Trail Running With Poles: Benefits, Disadvantages And Advice

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

Overview

UPDATED 10 JUNE 2018: 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 these running sticks.


Saves your legs on long, hilly races

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

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

Rhythm!

Trekking 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.

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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 trail running 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!

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.

 

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).

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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.
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Trail running with poles
Stomping up a c.1000m steep climb, loving the pole-power and rhythm

Best hiking poles for trail running

Black Diamon Carbon Z Trekking Poles - Trail Running Poles - Trail & Kale
We recommend these lightweight folding hiking poles for trail running.

There are many brands out there now offering trail running (or lightweight hiking) poles, particularly around Europe where they are very popular. We are also seeing an increase in popularity of mountain and technical running in America, and so I expect more people will be needing to get their hands on hiking poles for trail running in the US. These carbon Z Black Diamond poles are perfect for trail running and long days in the mountains, as they are folding, have a good hand-grip and fold down small.

BUY NOW: Distance Carbon Z Poles – $170 at Backcountry.com

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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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Davy
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Davy

How do you store the poles on the salomon race vest? There are pole holders in the back but the black diamond poles fold “too” small to use the pole holders.

Bruce Jackson
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Check out this (german) blog post – it shows how all the top runners at last UTMB carried their poles.
https://trailrunningnordwand.blogspot.com/2017/10/gear-talk-wohin-mit-den-stocken.html

Salomon sells a “quiver” add-on for about $20 that is great.