Running with poles is a great way to make you a more efficient runner. It spreads the load among different muscles and joints so you can push faster and for longer.
But it is not as easy as buying some poles and suddenly you’ll be as quick as Kilian Jornet. There are techniques to get the most out of your poles.
Practice makes perfect
First things first, make sure you use your poles regularly before a race. For any gear, race day should not be the first time you use them.
As you spread the load to your shoulders, you need to strengthen them so they do not get tired or injured. Also, training with poles will let you know if there are any issues – do you blister easily ? Do you prefer them for a certain terrain over another? Perhaps you like to shorten them for the uphills and lengthen them for the descents?
Even if you are not using the poles when training, fold them up and carry them during the session. You will get used to the extra weight and allow you to adjust to the feeling of them in or on your bag, changing their position for comfort.
Many runners make the mistake of putting their hands through the straps the wrong way. Put your hands up through the straps, not down. Then you can grip the handle, with the webbing between your thumb and finger pressed against the strap. This will spread the load and allow you to more effectively drive off the ground as you push forward, without gripping the handle too tightly.
One for one
The most intuitive pole technique is to plant your pole as you plant your opposite foot – left, right, left, right. It is easy to get into a rhythm and good for running or gradual inclines.
The double drive
When you encounter particularly steep terrain, you may prefer the double drive to add power to your pole push. Reach both your hands forward at once, plant both poles ahead of you at the same time and push with your arms as you step forward.
You will probably end up taking two or three steps per pole plant and be able to propel yourself uphill with the aid of your upper body.
For a more flow-like use when you are running, plant your poles alternatively – left, right, left, right – but touch one down just a fraction of a second after the other, rather than in time with your single steps. You will push your pole down every three steps, but each side is not on the same three-step cycle. It has been described as a “gallop”.
With this technique your body feels more in flow as you plant your poles. And at least one pole is almost always in contact with the ground as you stride forward.
Be flexible downhill
Using poles for downhills is a great way to relieve the pressure on your joints and make you go faster. But there is not a set pattern for uneven, downhill terrain. So do not get frustrated trying to match your step or plant your poles regularly.
Some people like to extend their poles and make them longer for the downhill sections so you can plant them in front of you without leaning forward.
Plant them alternatively as you run down, wherever you see fit. If you are coordinated enough, and looking ahead of you, you can double plant your poles and perform a pole vault-like move to jump over particular rocks or features.
Be careful and considerate
Trail races can be busy places, so make sure you are careful with your poles and do not injure or annoy anyone. On steep terrain, bear in mind that the person behind you is in line with where you are planting poles, so if you push and it skids out backwards it may stab them in the face. Some races even ban poles for this very reason.
If you are not using your poles, but are holding them by your side, be aware of the same issue as they my be poking the person behind.
When they are in your bag, make sure they are tucked away properly. If they are sticking out, or strapped to the bottom and parallel to the ground, they may make you a few inches wider so you end up poking someone as you overtake, a bit like the knives on the chariots in Ben-Hur.