Trail Running with Poles

Trail Running with Poles

I’ve used hiking poles a fair amount in training and on a few big races (hilly/mountainous trail marathons and 50ks). Based on these experiences, here is a summary of the pros and cons of trail running with poles and some advice on how and when to use them to best effect.

Trail running with poles
Running in to the finish line at KMF 50k after 9h25. The poles helped save my dodgy ankle.

Benefits of trail running with poles

Make light work of uphill climbs on steep (eg mountainous) routes.

This is the biggest advantage I see in having them. It’s like climbing uphill with four-wheel-drive, as planting them in front of you provides balance and guidance – I can definitely climb steeps a lot more quickly with, than without them.

Saves your legs on long, hilly races

If you’re using poles and your arms/back/shoulders to help you up and downhill when it get tough, then your legs (especially your quads) will be fresher for longer than if you hadn’t used poles.

Trail running with poles
Rewarded with a stunning view after a 1000m uphill hike.

Rhythm!

Hiking poles definitely help me more easily find a sustainable pacing and step rhythm that I can maintain for long stretches. I’m more likely to get puffed out when I am not using them.

They can help probe and balance on steep descents

I find they help me with large, steep steps down, particularly when the terrain looks (or is) slippery or made of loose rock. But they can be a hindrance on many other downhill sections so I don’t use them often, as in many cases it’s more likely I’ll end up tripping myself up with them than helping myself.

Space (and self) preservation on busy races

Sometimes it’s necessary to fight fire with fire. At 5ft 3 and being in the middle (or near rear) of a pack at a race start and the first climb, I have to fight to stand (or walk/run) my own ground.

The poles help ensure someone doesn’t side-step into the space immediately in front of you, either with their own poles or legs. They are also handy for batting off wayward poles that can get waved or slip towards you in a crowd. This was invaluable at the start of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail where I spent the first 45 minutes in a tightly-packed crowd up the first climb.

I think most people are completely oblivious to the nuisance and hazard they pose, so it’s not productive to let it wind you up – just be prepared, that’s all I’m saying!

Downsides to trail running with poles

It’s extra kit to carry

In terms of things to remember, store and additional weight, poles mean two more relatively large pieces of kit.

Carrying poles also makes doing other things (like eating) more tricky when on-the-move.

Trail running with poles

You won’t want to use them all the time

I just use them on the steep climbs and some descents. So you have to either carry them or pack them away when not using them (which is a bit of a faff).

If you train with poles, then you may not want to race without them

So there’s a risk of them becoming like crutches that you get dependent on. I don’t want to be dependent on them – imagine if you felt you NEEDED them, and then you lose or break one/both? Gah!

Hiking poles are not permitted on some trail running races

It’s worth checking your race rules. But generally, if it’s a mountainous race of 30k+, particularly in Europe, then you’ll be in the minority without them.

Trail running with poles
Not really using the poles when this photo was taken (during Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy) but I had them out ready for the next climb…

Tips for using hiking poles trail running

  • Buy the lightest you can afford. This helps not just with your pack weight, but your arms when in use
  • Folding/collapsible poles will save you space when stowed (or carried)
  • Carry them both in one hand when not in use, with the pointy end facing forwards. This way you are less likely to catch it on your feet or swing the sharp end back into someone else
  • Be careful how you use and hold them – if you hit or trip someone else (or yourself – eminently possible) then it could cause a very nasty injury. It’s also very annoying when someone actually, or very nearly does this to you
  • Watch where you plant them in front of you – pick a firm-looking spot that isn’t wedged between two rocks/roots (as this could result in breaking the pole if it gets stuck on its way out) and is far from your (and other peoples) feet
  • Alternate or simultaneous pole-ing? I find that sometimes it helps to plant both poles together out in front, to help me up steep sections with speed. Otherwise, I prefer placing them alternately
Trail running with poles
Stomping up a c.1000m steep climb, loving the pole-power and rhythm

Types of poles to use

Disclaimer! I haven’t researched or tried out all the options, but if you don’t want to rush out and buy some trail-running-specific poles, then you could use ski or normal hiking poles instead, if you have some of these already. Just make sure they’re the right length.

To check your poles are a suitable length for you, stand with the pole in hand and planted in front of you, parallel to your body, and aim to have your lower arm at right-angle to your body. More than 90 degrees and the pole may be too short. Less than 90 degrees and it’s probably too long.

There are many brands out there now offering trail running (or lightweight hiking) poles, particularly around Europe where they are very popular. However, after some research when buying ours a few years ago, we discovered a British company called Mountain King, which sells a model of pole called ‘Trail Blaze’. They come in different sizes and material – with the most lightweight option being made of carbon, and folding into four segments. I’ve been really pleased with their performance on some very gnarly trails in the Alps, Dolomites, and UK Lake District and so would definitely recommend them as an option.

Check out their website below to see current options and where you can buy a pair: Mountain King.

Other trail running kit advice

If you liked this post you may want to check out:

Or click ‘Advice’ and ‘Gear & Kit Reviews’ in the menu to browse our other posts.

Call for comments

Do you run with or without poles for your hilly/mountain runs? Which poles do you use and why? Share all in the comments section below, we’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

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Helen Dixon

Trail Lover // Trail & Ultra Runner // Often found in the Mountains, Running, Hiking or Skiing // Seeking Peace, Beauty & Adventure.

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