- Reduce impact forces on joints and muscles.
- Improve posture and increase propulsion.
- Increase balance and stability on technical trails and water crossings.
- Improve running rhythm and cadence.
- Reduce/eliminate hand swelling.
- Scratch legs without bending.
- Defensive weapon.
- Psychological aid in training after lower limb injury.
- Increased energy expenditure, both physical and mental.
- Gripping causes increased tension in arms, shoulders, and face.
- Safety risk when falling — fractures and new piercings!
- Loss of use of hands.
- Necessity of gloves due to abrasions.
- Weight and ease of storage on pack.
- Snag on things with very sudden results.
- More gear = more problems.
- Potential damage to trail areas.
- Becoming dependent on them.
Looking back at videos from the last few years of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, it’s hard not to notice the forest of poles. Still, despite their prevalence the use of poles in races is not universally accepted. Ultimately though, the decision should be personal and involve a lot of testing — and thankfully, there is enough research on the subject to help us make a more informed decision.
Based on the various studies performed, it seems that running with poles does increase energy expenditure but it can help in stability, rhythm, propulsion, and impact reduction. Some research argues that poles work best uphill, others say the same for downhill, and much of the studies were done on a treadmill. Some say shorten the poles on uphill and lengthen when going downhill. I say: If it appeals to you give it a try! Work on the rhythm and cadence and build up the involved musculature. To pole or not to pole? Up to you whether those advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but have fun finding out!
If you are interested in the various researches, please refer to the following for more information.
To begin with, in 1981 Dr. G. Neureuther1 published a study that found that running with poles (RWP) decreased leg strain by 5kg per step — that means tons on a long run!
Researcher Lori Bolt et al. (2000)2 found that poles reduced the knee flexion during the swing phase and significantly increased maximum hyperextension of the hip at toe-off. They believed some of this was due to a counterbalancing force to the added arm movement and weight. They also found that most impact forces were decreased and peak propulsive force supplied by the body was also reduced when RWP.
Also in 2000, Christopher Knight and Graham Caldwell3 did an uphill treadmill study that showed RWP caused a small increase in heart rate and decreased lower leg exertion. This lead to lower stride lengths and a decreased rating of perceived exertion — suggesting that the increased energy output was balanced by the decrease in impact forces.
At a similar time Erich Müller along with Hermann Schwameder (2003)4 found a decrease in joint forces during downhill runs. Michael Bohne and Julianne Abendroth-Smith (2007)5 studied 15 experienced hikers carrying varying loads downhill and found a reduction in some of the forces at the hip, knee, and ankle when using poles.
John Willson et al. (2001)6 concluded that poles allowed people to walk faster with less impact forces. Glyn Howatson et al. (2011)7 took 37 volunteers up and down Mount Snowdon in the USA, some with poles, some without. The group with poles reported a lower subjective exertion rating and their muscles bounced back quicker the next day by both subjective and objective measures.
As usual we see conflict in results from medical science. On a hilly course, Michael Saunders et al. (2008)8 found an increase in VO2 max and heart rate with no perceived subjective exertion. Yet the same year Matthieu Foissac et al.9 found no significant increase in VO2 max and heart rate at a 20 degree incline on a treadmill when poles were used! Foissac’s group also found RWP reduced lower limb muscle activity. However, musculature activity in the upper limbs was up 95%. This tension also led to the tightening up of the face. 2008 was busy as Stephane Perrey and Nicolas Fabre10 compared energy expenditure in 12 volunteers on a treadmill and found that poles did indeed increase energy outlay but only in downhill situations.
Visibly, studies regarding poles are mixed. One would think the added movement involving poles would cost more energy! In fact 2011 Nordic walking studies by Vaida Sokelienë and Vida Cesnaitienè (2011)11 found the added load increased heart rate by 15% in comparison to comparable walking without poles. Milan Kůtek12 found in 2012 that poles increased heart rate by 15-20%. Petr Bahenský13 did similar tests and found the heart rate to be up only 4.5%. Many studies were on treadmills, which, particularly for trail running, are very different from outdoor conditions.
Yannick Daviaux et al. (2013)14 found running with poles increases stability and reduces load on the body: “these results support a facilitating effect of pole use for propulsion during level running and for the absorption phase during downhill running.”
The 2012 European Athletics Innovation Award15 went to a paper considering the advantages of running with poles. Its hypothesis was that pole use, by decreasing impact and injury and increasing safety and training effect, would increase the benefits of running while decreasing foot load. The authors found more intensive breathing, more recruitment of chest, arm and shoulder muscles, and therefore more energy used. Depending on speed, the foot can take a load many times that of the bodyweight on each foot strike. They found running with poles showed less impact force, more forward/forefoot strike, and a subjective perception of stability. This paper concluded running with poles “is highly efficient in increasing the physical impact of running but decreasing the leg joint overstraining.”
Doug has been a physiotherapist for 26 years and currently practices at Jardine House Sports and Spinal Clinic (www. physiohk.com). This column aims to explain how body parts work and how you can care for and fix them.
- Neureuther, G. “The Ski Pole in Summer.” MMW Munch Med Wochenschr13 (1981): 513-4.
- Bolt, Lori. “The Effect of Running Poles on the Kinetics and Kinematics of Jogging.” Ball State University (2000).
- Knight, Christopher, and Graham Caldwell. “Muscular and Metabolic Costs of Uphill Backpacking: Are Hiking Poles Beneficial?” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 12 (2000): 2093-101.
- Müller, Erich, and Hermann Schwameder. “Biomechanical Aspects of New Techniques in Alpine Skiing and Ski-Jumping.” Journal of Sports Sciences9 (2003): 679-92.
- Abendroth-Smith, Julianne, and Michael Bohne. “Effects of Hiking Downhill Using Trekking Poles While Carrying External Loads.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1 (2007): 177-83.
- Willson, John, M. Torry, et al. “Effects of Walking Poles on Lower Extremity Gait Mechanics.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1 (2001): 142–7.
- Howatson, Glyn, P. Hough, et al. “Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Walking.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise1 (2011):140-5.
- Saunders,Michael, Hipp, et al. “Trekking Poles Increase Physiological Responses to Hiking without Increased Perceived Exertion.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22.5 (2008): 1468-74.
- Foissac, Matthieu, R. Berthollet, et al. “Effects of Hiking Pole Inertia on Energy and Muscular Costs during Uphill Walking.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 6 (2008): 1117-25.
- Perrey, Stephane, and Nicolas Fabre. “Exertion during Uphill, Level and Downhill Walking with and without Hiking Poles.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 7 (2008): 32-8.
- Sokelienë, Vaida, and Vida Cesnaitienè. “The Influence of Nordic Walking on Physical Fitness of Elderly People.” Ugdymas, Kúno Kultura, Sportas 82 (2011): 45-51.
- Kůtek, Milan. “Běhat Sholemi? Rozhodně Ano!” Run6 (2012): 54-7.
- Bahenský, Petr. “Comparison of Responses of the Organism to Load Exerted by Running with Poles and Without Poles.” Indian Journal of Research3 (2014):140-1.
- Daviaux, Yannick, F. Hintzy, et al. “Effect of Using Poles on Foot-Ground Kinetics during Stance Phase in Trail Running.” European Journal of Sport Science 5 (2013): 468-74.
- Tvrzník, Aleš, and Milan Kůtek. “Running with Poles as an Efficient Training Method Eliminating Overstraining of Athlete’s Feet.” Winning paper of the 2012 European Athletics Innovation Awards.
By Doug Tahirali