In 2018 I got my butt handed to me at the UTE 100 trail race in the LaSal mountains of Utah. I did a lot of climbing in my training, but nothing can compare to trying to climb 19,000 feet in one push. Shortly after the DNF, I invested in a pair of trekking poles. I immediately liked them, and definitely noticed they helped with both climbing and descending. Following is some science and some opinion on the benefit of trekking poles to ultra running.
Fast forward to 2019, back at the UTE 100 (See my race report.) Now I’m not judging anyone, just pointing out what I witnessed. Although there was a striking variety of brands and models, nearly everyone was using poles. As varied as the brands, were the techniques people chose to use. Let’s start with what I termed, the dragger. These folks had their poles deployed but were often seen with the tips of the poles dragging in the dirt behind them. Now I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m almost certain this gives the user no physical benefit.
Next up, the lazy polester. There were a lot of these folks, their poles were being used but they were just lightly tapping them into the dirt in front of them. I could tell by the sound that there was almost no force being exerted into the pole and therefore into the ground. Perhaps the polesters were gaining some benefit in terms of balance, perhaps with setting a rhythm. But most certainly they were not sparing their legs any punishment, which is I’d argue, the primary purpose of using poles.
Finally, we have the dead-weighters. These folks had their poles strapped onto their packs, carrying the dead weight with absolutely no benefit. I saw dead-weighters on the moderate uphills, on the grueling climbs, on the flats, and on the downhills. It baffled me, why carry them if you are not going to use them?! Granted I only saw these folks for a tiny fraction of the time they were on course, they could have been using them regularly for the majority of the time. With the exception of emergency gear, everything you carry should get used over the course of an event.
Personally, I used my poles the entire time. The only time I didn’t have them in my hands was occasionally when I was pulling food or gear out of my pack. And when I say I used them, I used them. I put weight on them, authoritatively striking the ground and making sure that they were offsetting some of the pounding that otherwise would be absorbed by my glutes, hamstrings, and quads. On the uphills, they were my constant companion, being used in a “cross crawl” pattern. Left foot forward, right pole forward. Right foot forward, left pole forward. Dig in, absorb weight, follow-through, plant, repeat, repeat, repeat for 31 hours. Sometimes on the steeper sections both poles would be deployed in front of me and I could really bear weight on them as I dragged the rest of my body up the grade. Yes, my arms were sore after this race and I figure that was a good sign of them taking punishment off of my legs. Downhill running is much different and the poles strike the ground much less, not nearly every step as with the uphill. I do find that they help me with balance and navigating technical downhills. What can I say, I love them. I will continue to be a regular user.
Photo by Hans Balkowitch
But who am I to say? Let’s see what the professionals have to say. Now if you Google “trekking poles and running efficiency” you will find a slew of articles discussing the topic. I’ve decided to essentially disregard those articles (although many are very interesting and I’d encourage you to read some) and instead focus on some specific research articles using Google Scholar and the search phrase “trekking poles running” which yields an abundance of articles.
Perusing the titles, “Trekking Poles Increase Physiological Responses to Hiking Without Increased Perceived Exertion” was a good place to start. This article dug into the rate of oxygen consumption, heart rate, ventilation, and rate of perceived exertion. I was kind of surprised that the group using poles consumed more oxygen, had a higher heart rate, and breathed harder on all ground slopes. But thinking about it more, you are going from using only two limbs to using all four. It does make sense these things would increase. Of great interest, however, is that the rate of perceived exertion was nearly identical regardless of if people used poles or not. So their physiological responses indicated they were working harder, but they didn’t notice. That is very interesting.
Next up was “Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Walking”. Now this project only used 37 people and they focused on downhill impacts, but they did put them to work outside on trails. However, as the title implies, they were only walking. Plenty of that in ultra running, right? The conclusion, “The reduced muscle damage in the current investigation was almost certainly attributable to the lower forces to the lower limbs afforded by the use of poles that is evident from several biomechanical studies especially during downhill ambulation. Intuitively, these forces are not lost, rather distributed over a larger area, namely, the upper body.” In other words, HELL YES, poles help to lessen muscle damage!
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of opinion articles and research articles that you can read to learn more. I’ve only brushed the surface of two of them here. The best thing you can do is to pick a run that you do regularly, one that has uphill, downhill, and flat sections. Run it one day without poles and see how you feel (your perceived exertion). Not only that but make note of your time, as well as other physiological responses such as heart rate and soreness after 24-48 hours. Then, run it with poles a few days later and compare the results. Is a sample size of one credible? No. But that one subject is the only one that matters. Regardless of your decision, run happy, and run healthy.
Just as an FYI on the poles I used, I went with the Leki Makalu Cor-Tec poles. They are not the lightest version around, and they are longer than I’d prefer when totally collapsed. However, I find them to be very durable and sturdy so I was willing to sacrifice some other benefits. I had originally purchased a pair of Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles, but they busted after less than 100 miles of training usage. They were really light and really compact, but durability sucked.
 Saunders, Michael J; Hipp, G Ryan; Wenos, David L; Deaton, Michael L. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: September 2008 – Volume 22 – Issue 5 – p 1468-1474.
 GLYN HOWATSON, PAUL HOUGH, JOHN PATTISON, JESSICA A. HILL, RICHARD BLAGROVE, MARK GLAISTER, and KEVIN G. THOMPSON. Article in Medicine and science in sports and exercise · January 2011.