Trekking poles can be valuable tools for trail runners, especially ultra-distance and mountain runners. They provide a variety of benefits, like giving you two extra points of contact with the ground and providing you extra stability on unstable terrain. They can help reduce some of the strain on your legs and help your posture and they can even double as tent poles for some lightweight shelters.
Trekking poles are most frequently used by runners on steep trails and technical terrain. I’m an avid ultra-distance runner and I regularly run with trekking poles, especially on mountainous routes with loose footing.
Do You Need Poles for Trail Running?
Poles or no poles? Do you really need them? Running with trekking poles is not for everyone or every scenario. Some runners swear by them while others can’t stand having something in their hands while they run. Using trekking poles is largely a personal preference, and while they can provide many benefits, there are also some downsides. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of running with trekking poles.
Pros of Running With Trekking Poles
Lateral stability and balance are improved
With two extra points of contact with the ground, it’s easier to catch yourself if you trip, slip, and lose footing, which is guaranteed to happen at some point on-trail. This is especially noticeable on technical, unstable, or snowy terrain. I’ve tripped and caught myself with my trekking poles on multiple occasions, and have also used them to help me pivot around corners when navigating down steep, tight switchbacks.
Running form and posture begin to suffer as fatigue sets in, which can impact running economy and increase the risk of injury. If you’ve ever tackled steep hills, you’ve probably done the hands-on-knees trick where you use your hands to push off your legs. While helpful and great for situations where you won’t need poles for a majority of the time, this forces you to stoop over, collapsing your chest and impacting breathing. Trekking poles help to keep you more upright, opening your chest and maintaining running form.
Less leg fatigue
It may seem obvious, but running with trekking poles will take some of the workload off your lower body and apply it to the upper body. Spreading out the workload like this can help reduce fatigue in the leg muscles, potentially allowing you to travel further and keeping your legs fresher. It’s worth noting that applying some of the workload to your upper body will fatigue your arms and shoulders, so it’s imperative that you practice with your poles before committing to them for a big race.
Lengthening your stride
They might make you faster. Using your upper body to propel you forward lengthens your stride on all terrains. This is another reason to make sure to practice running with your trekking poles, because a change in stride length is a change in running form, and a change in running form means altered muscle engagement.
Cons of Running With Trekking Poles
They’re another item to carry
Chances are that you won’t be using your trekking poles at all times during a run, so you have to figure out some way to carry them while running, or you may need a way to stow them in your pack. Having additional items in your running kit also means extra weight, bulk, and hassle.
They can get in the way
To a fatigued runner, having to jostle trekking poles around might be enough of an annoyance that the runner doesn’t eat or hydrate as they should. Or, as I’ve done on more than one occasion, you can trip on them, kick them, or even give yourself a hefty whack. I’ve accidentally kicked a trekking pole right out of my hand and sent it sailing off the side of a steep trail. Another trip-up led to a painful welt on my shin from accidentally hitting myself with the pole.
They add complexity
Altered stride, extra weight, dispersed workload, additional skill… these are all reasons that you’ll need to train with your poles. You may lose a lot of time in a trail race just having to stow or deploy your poles from your pack, especially if you don’t practice the movements. Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t wait until the week before your big race to make the decision to run with trekking poles.
Trekking poles can get hung up in brush
This is probably my biggest annoyance with trekking poles. Running, or even hiking, in areas with a lot of brush or undergrowth can make the use of trekking poles nearly impossible because they get tangled and caught. Trekking poles can also have an impact on the environment, especially on heavily trafficked trails and in delicate ecosystems by destroying trailside soils and damaging plants, leading to erosion.
Types of Running Poles
There are three main types of trekking poles that runners use.
1. Fixed length & non-collapsible running poles
Without any of the extra components that collapsible poles have, this style tends to be incredibly lightweight. The downside is that they can’t easily be stowed away in a pack, so you’re stuck with them in your hands – not such a big deal if you plan on using them the entire time. Also, for the destination-driven runner, non-collapsible poles can be difficult to travel with by plane.
2. Collapsible, telescoping running poles
The real MVP for the frugal adventurer, this is the great “all-around” pole. A telescoping pole can be used for running, fastpacking, and backpacking, and can be adjusted to fit the terrain (shorter for uphill, longer for downhill, or one short and one long for sidehill traverses). For the adept mountain runner, a telescoping pole can also be used to self-arrest a fall on steep snow or even glissade. I have found that dirt or ice can sometimes hinder the ability to collapse them.
3. Collapsible, folding running poles
This is the style that most runners choose because they are lightweight and easily broken down for stowing. Folding poles tend to be extremely reliable because the folding function is less likely to be jammed by dirt or ice than the telescoping style. An added plus is that many running packs now come with features to stow folding poles.
Choosing the Right Running Poles
Choosing a trekking pole is largely based on personal preference. I wish I could tell you what pole to use in what situation, but there are many things that will factor into your decision-making. Here are a few that you’ll want to be aware of:
Most trekking pole manufacturers provide size charts based on your height for ordering online. However, if you’re shopping in a store it’s a good idea to make sure the pole length is within an ideal range for you. Do this by standing with elbows at your sides and poles in your hands. Your elbows should be bent at about a 90-degree angle, putting your forearms parallel with the ground. It is okay if your elbows are bent a little more or a little less (+/- 10 degrees).
Aluminum or carbon? Carbon trekking poles are lightweight and extremely strong when force is applied from the top down, but used incorrectly, or in situations where they might get levered between two rocks, they can easily break. Aluminum poles are a little heavier, but can take a beating more gracefully, and will bend or dent rather than break. That said, most runners choose carbon poles.
More often than not, trail running poles have foam grips because foam is lightweight. Cork and hard plastic grips are durable, but can be slippery in sweaty hands and tend to be heavier than foam. Size and shape also play a factor. Some poles have a grip that extends down the shaft of the pole, giving you a place to choke down on the pole when going up steep hills. I like this feature because it effectively allows you to shorten the pole without stopping and adjusting the height.
Sometimes the grip can cause blisters or hotspots on your hands with prolonged use. It’s a frustrating but common problem. If this happens to you, don’t get rid of those poles yet! You can pick up a pair of gloves to help protect your hands, like the Outdoor Research ActiveIce Sun Gloves (women’s, men’s).
Make sure you pay attention to the wrist strap when choosing your pole. Thinner straps can be a little more uncomfortable to push into, while wider or more padded straps can be more comfortable. Alternatively, LEKI has an innovative harness system that locks your hand to the pole itself.
It’s also important to note the correct way to put your hand through the strap; your hand should enter the strap from the bottom, so that the strap loops around the back of your hand. This is more secure, and allows you to relax your hand while pushing into the strap.
Men’s Specific and Women’s Specific
Yes, there are differences between men’s and women’s trekking poles. Women’s poles tend to come in shorter lengths and have smaller grips, which is important to be aware of. If you have a taller frame with bigger hands, men’s trekking poles will probably work better for you, and vice versa.
Recommended Trekking Poles
I have used many types of poles from several different brands. Here are some of my favorites:
Leki MCT 12 Vario: This has quickly become my favorite pole (I use the women’s specific version). They are super lightweight, durable, and I am in love with the hand harness feature. Leki’s hand harness system easily locks into the grip. It’s comfortable and allows for maximum downward force while reducing fatigue in the hands.
- The drawback: the hand harness can be sweaty compared to other wrist straps.
- Construction: Folding, adjustable length
- Material: Carbon
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking/Running Poles: Black Diamond Z poles are a go-to for many runners because they are both affordable, good quality, and extremely lightweight. The extended foam grip allows you to choke down on the pole if needed.
- The drawback: In my experience with these poles, they tend to break easily, however, the design has been updated with reinforced joints since the last set I owned and they have been receiving raving reviews.
- Construction: Folding, fixed length
- Material: Carbon
Gossamer Gear LT5 Trekking Poles: The telescoping feature makes them ideal for use as tent poles for some lightweight shelters for fastpacking. Light enough to run with, they are an excellent option as your good-for-everything pole.
- The drawback: They are quite long when collapsed, making them difficult to stow away in a pack.
- Construction: Telescoping, adjustable length
- Material: Carbon
Getting Started with Running Poles
There’s a lot to consider when contemplating using trekking poles for trail running, and let’s be fair, it can be really awkward running with poles at first. Try borrowing a set from a friend to try before you buy, or you can see about renting a set from your local gear rental. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re still not sure if running with poles is for you, feel free to ask me questions.
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