As soon as you get into trail running, you’ll notice there is a now a bewildering range of colourful, technical and exciting kit to buy. Running poles are just one of these products, but it may not be clear if you actually need them. Here, Emily, local qualified guide and experienced trail runner based in the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc valley, dispels the myths and looks at the techniques employed whilst running with poles.
WHY USE RUNNING POLES?
Overall, you are going to need running poles if you are running up and down long steep hills, plus poles will increase your stability on rocky terrain – therefore, it makes sense that poles are very popular in the Alps!
STABILITY: Poles will also help immensely with any technical downhill, stream crossings or jumping down big drops by aiding balance and protecting your knees. The rougher the terrain, the more useful poles will be.
PROPULSION UPHILL: Although many people first think of poles being useful when running downhill, they are probably of most benefit on the uphill. Here, they can save you energy by distributing the workload across the body, which provides some exercise for the arms and takes strain off your legs. Holding poles may also encourage you to keep a more upright position, which is better for your posture and optimises breathing.
HOW TO USE RUNNING POLES
This may not be as straightforward as it seems! Here are a few tips:
– Although some people might use one pole when hiking, you definitely need two in order to be in balance whilst running.
– Nowadays poles are usually left and right handed, which makes them fit the shape of your hand more comfortably.
– Take your hands out for technical downhills in case you trip over. This will reduce the likelihood of injury – to your hands in particular – as you can just drop the pole rather than getting stuck in it if you fall.
– If you have poles that vary in size, it may be worth changing the length if you are going up or downhill for a long time: You might find it easier to have them about 10 cm shorter when going uphill.
– If you’re running with others, leave at least a couple of metres between you and the person in front to avoid being stabbed! This can be an issue in races when there is a big field of competitors battling it out along a narrow single-track path. If the person in front somehow manages to hit you, it’s fair to say it’s your fault for being too close, rather than their fault for not getting far enough ahead of you!
– Flat sections: If you have fold-able poles, it’s worth attaching them to your pack for long flat sections. Otherwise, it’s best to grip the middle of the pole and run along holding them horizontally, one in each hand. Once you find the balance point along the pole, so the same weight is in front of and behind your hand, they won’t seem to weigh very much.
WHAT PROBLEMS MIGHT YOU ENCOUNTER?
Tripping over the poles: This could happen when the terrain is particularly rough or, even more likely, when you’re tired! There isn’t much you can do to stop this apart from staying focused and paying attention. Also, take your hands out of the wrist loops over sections where you’re likely to trip in order to limit the potential damage.
Blisters on hands: This is likely to happen if you suddenly start using the poles regularly or if you do a long run with them. Therefore, building up gradually will give your skin time to toughen up. If you don’t have this option, it would be a good idea to wear thin fingerless gloves to protect your hands.
Eating and drinking on the go: I manage to hold both poles within one hand and still be able to use those fingers to help the other hand open packets etc. Like everything, it gets easier with practice!
WHICH RUNNING POLES?
Overall, lightweight is best, but generally they are a lot more expensive. The lightest are made of carbon, aluminium is a little bit heavier but is also stronger. I use Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles which are only 290g for the pair at 120 cm long. Like mine, most running poles are fold-able, as you often want to pack them into your back-pack for travel or for long flattish stretches of running. In terms of length, some poles can be adjusted, but these will be heavier. When you’re holding the right length pole, your forearm and upper arm should be at right-angles – ie. the line from your hand to elbow should be horizontal. If you ski, it will be the same as your ski poles.
Overall, it’s best to just try any poles to get used to the idea first of all. Over time you’ll become fully accustomed to them – and might wonder how you coped without them before!
Written by Emily Geldard, Run the Wild Guide