Trail running poles

I use poles in my trail running races and I think that they are beneficial. I didn't come from a cross-country skiing or a hiking background so it took some time for me to be convinced that I need them and to acquire the skills to use poles effectively. I've read plenty of reviews and articles on how best to use poles and I've tested different techniques and different types of poles for years. As my skills have increased I feel more confident and I'm certain that using poles helps me. It's important to consider the entire race, all the conditions, and all the skills a runner needs to use poles effectively and that's what I'd like to explore here.

In October, over the course of four blog posts Jason Koop from Carmichael Training Systems explained the use of poles in trail running. Koop clearly outlined the scientific evidence for using poles, what type of poles to use, and showed different techniques for using poles. I highly recommend reading all four of the blog posts:

One of the key points in the first blog post was about balancing the cost of carrying poles against the benefit of using them. Koop estimates that the weight cost of the poles may be 2-4% and the nuisance factor of stowing and deploying them may be 2-3% for a total cost of 4-7%. He discusses whether or not this trade-off is valuable. I agree with his perspective and again suggest reading the posts to make your own informed decision.

What I'd like to dig into a little deeper is the 4-7% cost of using the poles and work through some detailed consideration of whether or not that can be reduced.


Weight of the poles

The weight of the poles is a key consideration in deciding whether or not to use them. When the poles are in use they are held in the hand which is at the end of a long lever and therefore more costly than if they are stowed and closer to the centre of mass. Of course when in use the poles are providing the benefit of being used while in the stowed position they are just a dead weight. In both of these scenarios it's important to reduce the weight of the poles as much as possible.

It's not as easy as just buying the lightest poles possible because any set of poles that has a reduced weight comes with some sort of compromise. Fixed length, non-folding poles are lighter than folding poles because there is no need for a folding mechanism. These folding mechanisms include overlaying (or doubled up) sections of the poles, re-enforcement at the joint, and an internal cord or cable to extend and lock the poles. However, poles that don't fold are harder to stow and more difficult to travel with. Folding poles are more convenient despite their weight compromise. When manufacturers try to reduce the weight of folding poles there are further compromises to be made: the stiffness of the pole is reduced and the security of the locking mechanism may be reduced.

Each runner and each scenario needs to be considered to determine which poles are optimal. For short vertical kilometer races a fixed length non-folding pole is the best option because these poles are the lightest, the stiffest and they will be in use for the entire duration of the race. For longer races when the poles need to be stowed then fixed-length, folding poles may be the best option. However, some runners are very comfortable with their poles deployed for the entire duration of the race (using them on ascents and descents) and they value stiffness so fixed-length non-foldable poles may work well for them. Carefully consider the conditions and your skills before deciding on what's optimal.

Another consideration with respect to weight is the hand strap on the pole. The lightest option is no strap, but this leaves the runner holding the pole and using grip strength rather than relying on a strap. Next, a fixed length of strap with no adjustment is very light but may not provide the right fit for every runner. A heavier option would be a glove style that can be detached from the pole and which stays on the hand whether or not the pole is being used (like a Leki or TSL-style glove). The hand glove style is the most comfortable, the most secure and sturdy, but also the heaviest. All of these styles also need to be considered in how quickly they can be stowed and deployed - more on that below.

Here are a number of different sets of poles to consider under the two categories I recommend.


Fixed-length, non-folding poles

All weights are for a single pole.

  • Masters Sassolungo: 12mm diameter poles, lengths from 105cm to 135cm, weight of 84g in 115cm model. Very light, sturdy pole with basic grip and straps. The strap can be easily removed for use with no straps.
  • Leki Vertical K: lengths from 110cm to 140cm, weight of 135g in 120cm model. Very strong and sturdy pole. Leki triggershark detachable hand grip option.
  • Gipron 309 V-Race Carbon: lengths from 105cm to 130cm, weight of 80g in 120cm model. Very light pole with basic grip and strap. Strap is not easily removed (appears to need to be cut off if you want that option).
  • TSL Addict Trail Carbon 1 Grip Slim: lengths from 100cm to 130cm, weight of 154g in 115cm model. Sturdy pole using the TSL magnetic strap detachable strap option. Relatively heavy for a fixed length pole.

Fixed-length, folding poles

All weights are for a single pole.

  • Masters Trecime Fixed Carbon: 12-14mm diameter, 4 sections, lengths from 110cm to 130cm, weight of 151g in 100cm model. A good pole with well considered compromises between weight and stiffness. A simple strap.
  • Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z: 4 sections, lengths from 100cm to 130cm, weight of 149g in 120cm model. Another good pole with well considered compromises between weight and stiffness. A simple strap.
  • Leki Micro Trail Race: 4 sections, lengths from 110cm to 135cm, weight of 175 in 120cm model. A stiff pole with excellent joints in between the foldable sections. This pole is the sturdiest and most reliable folding pole listed here. It uses the Leki triggershark detachable hand grip.
  • Gipron 310 Mont Blanc Carbon 4: 4 sections, lengths from 105cm to 130cm, weight of 110g in 120cm model. A very light foldable pole. May be less stiff and less durable than other options in the list.

Stowing and deploying poles

There are two important components to how quickly and how easily poles can be stowed and deployed. The first is getting the poles out of the pack or waist belt and into your hands. The second is how quickly you can get the right grip and set up to use the poles based on the straps. Together these factors represent the potential 2-4% time cost that Koop mentioned.


Factors to consider for stowing poles

How you use poles will depend on a number of factors. However, there are always times when a runner won't be using poles and this is when they need to be stowed. Of course it is possible to just run with the poles in your hands, but this places the weight at the end of a fulcrum and therefore creates the largest metabolic cost. The goal of carrying poles when they're not in use requires achieving a balance between having quick and easy access to them, yet at the same time having the poles secure enough that they won't be dropped or bounce around too much. Many runners only use their poles on ascents and then stow them for descents which is when the possibility of issues with an insecure method of retaining poles is greatest.

A number of factors need to be considered when finding a way to stow poles. I would suggest answering each of these questions as you make your decision on how to stow your poles.

  1. Are the poles being stowed horizontally or vertically? In my experience poles that are stored vertically seem to be more secure and bounce less. They also don't stick out wider than the width of the body where horizontal poles may brush against the arms and affect arm motion.
  2. Are the poles secured with an elastic or a fixed cord? An elastic cord is often faster and easier to stow and deploy the poles, however, it also allows for greater bouncing and movement as the elastic can stretch with each stride.
  3. Are the poles stored within or partially within a pack? This is often the most secure method as the poles won't fall out or slip through an elastic cord or a strap. While it is often possible to deploy poles that are partially stowed within a pack without removing the pack, they often require removing the pack to put them back in.
  4. Can you access the poles and stow them without removing the pack or waist belt? Stowing and deploying poles is a skill that needs to be practiced in similar conditions to what you'll face during the race. Stowing poles usually happens after a big climb as the runner starts to descend and is already moving faster.
  5. What impact will changing clothing have on how you stow poles? If you plan on putting your rain jacket on over the pack does that mean you no longer have access to your pole storage?
  6. Where will the hand straps from the poles be while the poles are stowed? You don't want the straps to be hanging loose where they may catch onto anything or where they may irritate you.

Each runner needs to work through these questions and prioritise which factors are most important for them in order to make the best decision. For me, the most important factor is that there is no bounce. I need the poles to be secure so I'm not worried about them. I also want there to be no straps bouncing against my body to irritate me. This means I tend to chose means of stowing poles that are more secure with the compromise being on slightly reduced accessibility.


Ways of stowing poles

Here are various ways of stowing poles with their advantages and disadvantages. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas.

Storing the poles partially or completely within a pack. Two examples of how this could work are shown with a Raidlight Responsiv 3l pack and a Salomon S-Lab 5l pack. The advantages of this method is that the poles are very secure, they do not bounce much when the pack is full, and they cannot fall out the bottom of the pack. The disadvantages are that the poles take up some of the capacity of the pack and they may be difficult to place back in the pack (especially how they're shown in Raidlight picture).


Storing the poles outside the pack on the back of the pack. The two examples here are using the outside straps of the Raidlight Responsiv 3l pack and the elastic straps on an Ultraspire Momentum pack. The advantages of this method are that the poles do not take up space inside the pack, in the case of the Raidlight pack the poles are vertical which seems to bounce less, and in the case of the Ultraspire pack the poles are accessible on the run. The disadvantages are that for that for the Raidlight pack it has to be removed to stow the poles, and for the Ultraspire pack the elastic bands are not as secure and the poles may bounce up and down or may swing back-and-forth against the back.


Stowing the poles on the front of the pack. Here the two options are on the front of the Raidlight Responsive 3l and on the front of the WAA Ultrabag 3l. The advantages of having the poles on the front are that they are easily accessible and that they are not taking up storage space in the pack. The disadvantages are that the for the Raidlight option the poles sit on top of the soft flasks so they move more when the soft flasks are empty, and for the WAA pack the poles may not be comfortable for some runners under the arms. I'm not sure about carrying poles on the front, especially in the WAA method, as I feel nervous that if I fall and land badly the poles are pointing upwards at my face. It may not be an issue, but it makes me feel uncomfortable so I don't use this method.


Storing the poles in a quiver. In this example I have attached a Salomon quiver to a Raidlight Responsiv 10l pack. The advantages of this method are that the poles are very easy to stow and deploy, that they are secure and if you attach the quiver well they do not bounce at all, and the poles do not take up space inside the pack. The disadvantages are that it may take some sewing and adapting to get the quiver to fit the pack, and the quiver adds weight to the pack. I like this method a lot and have used it successfully in multiple races in 2019.


Another method of carrying poles which I have not included here is using a waist belt. Many runners like this method because the poles are easy to access and they are kept separately from the pack and other material. You can see some examples by looking at the Instagram accounts of Jordi Gamito and Pau Capell. I don't use this method because I don't like to have any pressure on my stomach or waist and I have not been able to find a comfortable solution that does not bounce for me.

UPDATE: thanks to the guys from TrailrunningHD for commenting below and providing a link to their excellent article on using poles. They did an amazing job of reviewing what the pro's used during UTMB in 2017. It's in German which may be why I didn't see the post, however, it's definitely worth reading and seeing even more options for using poles. I highly recommend reading their post: GEAR TALK: Wohin mit den Stöcken?.


Different strap options for poles

The strap is an integral component of the pole. It forms part of how the pole is held and how much leverage a runner can use to propel themselves forward. There are different options for straps depending on the type of pole.

  • no strap - removing the strap saves on weight and allows the user to have a clean and simple set-up. It is faster and easier to stow and deploy the pole and on rolling terrain it's easy to use the pole, carry it over runnable sections, and then use the pole again. The pole can also be held in different positions along the grip. The downside is that there is not as much leverage and the user has to hold the pole tightly.
  • simple straps - these types of straps are the most common. They allow for good leverage, they are not too complicated and the weight is usually in between no straps and glove style straps. These can be a little more tricky to stow and the straps may bounce around while the poles are stowed.
  • detachable straps - these straps are also becoming more common. The strap is similar to a glove and remains on the runner's hand for the duration of the race while a detachment system allows for the strap and pole to be disconnected. The advantages are that the straps are very comfortable, that the ability to push hard on the pole is optimised and the detachment and re-attachment is usually quick and easy. The disadvantages are the weight of the strap, potential issues with the attachment mechanism, and finally that there is more coverage of the hand which may be uncomfortable in hot conditions.

Here are some examples of different pole straps.


From left to right.

  • The Scott RC 3-part running pole which I have removed the strap from. I have also taped on some grip tape to provide additional grip which makes the poles very easy to hold and stops any slippage. This is an example of a pole with no strap and as it has a long section of foam grip it is very versatile to hold it in multiple different positions.
  • The second pole is the Masters Sassolungo which has a very light and simple strap without any adjustment. This is a simple and light solution for a strap.
  • The third pole is the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z which also has a simple hand strap, this time with the ability to adjust it. This strap is bulkier than the Masters pole and weighs more.
  • The last two pictures are of the Leki Micro Trail Pro, one with the hand-glove style strap detached and the other with the strap attached. The hand-glove style strap remains on the runners hand for the duration of the race and the runner detaches and reattaches the pole as needed.

Depending on the race and the runner's level of practice will determine which hand strap option is ideal. For mountain races that have lots of variations in gradient, alternating between rolling terrain, steep climbs, and climbs that have both hiking and running sections I prefer to use no straps. I find this option allows me to vary how I use the poles in terms of where I hold them and it feels faster for me to shift back and forth between running and hiking. However, for much longer races, then I prefer to use detachable straps as they are more comfortable and allow for plenty of leverage and power transfer on long climbs.


Conclusion

There is a cost to using poles and that needs to be carefully considered in contrast to the benefit of using them. However, the size of that cost can be reduced and optimized so that the cost-benefit relationship emphasizes the benefit. The weight and means of stowing poles is dependent on a number of factors including personal preference, requirement of the race route, and other equipment (pack, belt, etc.) that the runner plans to use. However, the 4-7% cost that is mentioned in the introduction can be reduced, perhaps to even lower than 4%.

It is also very important to consider that more than one set of poles may be used over the course of a race. In longer races a runner may favor a foldable pole for the first part of the race where they're running more and then a fixed length pole that is stiffer and lighter for the second part where they will have their poles deployed more. On very tough terrain a fixed length pole may offer a mental advantage due to more security and a reduced risk of breakage. Some races require runners to carry their poles for the entire duration, but some do not and that provides more choice.

I believe that poles are an advantage for many runners over most mountain courses and I would definitely recommend using them. I also suggest having different poles for different conditions. While poles may seem expensive, they're often cheaper or the same price as a pair of shoes and they definitely last much longer. Try to consider all the factors I've mentioned above when making decisions about your poles and you will be prepared to race well.