The use of trekking poles for ultras have become so popular, originating in the confinement of European races, they have now spread rapidly to almost every hilly ultra in the United States. The advancement of materials, make these tools so light to carry, easy to fold away and really only offer benefit to your racing.
On that note, however, these are often nicknames ‘cheat sticks’ because they really do help to lighten the load on an ultra. Of course they are a personal choice, (although in Europe mountain races distances over 30k you will be the minority without them) they do not work for everyone. So if you’re considering of exceeding the 26.6 miles into the ultra distances, then I highly suggest you take a look at the pros/cons, technique, and how to find your right size (yes size matters). Luckily I have all that information here for you…
Pros of running with trekking poles
Think about it, if the poles are the correct height (more on that later) then you are much less likely to be hunching over especially when it comes to those hills and fatigue kicks in! whilst they are not a long term fix (if you are one of life’s slouchers then I highly recommend seeking professional help) however they will help you get through the race (very much like how K-tape wont solve your knee pain but it will see you through 30 miles). Training with the poles and doing extra work on your posture will only help in the long run (pun intended).
Any run coach will tell you to pump your arms to keep your legs moving – and this is what these poles are good! They help you maintain a rhythm especially uphill where its almost too easy to give in. You can almost forget what your doing as long as you keep your rhythm, you’ll get to the end. – Something I think non-pole-users struggle with more.
Very much like keeping a rhythm, utilising trekking poles can help you keep a faster pace; powering through with your arms helps our legs move a little quicker. Of course, this comes with a warning; trying to attack 50 miler with your arms will come at a huge energy deficit; so use wisely. Training consistently with the poles will make sure your body is used to accommodating both arms and legs, to delay fatigue on race day.
Spread the load
I think this is where cheat-sticks earned their name – the number one rule for ultras is to walk the steep inclines and declines – to save your knees, and the save your muscles! If you have run ran down a incredibly steep decline; your hamstrings have worked extra hard eccentrically; which WILL take its toll. By using trekking poles to take some of the workload off your muscles for slowing down, dealing with such inclines and declines. Leaving extra energy in the tank to keep going over the distance.
A darn handy tool to use especially through high technical routes, rocky routes, running in the dark, wet weather with potential slip hazards on the trail terrain, these poles could just save your ankles. Planting the poles you can check if the path your taking is safe, if it is in the dark and incredibly steep, you can also use them as a crutch almost to help you trot down safely.
Cons of running with trekking poles
It’s something ELSE to carry
The ultra packing lists can be rather extensive, from buff scarves, particular first aid kit, minimal requirement for food and water, head torches, wet weather layers, the list is endless, oh but you also have to now carry your poles. Ive seen some great ones that fold up small, but carrying those and needing to eat or drink could get a bit annoying.
They get in the way
During my Ultra I watched a guy juggle his trekking poles whilst grabbing a snack and it looked really hard work for him. In the end he set them down, had a bite and some water then set back off again. Not ideal to keep stopping every-time you eat (and that is soooo often!) Trying to pass people with poles is also rather annoying, so I can imagine a start line with lots of users whipping them out- you can get tripped up, be unable to pass someone because they take up a lot of space on the track.
Becoming reliant on them
Whilst a great tool for getting through incredible distances, there is also a tendency to become reliant. What would happen to your race should your pole get stuck between rocks and one snaps? Building a mental and physical resilience to not rely on them like your running shoes, but instead using them as a race tool.
Trekking pole buying tips
- When stood, your elbows are best to be at a 90 degree angle whilst using your poles (no more!)
- If you’re between sizes it is suggested to go a size up (according to Salomon) so that your elbow is less than 90 degrees. – A longer pole allows for a longer steadier push (like nordic skiers use)
- Reach for the lightest pole you can afford, helping with your pack weight but also your arms when using them (or carrying them)
- Buying foldable poles will really help when running and carrying them (or to store in your race pack)
- Look for poles with the handle loops also, to aid with grip, and less likely to go AWOL.
How to use trekking poles
First things first
Getting accustomed to running with trekking poles can be a little tricky heres what you can do to keep your momentum as. Natural, effortless and economical for you:
- Walk normally without poles arms relaxed by your side.
- Slowly allow your arms to swing by your side and then emphasise the movement.
- Grab your poles and use the same natural swing you just had.
Usually as your left leg swings through, your right arm/hand will come up. VOILA! Synchronicity.
You can use your trekking poles in three different ways, you may find one fits your best, or a. mixture of all three depending on the terrain your faced with. The work for both inclines and declines, so give them all a try:
Your poles need to be in sync with your stride when using this technique. Left foot swinging through, then the right hand pole is down, and swap each step. Planting the pole directly next to your foot when it hits the ground allows you to make the most of propelling forward. Particularly useful when speed walking on sustained steep terrain.
The synchronicity is slightly different here – Both arms come up at the same time and drive them into the ground in-front of you. Lean slightly forwards, use the double pole drive for three steps and then re-drive the poles back into the ground. Effective on steep terrain where you need maximum power.
If your running, the strict alternating technique is not very energy-economical and probably tire you out needlessly, instead opt for an offset alternative style. Plant your left pole for three strides then plant your right for three strides and so on. Ensure the placement is ahead of you to make the most of the angle to push (remember nordic skiers). It’s a mix of the alternating and double pole in effect. Perfect for an easy climb when pace is higher, or if your poles don’t fold up.