Adventure season is upon us, and that means our runs are getting bigger, gnarlier, and more exciting. Even though one of the best things about ultrarunning is its simplicity, sometimes our goals require additional gear. What was once mostly a European trend, mountain running, hiking, or ultrarunning trekking poles have become increasingly popular in races throughout North America. Nowadays, poles available to us are more convenient, lighter, and more compact than ever.
As with everything in life, one size fits one. Some runners love using poles, but they aren’t right for everyone. (They also aren’t allowed for everybody at certain races, like Run Rabbit). However, even the most minimalist mountain, trail, and ultrarunners have found success using poles for their pursuits. If you aren’t sure about whether poles are right for you, consider the following.
Poles enable the arms to help the legs with forward and upward propulsion. Running on trails and in the mountains can look different than running on the road. Poles can help with propelling us in ways that suit the terrain.
Poles can help with balance and stability on technical terrain. For example, on super steep descents with scree, poles can help ensure the runner does not slide down the slope and rip up their fancy new Salomon shorts. For example, the famous Grant Swamp Pass on the Hardrock 100 course is a perfect place for poles–whether you’re going up or down. In fact, almost all runners complete the entire Hardrock event using poles for all 100 miles.
If a route or race has lots of steep vertical or elevation gain, poles can be your best friend. For example, the final 32K of the Fat Dog 120 (193K) race has over 1,500 metres of climbing. As runners come into the 100-mile aid station, they will often pick up poles to give their legs a break for the final section.
Poles can help distribute the workload. This especially helps when the legs get tired during an ultra. All of a sudden, there is opportunity for the arms to do some extra work, so the legs can take a break.
Although poles help take the weight off the legs, it means the arms are doing more work. This means that extra energy is expended, since the arms go into full swing. Take caution if you are using poles, and ensure you are fuelling accordingly.
Make sure the first time you use poles in a race is not your first day with them. Practise in the parking lot, on easy terrain, and on technical terrain. Heck, take them to the mall if you have to. The more you practise the motion of using poles while you move, the easier it will be to make them a part of your everyday trail running.
Some successful mountain, trail, and ultrarunners never use poles. They say it can distract them from focusing on all the elements that come with trail running. One of these elements is fuelling properly. Remember, if you’re using poles, you still need to use your hands to eat. Don’t let the poles distract you from consuming calories.