Walking, Running and Climbing with Trekking Poles

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Recently I wrote an article about the benefits of including walking in a training plan to become a better runner, ultra runner and climber. Read HERE.

Of course, if you are able to complete a race without any walking, that is by far the best strategy should a fastest time or higher ranking position by an objective.

The reality (for many) is that the longer we go the chances of walking increases. Equally, when in the mountains, walking is very much a key element of a successful day training or racing. So, it is important to train as a walker so that you become fast, effective and efficient.

The use of poles in recent years has boomed and now they are common place particularly in tough, long arduous events such as UTMB, Tor des Geants and many mountain races.

Poles have been used in France, Italy and Spain for sometime. In recent years, runners in the UK have slowly but surely adapted and accepted them, particularly in events like the Lakeland 100 and even American based runners have started to accept them at events such as Hardrock 100.

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Nordic Walking (“Sauvakävely”) was first introduced in Finland in the 80’s to help boost the nations declining health. As you can expect, its roots are founded from skiing and it was formally defined in a book called “Hiihdon lajiosa” (“A part of cross-country skiing training methodic”) by Mauri Repo. This book dates back to 1979.

The poles used in the early days were in one piece and the technique was used as off-season ski-training. Over the years fixed length poles were continually used and it was in 1999 when US based company Exel termed the phrase Nordic Walking.

Of course Nordic Walking is a sport in its own right and the technique, compared to regular walking, involves applying force to the poles with each stride. This therefore provides a more ‘all over’ body workout and for example, ones triceps, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, chest, core and so on gets a greater workout. This is why as a runner, you MUST train and adapt to using poles.

Imagine going to the gym and working out with weights having done no strength training. Lets say for an example you do 45-minutes of exercises on the upper body. I guarantee the next day you will feel it. Using poles is no different. Your arms, shoulders, lower back and core will all feel the impact of using poles to gain forward momentum.

In recent years, companies like Black Diamond and Leki (amongst others) have specifically created poles based around the needs and demands of runners. Original Nordic Walking Poles were of fixed length so it was important to purchase the correct length as this could not be adjusted. Telescopic poles were then created allowing more flexibility and the opportunity to adjust height based on your own personal needs and also this would potentially allow other people to use your poles.

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However, poles used for running now fold.

These new folding poles (in general) fold in three sections and provide a fixed length pole. So again, it’s important to purchase the correct length pole. We will come on to that later. The new poles by Black Diamond “Distance Carbon FLZ’ has taken this folding process one-step further providing a folding three section pole but with an adjustable section at the top. This allows adjustment of 15cm. The poles still need to be purchased at a specific length but the adjustment option is a great addition and they are a personal favourite for me.* I will come on to why later.

What length pole do I need and what type?

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Walking poles are shorter than cross-country ski poles and as a rule you want a well balanced pole that is elbow height. I say as a rule as this can vary depending on your intended use and preference. As a starting point, elbow height is a good place to begin. Another method is multiplying your height in cm by .68 and then rounding this down to the nearest 5cm. However, variables come in to play.

Variables:

  1. As you get used to poles and as your technique improves you may find that your stride lengthens, if so, a longer pole may be better.
  2. If you are climbing a great deal, a pole at elbow height or shorter may be preferable.
  3. If you are doing just VK’s (Vertical Kilometers) a shorter pole is almost certainly required.

*This is why I mentioned that the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ is a personal favourite for me. I am able to reduce the pole height when participating in a VK, I am able to have the pole at elbow height when running, walking and climbing on mixed terrain and should I be using poles on relatively flat terrain I can have the pole a little longer to go with a longer stride.

TIP: If in doubt, purchasing an adjustable pole may well be a good idea initially so that you can fine tune your needs before purchasing a fixed length three section folding pole.

Light is best but don’t compromise on quality. Cheap poles are just not up to the job and you want a pole you can rely on that is stiff, strong, light and reliable.

The hand grip section is also a key consideration. Handles are typically slim and designed not to interfere with the wrist action when snapping the pole through at the end of the push through phase. A strap will be attached to the handle and this should be close, comfortable and provide a snug fit so that the recovery phase is easy. Many straps are a loop that you slide your hand into, however, companies like Leki provide a glove like system that clips in and out of the pole using a trigger system. This for me is my preferred system as it offers great flexibility.

The Technique.

Legs, body and arms need to work together as one in a rhythmic motion to gain the most from using poles. The range of arm movement, regulates the length of the stride, this is why pole length is key. However, this does vary when climbing particularly on steeper and technical terrain as a shorter pole may well be better. For runners, our demands are different to a pure Nordic Walker as we may run with poles for added stability and security, at times we may be striding out on flat terrain and then we may well be climbing or descending.

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Using poles is a very individual thing but there are tried and tested techniques. This video (although a little funny to watch) provides a good guide HERE.

I personally use different techniques, at times I grip that handle somewhat firmly (steep uphill terrain) and at other times I do not grip the handle at all allowing the pole to move freely only connected to the body via the hand strap. In general, the poles should not go in-front of you as this makes a brake. The poles should always be behind you so that you can PUSH forward. Pole technique is in time with your stride and the greater benefits come when getting in a rhythm. You can use single pole forward or double pole forward technique. I often switch between the two but on the flat I prefer single pole and on steep climbs I use double pole.

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Severity and technicality of terrain will dictate what technique you use. The PUSH phase is obviously still incredibly important if moving quickly but just as I mentioned in my previous walking article, instead of placing your hands on your knees to climb, using poles acts in the same way; It’s like four wheel drive.

Other considerations:

  • Added stability on technical terrain such as water crossings.
  • Downhill stability if used correctly.
  • Relieve stress on quads and knees when climbing and descending.
  • Aid balance.
  • Provide an opportunity to get into a rhythm.

Do poles give an advantage?

Poles used to be called cheating sticks and in some circles they still are. Do they give an advantage? I actually don’t think it is easy to give a clear and definitive answer on this, I personally would say, that if you have the technique and know how to use them, then yes, they provide an advantage for you the user.

Luis Alberto Hernando for example uses poles all the time when racing. His technique is superb and when you watch him on a climb he is like a machine. However, he wouldn’t use poles on the flat as he is able to run. For him, they are purely a means for climbing faster.

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In Skyrunning, poles are used regularly when allowed and the cross over from ski mountaineering is clear to see. However, Kilian Jornet for example very rarely uses poles even though he is a ski mountaineering world champion. I have actually only seen him use poles at the Dolomites VK as the gradients are close to 50% and the terrain is extremely slippery.

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Therefore, your choice and decision to use poles must be assessed base on your need and demands. I personally feel that poles provide a great security blanket and aid. They allow me to climb with added strength, descend with security (with care) and when I use them on the flat they provide me with a great rhythm that allows me to move faster.

You will only be faster with poles if you know how to use them.

Any disadvantages?

  • Yes, for sure. Go to UTMB when the trails are full of thousands of runners and poles are going in all directions. You can lose an eye for sure.
  • Poles occupy your hands so simple tasks like feeding, map reading and so on can be laboured.
  • You can’t use hand bottles.
  • Downhill they can be a real trip hazard if not used correctly.

Conclusion:

Finally, please remember that some races do not allow poles. So, make sure you train with and without. Don’t become reliant on them. As I stated in my previous article, learning to walk efficiently is a key attribute and the ability to climb with hands-on-knees is a great skill to hone. Given the choice though, if I could, I would use poles.

Interesting fact based on data to balance the pros and cons:

Reference: Howatson et al. Sci Sports Exerc 2011; 43: 140-5

37 volunteers made the ascent and descent of Mount Snowdon with a day pack having either poles or no poles. The group having poles had significantly less rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during the ascent, showed attenuation of reductions in maximal voluntary contraction immediately after and 24 and 48 h after the trek, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) was significantly lower at 24 and 48 h after the trek, and creatinine kinase (CK) was also lower at 24 h after the trek. Link HERE

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