Experience From - David Richards#1 , Jay Hodde , Matt Mahoney#1 , David Richards#2 , Matt Mahoney#2 , Hugh Danaceau , Steve Simmons , Celia , Doug McKeever , Jeff Bristow ,
I've been in the "lurking" mode for a long time, but I have some experience with poles and thought I'd take the risk of offering an opinion on that issue.
I've used a single telescopic walking pole in numerous ultra events and find it clearly enhances my ability to climb hills and maintain my balance in some rough terrain. I always ask the race director (RD) beforehand whether or not the use of poles is "legal" in his/her race. I've never encountered an event in which they were banned (albeit I understand that they are illegal at Western States, Angles Crest and some other races).
Most race directors (and other runners that I encounter) seem highly skeptical of the benefit of poles. Thus I've never been accused of having an unfair advantage. In fact they generally seem to think I'm stupid to use a pole, or at best are highly amused by it. While I believe a pole clearly helps me during ascents, particularly very steep and rugged climbs, it is of limited value on descents and of no value on flats. Given that I have to carry the pole on the down hills and the flats, having a pole can even be a clear disadvantage on those segments of a course. Its not so much the weight of the pole (mine is relatively light weight) as having to juggle the pole along with water bottles, flashlights, etc., and keeping track of it in aid stations when I'm bonked (it cost about $70, so I'm not inclined to leave it behind like a cheap flashlight).
Since I'm very much a back of the pack runner, other runners never seemed threatened by my use of the pole. While I would enter the same races without a pole, I'm a flat lander (Houston) with rather bad knees and using a pole makes running events like Leadville and Vermont more feasible for me. If poles were banned in these events, I would run them anyway, but I know they help me climb those hills and mountains for which I've had almost no training. My legs really do feel better after events in which I used a pole, so my recovery time is reduced and I can run another race that much sooner.
Determining whether or not using a pole is unfair seems to me to fall into the same category as debating the fairness of pacers, "mules," cutoff times, some food supplements, and perhaps even the use of fanny packs. They all "aid" the runner in some fashion, so where do you draw the line? Perhaps poles are particularly abhorrent to some runners because they presumably supplement the runner's legs. The legs, of course, are the essence of "running."
But for weighing the relative advantage of a pole versus a crew, I can tell you that I carried my pole the entire length of last month's Vermont 100 while running entirely without crew or pacer. And I can assure you that I would have traded that pole for a crew or a pacer any day.
For the sake of argument (and I'm sure I'll get some of that), I passed up several Vermont runners around dusk that were not carrying flashlights because they were running slower than planned and had not reached the drop bags containing their lights. They were now slowed by diminishing visibility of the trail footing. I had been more conservative in my strategy and had elected to carry a flashlight for over an hour before dark just so I'd have it in hand if dusk arrived before my next drop bag. Having a flashlight at that point was clearly an advantage. But flashlights are legal aids and the other runners had chosen to take a chance by running without lights at that point on the trail. I had a technological advantage over them, but I also had to carry the weight of my flashlight for over hour in daylight to have that advantage in the twilight hour. Where's the difference?
So, in summary, my feeling on poles is that they offer some benefits to those not trained on hills or to runners with particular physical problems. There is also a downside to carrying the pole. So I'm not sure what the "net" advantage really is, i.e., it may vary greatly depending on the terrain of a particular course and how long the runner actually carries the pole. Whatever the advantage may be, it is not unlike the advantage of having a crew, pacer, or some of the other items I noted above. If a race allows the use of poles, it's just a part of the mix of rules and terrain for that particular race that makes it different from any other race. But if the running community ever reaches a consensus to ban the use of poles for otherwise healthy runners (whatever that may be) I'd still enter all of the same races, but probably do even worse (if that's possible) in the mountainous ones.
I opt to carry and use a pole at some events, and I agree that other runners seem very skeptical of their benefit. So am I, in some areas.
I am a strong climber, and, unlike David, find that the pole helps me more on the descents than anywhere else (except Swamp-Grant at Hardrock, where I used it to help climb scree). I'm from Indiana, the north-central part of the state, where our hills are highway overpasses and we pass the time listening to corn grow. There isn't much opportunity to practice downhill running.
I use the pole sparingly to steady myself on steep down hills and help me balance. I consider it more a safety aid than a locomotion aid.
"Those segments of a course. Its not so much the weight of the pole (mine is relatively light weight) as having to juggle the pole along with water bottles, flashlights, etc., and keeping track of it in aid stations when I'm bonked (it cost about $70, so I'm not inclined to leave it behind like a cheap flashlight)."I chuckle here because it reminds me of the last river crossing at Hardrock this year -- the Mineral Creek crossing (mid thigh deep on me). Anyway, it's 2:30 a.m. and I'm alone in the dark with my pacer trying to cross this river. I put my pole on the ground to prepare for the crossing.
I take my warm clothes off (both the coat and the pants) and tie them around my neck. Waist belt gets clipped around the neck. Flashlight goes in the pack. I bend over to get the pole and everything falls off . . . take two.
"Where's the difference?"Between a pole and a light?? I'm opting not to touch this one, as I feel the difference is obvious, in terms of assistance. If you consider safety issues, however, they become more similar.
I am a big fan of trekking [hiking] poles although I only use one telescoping pole while "running." I collapse the pole and hold it in my left hand as I run, then quickly expand it and is it walking. It helps tremendously get my upper body into the workout.
I've used a pole at Barkley on the really steep (35-45 degree) climbs like Hell and Rat Jaw. It helps in places where your feet could slip downhill and there are no trees or rocks to hold on to. I just look for a tree branch at the bottom and discard it at the top. I wouldn't want to carry a pole the rest of the time. A pole might also be useful on a steep snowfield (Hardrock) because you could use it as an ice axe, but I don't regret not using one.
I don't consider a pole "cheating" if the rules allow it. Assuming you don't slip, the amount of energy needed to ascend a hill is exactly the same with or without a pole -- weight times elevation gain. That is just physics.
Rod Dalitz wrote:
"My understanding in mountaineering terms is that poles are particularly helpful on descents, since if you are tired you can go uphill a gentle step at a time, but downhill you fall onto your next foot placement and give your legs a jolt. The more tired you are, the worse it gets. This sounds to me equally true of a long mountain walk with rucksack, and an ultra run. On the flat, with poor footing such as in snow, the poles help to balance >without sudden foot movements. That would leave climbing uphill as the time when poles are least helpful!"I agree with the comments about the downhill benefits of the pole. although I didn't clearly state it, my original post was focused more on the issue of speed on the up hills in response to the earlier post from another Lister. however, I've found that using the pole as a shock absorber on steep down hills can greatly reduce the stress on my quads. while that doesn't seem to increase my speed on those steep down hills, I suppose it pays dividends in the later stages of a race in terms of fresher legs. the balancing/safety benefits on both down hills and flats are also very important, especially when the runner is weary.
I seem to have an unfortunate tendency to overuse the pole on down hills that don't really merit its use for either balance or braking, i.e., on terrain where I should be running uninhibited. if I have the pole in hand I often fall into an unconscious rhythm of touching the pole to the ground, with the unintended consequence of slowing myself needlessly.
If speed is the issue, then I still differ with you on the benefit for up hills. using a pole is akin to having a third leg insofar as being able to transfer some of your upper body strength directly into the climbing effort. you can either use the pole to increase climbing speed or effectively reduce the workload on your legs while maintaining the same pace as without the pole.
At least that's how its worked for me. my apologies in advance to any biomechanics-types offended by the "third leg" analogy.
"I seem to have an unfortunate tendency to overuse the pole on down hills that don't really merit its use for either balance or braking, i.e., on terrain where I should be running uninhibited. if I have the pole in hand I often fall into an unconscious rhythm of touching the pole to the ground, with the unintended consequence of slowing myself needlessly."You can eliminate this temptation by using a collapsible pole, and by collapsing it when you want to run. It also makes carrying it generally easier, in my experience.
Beginning at age 60 it became more difficult to keep balance on rough trails with rocks and roots. At age 64 there was a terrible fall down a hill at Punxsutawney resulting in cracked ribs, smashed face and a cracked head.
A couple of years later, by chance, I picked up a stick in the woods to ward off unleashed loose dogs. It was also by chance that I tripped and the stick (pole) caught me and prevented a fall.
Since then I never go on a rough trail with rocks and roots without a pole or a cane. I have come to prefer the cane.
The pole or cane do not aid forward motion or going up hill. They are fabulous aids in keeping balance when going downhill or when turning an ankle or tripping.
At age 69 now, I have found no increase in speed but a decided decrease in falling injuries.
"The pole or cane do not aid forward motion or going up hill."I disagree with this.
"Assuming you don't slip, the amount of energy needed to ascend a hill is exactly the same with or without a pole -- weight times elevation gain. That is just physics."I agree with this technically. But, as it applies to climbing speed, if you have an aid that enables you to use upper body strength, as you would when you push off with the aids, then some of the effort is transferred from the legs to the upper body, preserving leg strength. With more leg strength comes longer strides, faster pace, and less pauses while climbing.
After talking with some other Listers directly, I learned that using poles is an acquired skill, and those who are familiar with them know how to use them for lots of purposes to great advantage.
It's also interesting to note that those with a lot of experience and knowledge about them mostly come from or have spent a lot of time in high altitude mountain ranges. As did the individual who passed me with ease at HR.
Anyone who thinks that the proper use of poles doesn't aid in climbing speed hasn't watched an experienced mountaineer climb with them.
Does anyone know anything about trekking poles that can be used for trail running, that telescope to about the size of a flashlight (e.g., do they exist, how can you purchase them, how much, and do they work)? John Prohira mentioned to me that he had seen someone using one during an ultra. Also, any thoughts on the merits and feasibility of running a not-too-technical, rolling trail ultra using telescoping trekking poles for the (many) uphills? (This would be because I am having back problems, not in the hopes of a faster finish.)
I use a trekking pole when humping a giant pack up a mountain (such as to Rainier high camp). It helps with my balance in my teetering old age. Also, two poles with baskets removed can possibly help you run down steep technical downhills (but beware of falling and becoming shish kebob). I thought about using poles for Iditasport (100 miles on snow) to help in hauling my sled, and even though it is within the rules, I experimented and found that my pace was slower with the poles than without, since arm tempo helps determine leg turnover. With poles it is harder to keep the arms moving at a good tempo....slow arms, slow feet (at least for me).
However, poles, or even one pole, can help with ascending steep snow or rocky slopes, such as found at Hardrock and a handful of other races, but are not too useful for stopping a fall without a self arrest grip (and that makes the pole not only heavier but much deadlier).
As far as specific models, numerous brands have 3 section units which telescope down to about 18 inches long. I prefer the brand which has a "flicklock" arrangement for adjusting and tightening the sections, rather than the twist-type adjusters.
For your specific question about poles for a rolling course to aid you with back problems, they could help. Borrow or rent some if possible and experiment.
Some races specifically do not allow aids such as poles or ice axes, etc. so ask first.
My overall opinion is that poles are not worth it in trail running. For some hiking and mountaineering, that's a different story. And for specific needs such as for people with lower back pain, maybe?
A friend of mine just returned from a week of running and hiking in Yosemite (CA). He ran and hiked with a family friend who has an European skiing and hiking background.
My friend was very impressed with the off road speed his friend could generate by using the collapsible poles you mention. Apparently on a downhill trail, the poles are used to provide balance in what becomes a long looping stride - combination hop and step - I gather. At any rate, I have only used poles during hiking but will someday try poles and trail running to see how it works out.