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

Training to walk for ultra, trail and mountain running

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You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

On occasion when talking to a runner or coaching client, I have asked the question, ‘what would you consider is a successful outcome from your next race?’

I have been and always am still gobsmacked when I hear the reply, ‘I want to run all of it… I don’t want to walk!’

Does that mean that they would be happy not finishing providing that they ran all the way to the DNF?

Walking is often perceived as a weakness, yes, even a failure. However, if you are going to run longer, on challenging terrain and/or on multi-days, walking is an absolute essential part of a successful plan.

For many though, walking is not practiced or anticipated. Therefore, when walking starts in a race, it becomes a negative. The head drops, the shoulders hunch and instead of striding out and making a good pace, the runner (now walker) becomes a shuffler; not good!

Lets face it, even the elite runners know when it’s time to transition from running to walking. Watch them! Admittedly, this may well come on technical or hilly terrain but the purpose and speed that they cover ground does not come by accident, this is something that they have worked on in training. Hands move to the knees (when applicable) and they hunch over and power up a climb. In many scenarios, they move considerably quicker than those who try to remain in a jog.

“Everyone has an opinion on this, and there is no ‘right’ answer. However, believing that walking in a marathon is not a ‘real’ marathon means when Bill Rodgers won the 1975 Boston marathon in 2:09:55, it was not a ‘real’ marathon as he stopped five times. That does not make sense to me. The goal of the race is to complete the distance as fast as possible. If it is faster to walk/run than to run, that is the optimum strategy. If the race has a long enough cut off to allow walking the whole race, then the walkers are fulfilling the rules of the race and are just as valid.”

– ©fellrnr

If you are experienced in ultra or long distance running, I am sure you are already aware of the benefits of a good walking plan/ strategy. However, we can all learn something new, so please read on.

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Why walk?

The longer you go, the more chance of walking increases. Equally, the higher you go or the more technical the terrain, the chances of walking increases. So, practice. There is a difference between walking on the flat and walking uphill, so first and foremost be specific. If you are heading to UTMB for example, work on climbing up hill and maximising pace and effort. By contrast, if you are doing a relatively flat 100-mile race, think about the terrain and walk in a way that replicates this. Mix walking and running.

I made the mistake in my first ultra, I had done no walking in training, of course in the race I eventually had no option but to walk. I was hopeless. I shuffled along feeling dejected and hopeless. In addition, my muscles, legs and feet didn’t like the change; they argued with me! Walking uses different muscles and therefore you need to train them.

“This might be a difficult concept to grasp, but yes – learning to walk during long runs is not only okay in ultra-marathon training, but also recommended (at least for those new to ultra-marathons). A lot of ultra-marathons take place over mountainous and technical terrain, at times forcing runners to slow to a walk in order to safely move forward. Alternatively, ultra-runners tend to take frequent walk breaks anyway, due to sheer exhaustion. It’s necessary therefore to train your body to recover quickly from walk breaks by comfortably transitioning back to running. The best way to do this is to practice on your long runs.” – ©breakingmuscle.com

Climbing

 

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When the terrain steepens, the effort required to run increases along with heart rate and fatigue. You will burn energy, become exhausted and eventually grind to a halt if you try to push on. Walking or stopping is then the only option. However, if you go into a race knowing full well that you have trained your body and mind for the task ahead, the process will become a positive one. Think about technique:

  1. Hands-on-knees: This may not be the prettiest to look at but it is effective and it is a technique you will see in many mountain races such as Skyrunning. The technique is simple; you lower your centre of gravity by crouching over, you put your hands on your knees which helps in the push phase and then you take small controlled steps with a higher cadence.
  2. Folded hands behind the back: You may well see this technique on long gradual climbs where it is possible to get into a rhythmn. Basically your left hand (or right) sits in the other hand at the base of your back. This feels particularly comfortable if wearing a pack.
  3. Poles: Poles were considered by many to be ‘cheating stick’ but slowly but surely they have become more and more popular. To use them is a little like 4-wheel drive. You need to practice with them and find the technique, once you have, you will love the process. Be careful though, in some races they are not allowed.

Pacing is critical and this will depend on the individual, fitness levels, ability to tolerate discomfort, length of the climb and importantly the length of the race. Consistency is key and you should be looking for an equal effort for the duration with as few peaks and troughs as possible. Of course, if the gradient changes, your pace and stride should adjust accordingly; steeper equals slower, flatter equals faster.

In training you may very well be restricted with the length of climbs available to train on, so, you will need to do repeats. This is standard in a good training plan. However, if you are heading to a pure mountain race with long climbs that may well last a hour or more, try to be specific and plan some specific weekends away training on like-for-like terrain.

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“I was about 2.5 miles in to my first 50k when we hit the first major hill. Before the runners ahead of me took more than 3 steps up the hill, they all started walking. I couldn’t believe it. Walking? Just over two miles into a race? I zoomed right past them and ran up the hill. Take that, slow pokes. It didn’t take more than 10 miles to realise that walking, or hiking, during an ultramarathon is a big part of any proper pacing strategy. And my strategy was terrible. Walking is often more efficient than running up steep inclines, so runners power hike up those hills to save energy for the rest of the race. When all those runners I passed at mile 2.5 flew past me further into the race, I know I had made a mistake.” – ©nomeatathlete

Focus

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The mind is a really important weapon when running. Arguably, many say it is the most important weapon when running long. Train it and get it prepared for the challenge. Walking can be perceived as a negative; no, make it a positive.

For example, find a hill that say is 1-mile long and then walk up it relaxed and casual making sure you time yourself.

Now repeat that 1-mile rep but focus on cadence, effort and being consistent over the distance. Compare the times.

It will be self explanatory. Focused walking is considerably quicker. You want to repeat this when racing and therefore you must train for this.

Strategy

Many incorporate a fixed walking strategy when racing and others allow for a more organic approach. For me a couple of key factors are important:

  1. The terrain.
  2. Are you racing or are you completing?

The terrain will dictate your walking strategy, so, for example if you are taking part in a flat 100-mile race you could (from the start) run 20-minutes and walk 10-minutes. This may well be something that you can sustain for the whole event. If your are running an undulating race you may well incorporate a 20/10 strategy but  then walk all the climbs and run all the downhills.

What is key is understanding who you are as a runner/ walker and then coming up with a strategy that works for you.

If you are racing, you obviously want to walk as little as possible. So understand your strengths and weaknesses and make walking fast and powerful and consider a strategy that will allow you to loose as little time as possible.

Technical walking

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Sometimes you are forced to walk not through fatigue but because the terrain is so technical that you cannot run. Again, this all comes down to practice, practice and practice. Be specific, find challenging terrain and then learn how to get across it is fast and as efficiently as possible. Importantly learn how to incorporate jogging or running with the walking to maintain a faster pace.

Indoor training

A gym or indoor training provides some great opportunities to work on many aspects that will make you a stronger and faster walker:

  1. Treadmill: This is a no brainer, use a treadmill at specific speeds to teach you to cover ground faster and more efficiently.
  2. Vertical Treadmill: Some gyms have treadmills that will go to a 30% incline. These are brilliant for practicing technique and gaining prolonged sessions at a steep gradient.
  3. Stepper: Stepper or stair machines can be used for strength and technique.
  4. Core Stability: An important element, don’t neglect it.
  5. Weights: A well structured strength training plan will make you more efficient and more endurant.

Conclusion

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Walking is a key element of ultra and mountain running. Train yourself to become efficient.

Ultimately be specific and understand what type of walking you need to work on. If you are unsure, work on all the elements; after all at some point you are going to encounter flat, hilly or technical terrain.

Enjoy the process.

“My take away from the countless hours of reading scientific studies is that power hiking or walking are ways to effectively conserve energy and delay muscle fatigue during ultra marathons and, in some cases, can net a faster ultra marathon. If running the first 50 miles of a 100 miler in 11 hours reduces to you walking 20 minute miles for the last 50 you’ll finish in 27.5 hours. But if you power hike at 3.75 mph (16 minute pace) you would finish in 26.5 hours.” – ©MKREUZER

Read the follow on articles HERE and HERE

Fancy using poles? Here are my two favourites. In particular, the new Black Diamond poles are adjustable in height in addition to folding.

Black Diamond (HERE)

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Leki (HERE)

Leki

References