The use of poles in ultramarathons has become increasingly popular. Once largely confined to European races, ultrarunning-specific trekking poles can now be seen in nearly every mountainous ultra in the United States and beyond.
When trail running on steep terrain it can be more efficient to use a technique using both your legs and your arms to help get you up and down hills. Poles can be used to aid in propulsion and stability and to help spread out the total load of running uphill and downhill. The poles themselves are becoming lighter and lighter as they are now made from carbon fiber and other light materials.
They also act as stabilisers and shock absorbers, helping you stop yourself when descending. In a nutshell, they won’t necessarily make you faster, but they provide some welcome respite to your legs when running long distances.
However, you should check the race rules before taking your poles with you: in some places, such as Réunion, they are prohibited, to prevent accidents or preserve protected areas.
Running With Poles: Pros & Cons
The use of poles is always a personal choice, and here are some of the pros and cons to using them.
Pros Of Running With Poles
Weight Distribution: Poles let you spread some of the workload from the legs to your arms. This is extremely helpful in delaying fatigue when ascending and descending, both of which can be quite taxing on your leg muscle groups (as any athlete that has tackled some crazy vert will assure you). This, in theory, will leave your legs fresher for longer, delay fatigue, and leave you better off for the last half of the race.
Reduce Injury: Using the poles with distribute the body weight across a bigger area – it is like having a 3rd leg. As a consequence your knees and ankles will take less punishment.
Balance and Stability: Running poles give you four points of contact with the ground- your feet and the poles – which can lend to better balance especially on uneven terrain.
Uphill Running: Poles can greatly add to a more efficient trail running experience, primarily when power walking/hiking on uphill when the climb is steep. Poles are especially useful in longer in trail running races with lots of sustained or steep terrain.
Downhill Running: You can use them to avoid obstacles such as rocks, without breaking your stride during the run. They can also help you slow down which takes the pressure off your thighs. They help you keep your balance without putting your hands down on the ground.
Cons of Running With Poles
Hands: Your hands aren’t free to eat, drink or perform other tasks which can be annoying when you first start using poles and takes some time to get used to.
Storage Of Poles: Unless the route you are running has a great deal of ascent and descent then for the majority of the run you won’t be using them. Therefore, they’ll be a large amount of time when you won’t be using them and you will need to deal with carrying the extra weight (even though modern poles are pretty light). If you don’t need them for an extended period of time, attaching them to your bag or belt will be more comfortable and efficient while also allowing you the use of your hands.
Learning Curve: It might feel very awkward at first, however, practice makes perfect. If you have a race coming up, you should practice running with your poles for at least 4 week prior – this will make you far more proficient and economic with your energy.
Race Rules: Please remember that some races do not allow poles. So, make sure you train with and without and check with the race director before taking them with you. If you are not into racing and run purely for the enjoyment and satisfaction, then this won’t be a problem to you.
Potential Hazard: On rocky terrain, try not to get your poles caught in between the rocks. If they get stuck they can snap in two and a replace section can be expensive. Potential breakage is especially with poles made from carbon that may be a bit more fragile.