, and that is: “Do I really need to run with trekking poles?”
Up until a few months ago, I was adamant that I would never use these “running sticks” that seemed to make irritating noises more than anything else. It just seemed like too much hassle for marginal gains. My curiosity eventually got the better of me though and I thought what better person to start a journey on discovering the benefits of trekking poles, than a person who was flat out against them.
After running with them the last few months there is no doubt in my mind that trekking poles give an incredible amount of assistance when climbing steep inclines. So why should you continue reading? The question for me is no longer, “do poles make me faster?”
The question has more importantly become, “Do the benefits they give you on the climbs and wide-path descents warrant the hassle of lugging them around the rest of the time?”
History of Trekking Poles
It is widely believed that poles were brought across from cross country skiing. Before the days when trail running was a full on sport, in the summer months skiers started ‘Nordic Walking’ to stay fit and the poles they used on their skis in the winter months naturally came along while they walked. As many turned from ‘Nordic Walking’ to actually running on the trails the poles remained, and ‘Trail Running’ began to grow in popularity. The technology of those poles has obviously significantly improved since then, today’s poles are much lighter and easier to store when not in use. Most hydration vests worth their money nowadays will have straps to store poles either in the front or the rear of the vest which makes it much easier to only use the poles when you need them.
Advantages of Trekking Poles
Bear with me for a bit as I get a bit ‘sciencey’. Running is all about inertia, in order to generate that inertia you need power a.k.a watts.
As a runner who weighs 70kg to propel yourself forward and more importantly, upwards, you need the power to do so and to generate and maintain that power you need fuel a.k.a calories. As we all know calories are vitally important to a runner, run out of them before you hit the finish line and you are in for a not so happy time.
So if your legs are working on their own to generate that much-needed power it makes sense that they will become fatigued faster, than they would if they had some assistance. It is very important, though, to note that giving the legs some assistance doesn’t necessarily mean the metabolic energy expenditure will be less. It just means that the energy required to propel yourself up the mountain will be distributed between more of your body.
Studies have shown that when using trekking poles you use 90% of the muscles in your body, as opposed to 46% when not using them. It also showed that the cardiovascular demands increased but the rate of perceived exertion went down, meaning runners were working harder but felt like they were actually taking it easier.
So to summarise: Trekking poles do not help in saving energy, but they do help to distribute the impact throughout more of the body and still make you feel like you are working at an easier level.
This is where conditioning becomes very important. If those muscles in your arms, back and core are not used to the extra load and you whip out those shiny new poles you bought the day before your first Ultra, I can guarantee you the poles will end up being flung in anger into the nearest bush as you leopard crawl to the finish line (or nearest aidstation). Just like any other muscle in your body, you will need to train with the poles and condition your body to be able to use them effectively.
Another obvious benefit of using poles is stability and reducing the impact on the descents. A few times in my training runs if I stumbled after losing focus the poles helped me to regain my balance and not take a face plant. On steep descents where the path was not too technical and wide enough, the poles were fantastic in helping with changing direction down the switchbacks and just generally adding to a solid feeling of stability on the trail.
On the final 4km of the Mac Mac Ultra, we were sent down a very steep mountain bike trail and I was able to significantly reduce the impact on my quads by using the poles as support. Space is obviously key when it comes to using the poles, tight, rocky and technical trails do limit their effectiveness. Smoother, clean Alpine trails in Europe, for example, will be far more pole friendly than the front face contour on Table Mountain.
The few times I tried them on very rocky terrain the ‘basket’ at the bottom got caught in between the rocks and the pole stayed behind while I carried on running, if the wrist straps were tighter I might have stayed behind too while my shoes carried on running…
Distraction. One of the other aspects which I will class as a benefit is they can serve as a distraction. The poles do seem to distract you from how sore and tired you actually are as they require a bit of focus and coordination. This does well to occupy your thoughts on something other than the fact that you definitely didn’t train hard enough and you are now in an excruciating amount of pain.
To test this theory I folded the poles up and strapped them to my vest, I lasted about 500m before they were out again and I was enjoying the warm embrace of their pseudo-psychological comforts.
Environmental and Social Impacts
What many runners don’t consider when deciding whether or not they want to start running with poles is the environmental and social impacts poles can have.
Let’s look at environmental first, as pretty much every trekking pole comes with a steel-carbide tip. There is a large part of the outdoor community that is concerned about the damage caused by this part of the trekking pole. Scarred rocks, damaged vegetation, and deep holes caused in softer ground which destroy plant root systems and has an impact on erosion, are just some of the more often voiced concerns.
It is easy to brush these concerns aside as ‘hippies being overly-sensitive’ but the reality is that they can have a significant environmental impact if you aren’t careful when placing them on the trail.
Here are some facts to back up this statement:
- South Africa has the second highest number of plant extinctions in the world.
- 70% of the Cape Floral Kingdom’s 9 600 plant species are found nowhere else on earth. About 20% of these are Red Data listed.
- Cape Town itself is home to about 3 000 indigenous plant species, 190 are endemic, 318 are considered threatened and 13 are extinct or extinct in the wild.
- 83 mammal species remain in Cape Town, 24 Red Data listed and three recently extinct.
- 361 bird species live in Cape Town – ten are endangered, 22 are Red Data listed and at least three species have become extinct in recent years.
As trail runners who enjoy these majestic outdoors, we have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the environment we so enjoy and thrive in. Some ways that we can reduce the impact poles make on the environment is to keep the rubber shoes on the base, this will make sure that the carbide-tip doesn’t puncture deep into the ground.
Remove the basket (large round saucer type thingy at the base of the pole) which is mostly there to give the poles stability in deep snow. On our local trails though they get caught in the vegetation and pull them out as you move forward onto your next step. With so many plant species having been Red Data listed there is the danger that some of these endemic and threatened species could be uprooted this way.
From a social impact standpoint, let’s face it, the sound those tips make on the trails is incredibly irritating. Imagine a runner chooses not to use poles in a race because of their preference and now they are stuck with someone for 20 odd hours and all they are hearing is ‘clack, clack, clack, clink, clack, clink’…
When your goal is to be out in nature and soak up all the natural sights and sounds, having someone next to you who sounds like Billy the Kid with his spurs rattling at every step is enough to completely ruin the whole experience. Be mindful of those around you.
There is also the ridiculous habit of some pole users who seem to want to poke the eyes out of the runner behind them. If you are behind someone with poles make sure to give them enough space, they can’t see how close you are to them.
Practical Disadvantages of Trekking Poles
Unless you splash out for the top of the range carbon poles, they can add a significant amount of weight to your hydration vest. More weight requires more power and burns more fuel. Having said that, I used the Outdoor Elements Micro Pole which is by no means light or top of the range and when they were stored on my Ultimate Direction vest they actually didn’t bother me as much as I initially thought they would. How the poles fasten to your vest is crucial to overall comfortability. A well designed high-quality vest will make the poles much less of a disadvantage when they are not in use.
Eating. I have mentioned fuel quite a bit throughout this article as it is obviously pretty important to trail runners, especially ultra trail runners. Refueling is paramount to a trail runners success during an ultra marathon. Legendary ultra trail and marathon runner, Scott Jurek, once said: “Ultra Running is basically an eating and drinking contest with some running thrown into the mix.”
Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that when you are running with poles, your hands are pretty busy. Pulling a bar out of your vest, opening it and then eating it while you skip down the trail is not quite so simple when both hands are occupied and let’s face it, stopping to put the poles down so you can eat does not feel ‘race-like’ at all. Some of the ways I got around this was planning my eating strategy around when the poles would be folded up and in my vest, or then obviously at an aid station where it felt less ridiculous to put the poles down and stop to eat.
Earlier on I asked the question, “do the benefits trekking poles give you on the climbs and wide-path descents warrant the hassle of lugging them around the rest of the time?”.
Short answer, yes!
Long answer, this doesn’t mean that every time I head to the mountains to run that I will be taking the poles with me. In the same way that a trail runner will choose different shoes depending on the terrain, or which hydration vest to use depending on the distance, the trekking pole is just another weapon in our arsenal of gear. You wouldn’t use a trail shoe with very little grip on a super wet and muddy route, it works the same with trekking poles. A flat route might not warrant taking the poles along as much as a 100 miler with 10 000m of elevation gain would.
If you are reading this and you are still on the fence, for me it boils down to figuring out if you are happy to treat the poles as an additional piece of gear, that can be called upon when they are really needed, and throughout all of this still being happy with that extra cost when the poles sit in your cupboard for the majority of the time (unless you live in the Austrian Alps and every single run involves a vertical kilometer).
We at RUN are all about community, so leave a comment below with your experiences or thoughts about said “running sticks”.
Written by: Rae Trew-Browne