Walking or trekking poles are becoming an increasingly popular sight in long-distance running events. Light, durable and easily tucked away into a race backpack, they come into their own on steep inclines, lightening the burden on your quads and glutes.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s worth considering the circumstances in which you’ll actually be using poles. ‘When we talk about trail or mountain running, the word "running" should always be taken with a pinch of salt,’ says Jon Albon, OCR and trail runner and part of The North Face Athlete Team. (He recently came second in the 100km CCC race in Chamonix.) ‘I actually prefer to think of it as “moving in the mountains,” because in reality you may spend far less time actually running than you think, and rightly so, as under certain circumstances hiking can be faster and more efficient than running’.
What’s the benefit of running with poles?
So, how can a set of walking poles help you during a long or mountainous race?
Studies have shown that using poles reduces your perception of effort going uphill, and that people who utilise poles tend to walk quicker than those without. Some other key benefits include:
- Energy saving: ‘By using poles well, you can transfer some of the work from your legs to your upper body, protecting your leg muscles and allowing you to go much further, especially on longer climbs,’ says Albon.
- Propulsion: Poles can increase your pace by adding propulsive force over four contact points, rather than just your two trail-running shoe clad feet.
- Balance: When carrying load, ‘poles can also help with balance, especially once you get tired,' says Albon.
- Impact reduction: Poles can also assist on the downhills, taking some of the load off your joints, leaving your legs feeling fresher the next day.
Are walking poles worth buying?
So, plenty of pluses for runners or walkers in for the long-haul. But you might still be wondering if walking poles are worth buying, particularly when you’re aiming to travel light on a long trail. ‘Poles do add a little extra weight to your kit, so you need to learn to use them well and a system has to be devised for carrying them when not in use,’ says Albon. ‘Thankfully the modern carbon folding poles designed for trail running are so light and easy to stow away, the decision as to whether to use poles or not becomes much easier.’
Other than in particular situations, such as in a vertical kilometre, Albon says the choice comes down to two variables: ‘how much climb the course has, and how long it is likely to take. For me, once a course has more than 4000m of ascent and/or takes over six hours to complete I will start to consider using poles, as it is at this point that the benefits start to outweigh the drawbacks.’
You should also consider terrain. ‘Poles are extremely useful on sustained long climbs, on snow or in swamps but can be a nuisance on extremely rocky boulder fields where the poles can get caught in the gaps between rocks.’
Your best bet is to introduce poles to your training early, so you can pinpoint where you will see the benefits.
How do you use poles when running?
Decided to take the plunge? Start practising with your poles months in advance of an event, and familiarise yourself with different techniques. ‘This is so you can adapt your technique to different types of terrain or gradient and change to avoid getting any repetitive stresses on a certain part of the body,’ says Albon. Follow these tips to get you started:
- Strap smart: You should be able to push down on the straps – put your hand through from bottom to top and grip the handle.
- Double up: A pair of poles means symmetrical support, so opt for two poles rather than one.
- Synchronise: Walk normally, swinging your arms by your side. Then pick up your poles and use the same natural swing – opposite arm coming up with opposite leg.
- Technique 1 - Alternate: Using your synchronising skills, angle your poles backwards as you plant them on the ground, allowing you to push forwards – ideal for a fast pace on steep terrain.
- Technique 2 - Double pole plant: For really steep climbs, bring both arms up at the same time, driving both poles into the ground in front of you, then lean forward and walk on with them planted for three steps.
- Technique 3 - Offset pole plant: Best for running easy climbs, endurance racing and ultra racing, with the offset pole you alternate planting your poles every three strides, basically a combination of the two techniques above.
What type of walking poles are best?
For trail or ultra-running, your first consideration should be weight. ‘I have gravitated towards the lightest and stiffest poles available for optimal performance,’ says Albon. ‘Made of carbon but with aluminium connecting joints, the poles fold into three pieces that I can easily stow in a 'quiver’ attached to my TNF running vest.’
Albon also favours detachable glove straps, as they stay put and improve comfort and range of motion. ‘Something else to consider is length, especially if they are fixed like mine so you can’t adjust the height,' he says. 'I am 178cm tall and use 130cm for less technical trails and 125cm for more technical trails with big steps or rocks. For the CCC, which is a 100K route with 6000m of ascent, I used and trained with the Leki Ultratrail FX.One Superlite.'
5 best walking poles available to shop now
To help you decide what works for you, we have selected five of the best walking poles available to buy now.
1. Leki Ultratrail FX.One Superlite Running Poles
At 137g, these are super-light yet extremely durable and can be folded up small enough to tuck away inside your race pack. They come with a specially designed glove that you can lock into the pole, meaning you don’t have to worry about gripping it tightly. These are Albon's go-to poles for the 2022 season, so you'd be in good company opting for these.
For: Trail running
Length: 105cm or 110cm
Packing size: 35cm
Key specs: Foldable, available in red or pink
Extras: Grip strap
2. Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles
Like the Leki poles, these are extremely light and fold down small enough to fit into a running vest. They provide excellent grip, too, although they lack some of the build quality of the Leki and, as a result, aren’t quite as hard-wearing.
3. Leki Black Series FX Carbon Pole
The crème de la crème of hiking poles, the Black Series is pricey, but for the cash you get a lightweight, powerful and durable carbon pole that will help propel you up any ascent like Kilian Jornet. It features the new Aergon Air ergonomic shape for extra efficient propulsion and cork grips to ensure your hike or run remains comfortable.
Packing size: 40cm
Key specs: Foldable, grip extension, adjustable strap
Extras: Folding pole bag
4. Mountain King Trail Blaze
Better known in the US, Mountain King poles tend to fly under the radar in the UK. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out. On the contrary, these light, comfortable and compact poles are perfect for long-distance runs in lumpy places. Compared with some of their rivals, they’re fairly cheap, too.
For: Trail running, hiking
Material: Aluminium alloy
Weight: Approx. 110g
Length: 110cm, 115cm, 120cm, 125cm, 130cm
Packing size: 38cm
Key specs: Collapsible, wrist strap, available in black, blue or aqua
Extras: Mesh bag
5. Salomon Ultra Carbon Foldable
Salomon is a powerhouse of off-road running gear, and these poles are suitably high-quality. Made from carbon, they’re strong yet light, while the Split-Second Folding System allows you to instantly break the pole down to a third of its size – handy for packing away on the move.
For: Trail running
Length: 100cm, 110cm, 115cm
Packing size: One third of size
Key specs: Foldable, extended grip, breathable strap
Extras: Trail running basket
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