How To Use Poles for Trail Running and Ultras

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Using poles for trail running and ultras can be tricky. The first few times, they can feel unwieldy. It’s like running with two extra “limbs,” plus it keeps your hands occupied. We wouldn’t blame you if you gave up on them.

But trust us when we say that trekking poles could be your best friend on the trail. If you’re serious about trail running, give them a chance. With some practice, you’ll discover how useful they can be in helping you stay injury-free and hit new PRs!

Benefits of Using Trail Running Poles

Here are a few reasons to invest in a set of trekking poles.

Enhanced Stability and Balance

It’s like having four legs instead of two. If one of your feet happens to slip, you’ve got two extra contact points on the ground, so you’re much less likely to fall and injure yourself.

Help You Tackle Uphill Climbs More Efficiently

Uphills can be draining, but trail running poles are game-changers. They not only boost your speed as you climb but also distribute your weight more evenly, allowing you to maintain your pace.

Plus, they’re great for preventing your upper body from slumping, a common issue when fatigue kicks in during an uphill push.

Offer Additional Support on Downhills

Downhills are often more difficult than uphills, but both are manageable with trail poles. They can act as a braking system to decrease the pounding on your feet and legs, which can save them from extra fatigue.

For steeper descents on rougher trails, poles can provide valuable support and help you navigate scary downhills with a bit more confidence and a less chance of injury.

Reduced Muscle Fatigue

When you have four legs instead of two, the workload is split more evenly. So your legs will take on a bit less stress and strain, thanks to the poles.

It’s not going to keep you fresh for hours on end, but it can make a bit of difference in staving off fatigue for longer and helping you push forward.

Maintain a Sustainable Running Rhythm

Using poles can help you to keep those arms moving, which can help you to maintain good momentum on the trail. Getting into a good rhythm is helpful to keep you going and to stay consistent.

Promote an Upright Posture

Poles can help you maintain an upright posture throughout your run. It can be easy to start hunching over as you tire, but with a set of poles, fatigue not only takes longer to set in, but when it does, the poles offer support to help you keep your form.

May Be Used as Extra Protection

It doesn’t happen often, but if there comes an occasion where you’re confronted by a person or animal while out running, your poles can be used as a self-defense weapon!

Remember the story of ultra runner Dean Karnazes, who fought off a coyote with his trekking poles at 3 a.m.!

When Should You Use Poles?

You don’t need to use poles the entire time when you are on a trail run. But there are certain sections where they will really pay off. Use your poles on:

Uphill Climbs

Uphills can be some of the most taxing and unstable sections on any run, so use your poles here. They can help to distribute your weight more evenly on the slope, which helps your legs and improves your pace as you climb.

Technical Terrain

Poles can be a lifesaver on technical trails on uneven, loose ground. Having two extra contact points means that if you trip or slip, you’ll be less likely to fall, thanks to the additional stability.

Long-Distance Runs

Having poles available on those long runs can help take pressure off your legs. More support can help reduce fatigue, allowing you to conserve more energy.

Downhills

Poles can play a very important role on downhills: the brake. They can also act as an impact-absorber, reducing the load on the knees and the leg muscles.

River Crossings

Poles can help you figure out how deep streams and rivers are. Plus, they give you extra reach in the water so that you can stabilize yourself much more easily.

Muddy/Slippery Terrain

Trekking poles can also provide better footing on slippery surfaces and help you find your way safely on muddy ground. Extra stability is always helpful on this kind of terrain.

Mid-run Injury

If you twist an ankle or hurt your foot, poles can make a huge difference. They’ll help you reduce the pressure on the injured foot or leg just enough to get you back home or the next aid station in a race.

Multi-Day Runs or Stage Races

Multi-day races naturally incur more fatigue over the days. A set of poles can be a valuable fatigue-easing tool on these long-stage races, conserving your energy and helping you perform better over time.

Altitude and Technical Ascents

At higher altitudes, you will fatigue faster due to a lack of oxygen. Running poles can come in handy here, where you may need extra support to help you take each next step.

How to Use Poles for Trail Running

If you’ve done any cross-country skiing, you will probably quickly pick up using trail poles since the motion is similar. But if you haven’t, there will be a small learning curve. Here are tips on using poles.

Finding Your Pole Running Momentum

Begin by walking normally, swinging your arms at your sides. Try to keep that same natural swing in your arms when you’re holding your poles. It shouldn’t be forced, and it should feel comfortable and natural.

Your pole hand should move simultaneously as the opposite leg comes forward. So you’re always supported from both sides! Start slowly at first—you’ll build up speed as you get used to it.

Pole Tip Placement

Place your pole tips down gently on the ground. Hitting them hard or digging them into the ground will only waste energy! Angled them slightly downward into the ground to help push you forward.

At the same time, hold the poles so that they’re out in front of or next to you at all times.

Using the Strap Correctly

Don’t neglect the straps! They’re there for a reason, not just to avoid losing a pole. There’s a right way and a less right way to use the strap, though.

Hold the pole up in front of you so the strap is hanging. Slip your hand into it from the bottom. You want to grab the pole handle now, with your hand over the part where the strap connects to the pole, with a neutral grip, as if you were holding a cup.

The strap should be resting on the back of your hand rather than around your wrist. This is more stable and allows you to push down on the pole where necessary.

It also lets the pole drop from your hand in case you fall. When you put your hands down to protect you, the poles will be out of the way. If the straps kept the poles in your palms, you’re likely to hurt your hands when you land.

Alternating Poling

Your pole movement needs to be in sync with your steps. For alternating poling, every time your right foot lands, your left pole should land with it, helping to push you off.

Vice versa, on every left footfall, your right pole will land with it. However, this is easier when walking or jogging lightly or on very steep terrain.

Offset Pole or Skip Double Pole

When running faster, you might find it uncomfortable to land your pole on every step. In this case, you can allow a few steps between each pole landing. Try to plant your pole every 2 or 3 steps. You should practice this for a while before you use it in a race.

Double Pole Plant

For maximum power, use a double pole plant. As it sounds, this is when you plant both poles in the ground together and use them to propel you forward. It’s common when going fast up an incline to help you get to the top as quickly as possible.

Tips for Using Poles for Trail Running

Ready to start maximizing your performance with the help of a good set of poles for trail running and ultras? Follow these tips!

Choose the Right Poles for You

The lighter the poles, the more expensive, in many cases. However, you want to get the lightest pair you can afford because you have to carry them with you, even when stowed. Foldable poles are highly advised.

Stand the pole on the ground and grab it, keeping your elbow at your side. Your elbow should be bent at around 90 degrees. If you can’t find the perfect size, choose one slightly taller than you need.

Start With Shorter Runs

Don’t head out for hours for your first pole run. Start with a shorter run so you can get used to having them with you. Don’t just practice using them, but get used to folding them up mid-run and storing them in your pack.

Practice Using Them

Yes, you need to practice with your poles! Work with them for at least a month before taking them to races with you. Expect to feel some soreness in your upper body as you build up your strength and stamina in your arm muscles!

Plant Poles Mindfully

Watch where you land your poles. You’ll have to do this on the go, but try to avoid other runners’ feet or gaps where your pole could get stuck or broken. Also, try not to land it on your own feet accidentally… It happens!

Store Poles Quickly

You won’t need your poles for every minute of every race. Practice folding and stowing them quickly, as well as unfolding them. Decide beforehand where you’re going to store your poles as well. Some running vests have space, or you can carry them for shorter races.

Be Mindful of Others

The carbide tips of trail running poles can be dangerous! Be mindful of others around you, and try not to poke anyone with the sharp tip accidentally.

Also, be careful not to trip nearby runners as you wave your poles around. Make sure you’ve got a good handle on them before you use them in situations where you’re expected to be in a crowd with other runners!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.