Running with poles is as it sounds, running with poles. The thing is, to get the best out of them, you need to think about 3 major things and these are; forward propulsion, cadence and fluidity of travel.
Running with poles should be using trail running poles to propel yourself and support your frame throughout a run or a race in order to get a more efficient movement pattern over your given distance, but more often than not it is ‘trail sticks’ being carried and not offering much assistance.
Efficient and good pole use should look something akin to a good cross country skier, where all thought and intent is going into forward movement. As ultra runners, that's exactly what we need to think like when we pick up a pair of trail poles. We need to think of them as an aid to forward propulsion, better race results and an extension to our body. They need to become part of us, so when we are practised and understand the art of pole use, we cease to think about how to use them and the movement becomes a natural part of your running.
This for me, is what ‘Running with Poles’ is all about. It makes absolutely no sense to use poles, carry them throughout your race and not use them effectively.
We all accepted learning to drive as a good idea, as it involves a multiple skill set to be happening all at the same time and whilst not as dangerous or quite as complex, pole use is quite a number of different things happening all at the same time and timing needs to be spot on to even get going in an efficient manner, let alone perfect the art.
Who is it for?
Ultra runners, of all ages, shapes and sizes. Everyone can benefit from it, from the elites at the front of the races to the last finisher and everyone in-between. There are many benefits to gain and nothing to lose out on. With poles you turn the human frame into a 4 legged creature, toning the whole body and using it as one to gain forward motion.
Why do you need them?
You don’t need them do you. I don’t need them either. None of us NEED them, but they are pretty useful on long distance races and adventures.
The reason why I use them and why I feel they are very helpful on long ultras and mountain days is because they support the frame of the body, saving energy haemorrhaging through bad posture, allowing the runner to stay stronger for longer. We all know the ‘end of race-ultra runner’, we might well have been that runner in the past. I certainly have, where we finish all bent over like an old person with a damaged back. The amount of energy wasted in that ultra-shuffle position is huge. When we use poles, effectively and efficiently we help the frame, torso and upper body to stay strong, removing valuable weight from the legs. Training with and racing with trail poles helps build the muscle structure of the upper body, tighten the core and generally improve upper body strength and fitness.
Can you use them in all races?
Whilst trail poles are welcome in the ultra world, if you turned up at a fell race then you would be very much frowned upon with the use of poles. It's just not in that culture. It would be the same in a road marathon or a 10k, it's just not necessary, however the longer your race, the more likely it is accepted that the use of poles is fine. As a general rule a 50km plus race, whether low level trail or high mountain is sort of the opening to the use of trail poles, but do make sure you check with the races specific rules and regs. For example, in either the Rab Pinnacle Ridge Extreme or GlenCoe Skyline, the use of poles on the climbing sections are prohibited, in-fact some races in Scotland are not allowing the use of poles in certain areas due to the local nature authorities restricting the use of them, as they are damaging the trails. Check ahead on the race websites to find out if there are any restrictions before you decide to train with and then take poles.
Efficiency and Style
There is definitely a point when using poles for running, you will tip the scales where it will become inefficient. It's exactly the same as running up a hill, in the hills case it all depends on the gradient of the hill. In the poles case, it largely depends on how effective you are at using them and the frequency you strike the ground with them.
There is a technique called Nordic Running and this is something we teach at the end of our courses. It is akin to nordic walking, but has no place in ultra distance running as far as I am concerned. Nordic Running is a great training aid and can intensify a shorter run to feel and train much more like a longer or faster run, due to using all limbs and elevating the heart rate and breathing to a higher level for less perceived effort. This however, is not efficient over distance.
The efficient way to use poles for running and getting maximum efficiency balanced against forward propulsion is to do what I call, ‘Running with Poles’.
The use of poles removes up to 30% off the feet, ankles, legs and hips according to studies done on Nordic Walking. The Europeans use poles because of this reason and if used correctly, these gains can be made. In my opinion, any weight taken off the legs throughout your run or race is only going to keep your legs stronger/less tired for later in the run or race.
Style is so important. It's no good picking up poles and just running with them, whilst I’m sure most can master it in some way, there are likely to be many bad and unnecessary habits picked up and formed. It of course is possible to just run with them and you may well get it right if you just think logically on how things work bio-mechanically and then apply this to their use and your forward propulsion.
We find the most important factors in style are planting the poles at 45º, moving from the shoulder and working at half the speed in the upper body cadence in comparison to the cadence of the lower body/feet.
Posture is also very important, making sure at all times that you stand tall, leading from the chest and not the head.
Knowing when to walk and when to run are also essential parts to the whole. You never run a whole ultra, well certainly in the Lakes you don’t. Using the Lakeland 100 as an example, no one is running the whole of it and therefore, a good strong Nordic Walk is an essential part of the tool kit. Then knowing when to start running with your poles is another massively important factor. Nordic Walking strongly and with purpose up a gentle slope is much better then running with poles and over-doing it all. Remember, even the elites are walking some sections and when they do, they use poles their poles very effectively to get all the marginal gains possible.
Pole Etiquette & The Stigma:
The stigma of running with poles seems to be softening in the UK, we seem to be more accepting of poles, with a huge amount of the ultra world now using them, it's becoming much more normal.
Pole Etiquette [The do’s and don'ts];
- Don’t use your poles in a busy starting pen, you are only going to incite a riot.
- Don’t stay clipped in/hands in straps when approaching gates and styles, make sure you have your poles in one hand and know where the tips/spikes are
- Don’t run with your poles, wheeling them around the outside of your personal space like a crazed lunatic. This will also incite a riot.
- Don’t use them to trip up other competitors, you will not make friends doing this.
- Do be conscious about where you are planting them when other runners are with you, passing you.
- Do think about other runners around you, if you are using poles.
- Do fold and stow them away when required to in a race
- Do use them efficiently and with style
- Do book a course with someone who knows what they are doing, as this can be a great help to keep a good handle on your new trail poles.
If you cannot find anyone to teach you about ‘running with poles’, then go and find a Nordic Walking instructor and get those skills, that will pay dividends in itself.
Nordic Walking and Nordic Running came from Finland and the Nordic countries. Used as a fitness training technique in the summer by XC skiers and coaches and adopted then as a fitness regime and lifestyle for city dwelling folk. Seen in the UK, at first, as an old or less able persons fitness regime, hopefully now earning its rightful place as one of the best activities to train with minimal load bearing on the lower limbs.
Unlike our European cousins, skiing has not really been a massive part of our culture as we do not get stable winters anymore. We are just not used to athlete’s using poles, but times are changing and they are less being seen as ‘cheat sticks’.
How to do it;
Nordic Walking: This is the art of using trail poles in your hands and operating the opposite arm/opposite leg, so when the foot is planted and stride enacted, the opposite arm has driven the bottom of the trail pole into the ground to facilitate forward motion. Sounds pretty simple but coordination can be a problem. We teach that the arm should be straight and the drive should come from the shoulder, the pole is planted behind the front foot and at an angle of roughly 45º.
Running with poles: This is the art of splitting the upper and lower body cadence, where the feet travel 4 footsteps to 2 pole plants. The arms need to be bent, as we do not run around like zombies with outstretched arms, but the drive still needs to come from the shoulder, with the tricep now becoming much more active. Again the pole is planted behind the lead foot and at roughly 45º, therefore the body is instantly propelled forwards when pressure is applied.
Coordination is key in Nordic Walking and cadence is key in Running with Poles. Do not Nordic Run, using the opposite arm and opposite leg, unless in training, as this will burn massive amounts of energy. We are looking for total efficiency.
There is much to learn about Nordic Walking and Running with Poles once the correct coordination and cadence is established. It’s not something that can be easily given in a short article, but hopefully this offers some ideas as to why you would want to use trail poles in your next ultra and some idea of how it is achieved. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts, you need to learn how to use them and you then need to train with them so you are upper body fit and strong come race day. Weekly use will ensure you get the best out of them and you are as fluid as possible.
If there are only 2 things you can get right, then planting the poles at 45º and driving from the shoulder will serve you well.