Trail Running With Poles: Here’s What To Know

Running poles have the potential to take your running to the next level—but only if you learn their secrets

Photo: Getty Images

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For the most part, trail running doesn’t require much overhead. The sport’s simplicity is a huge part of the allure. Just pull on your shorts, lace up your shoes, glug some water, and go. Throw in a quick dynamic warmup for bonus points. 

As the outdoor adventure lifestyle has grown in popularity, so has the market for gear to go along with it. There’s a lot of superfluous stuff out there that threatens to take away from the simplicity of running. Most of that gear won’t make or break your run. But there’s one “extra” item that mountain runners would do well to include in their assemblage: running-specific trekking poles.

They have been a staple of the European ultrarunning scene for years, but only recently became more common at U.S. races and more prevalent among American runners competing in international events. The primary benefits are that they can be a propulsive aid while running and power-hiking up steep ascents while lessening the downward impact on a runner’s body and acting as a stabilization tool during steep descents.

Running with poles can be tricky and downright dangerous, which is why some practice to build familiarity and terrain-specific skills is crucial. It’s not quite the same as shoving an emergency shell in the kangaroo pocket of your pack. Those pointy tips can cause some serious damage if not wielded responsibly. Just ask ultrarunner Gabe Joyes, who suffered an arterial bleed after impaling himself with a pole during a remote trail run in the middle of Wyoming’s Sinks Canyon. 

That’s not to say that poles do more harm than good for runners. Far from it. With the right understanding of how to use them to your advantage rather than your demise, poles can elevate your entire running performance. Just be sure to give these tools the respect they deserve. Ride out the learning curve, and they’ll serve you well in kind. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Joyes, an accomplished racer from Lander, Wyoming, with podium finishes at some of the hilliest hundred-milers in the biz including the High Lonesome 100 and Bighorn 100, cautions that “poles don’t magically make you faster.” Sigh. But with that letdown out of the way, runners can focus on putting in the work to turn poles into their new favorite sidekick on the trails. 

“Like anything involving skill or technique,” Joyes explains, “you have to practice and refine it. Experiment with different cadences and poling patterns for different slope angles.” Depending on the grade of the trail you’re on, you’ll want to tailor your pole technique to the terrain at hand. 

Gavin Mackenzie, two-time Hardrock 100 finisher and certified vert junkie who lives near Denver, agrees. He’s settled on two distinct poling styles for use on moderate versus steep climbs. “On a moderate uphill,” says Mackenzie, “I find poles useful in both slow running and fast hiking scenarios,” such as in the final miles of a long, grueling race when your muscles begin to wobble past the point of no return. “They take a good amount of pressure off of your legs by planting them individually ahead and to the side of where your next step will be.” He suggests aiming for a firm plant, and just far enough out ahead of you that your back remains largely upright. 

On steeper terrain, however, his technique changes. “When the hill increases to 30 percent or more, I like to plant both poles together about two steps ahead. I’ll hike to them, and then keep repeating that double-plant motion. This is a great tool for keeping an even cadence, and I sync my breathing up with the pattern as well to stay grounded.”

Goyes recommends that runners employ their poles as dynamically and powerfully as possible on such steep hills. “Otherwise they’re only helping you with stability, which—while helpful—might not be worthwhile on its own.”

Using poles when running downhill comes with even more nuance. Mackenzie prefers not to use them on descents at all. “I’ve had them get stuck in roots and rocks a few too many times,” he recounts. 

Mirna Valerio, a Winooski, Vermont-based ultrarunner, on the other hand, appreciates how much pressure poles take off of her joints on downhills. “I like to stick my poles beneath me first and jump so the pole takes the pressure off my knees, and I can land lightly,” she describes. “This is especially helpful on big rocky steps.” 

But for Valerio, it’s the opposite on the uphill. “I try to drag them after me a bit and push down behind me at an angle,” she illustrates. “This allows me to use the momentum to push myself up—and it’s a great upper body workout!” 

As you can see, there’s no one right way to use poles to your benefit as a trail runner. Take the time to learn what feels best in your body.  

RELATED: The Case for Using Trekking Poles While Going Uphill

Keep It Simple

Poles are here to help you, not make your job harder. In recent years, trail running vests and waist belts have come with convenient loops or sleeves for storage when poles are folded up and not being used. But it’s all too easy to overcomplicate their role until they feel like more of a burden than they’re worth. To keep from getting to that point, keep it simple. 

“Let it be natural,” Valerio asserts. “Think of them as an extension of your limbs. Keep the poles close to your body instead of reaching far out ahead of you. Place them right next to your feet and aim to have three ‘feet’ on the ground at a time: both of your own and one pole, or one foot and both poles.” The more you align the poles with your organic sense of movement, the better they’ll augment your innate abilities rather than detract from them. 

MacKenzie and Valerio also both emphasize the importance of sizing your poles properly so they don’t trip you up. Don’t try to follow the same protocol as your typical day hiker unless you need another reason to trip all over yourself out there. Instead, pick shorter poles that touch the ground with your arms bent at less than a 90 degree angle. They’re easier to wield that way as you navigate obstacles on the trail. 

All for Run and Run for All

As you experiment with poles, focus on the whole point of using them: to make a hard thing slightly less hard. Poles won’t ever make running feel like a breeze, no matter how much effort you put into mastering the perfect poling technique. Rely on your own abilities as a runner first and let the poles bring out the best in you from there. 

Valerio had already logged more miles than most people manage in a lifetime before picking up her first pair of poles. She possessed the guts and grit it takes to complete ultramarathons all on her own; poles didn’t do that for her. But they did help her apply her strengths in running even better.

“Everyone loves a challenge,” Valerio remarks. “People seem to think that poles subtract from that. But poles increase your endurance without taking away from the inherent difficulty.”

But more importantly, she says, poles play a part in expanding accessibility within running. “Poles make the sport more doable for more people. They make these incredibly hard things just a little bit easier—and that can mean all the difference.” 

Play It Safe

No matter the perks of poles, though, runners would do well to remember the risks involved in adding these tools to their kit. Joyes found that out the hard way. During a training run through the Winds, a run-of-the-mill stumble turned sour when the sharp tip of one pole met his upper thigh. He’d opted to carry his poles folded up in his hands over a mellow section of trail rather than stow them away in his pack. He’d need them again within minutes, after all. But one arterial bleed and near-death experience later, Joyes warns runners to avoid making the same mistake. 

“Have a good way to stow your poles when not in use,” he advises, “and be sure to practice it. Remember the old adage about not running with scissors in your hands? The same goes for running with poles in your hands. I figured that out by way of a nasty fall, a dangerous amount of blood loss, and a helicopter ride out of the mountains.” 

Joyes suffered the consequences so you don’t have to. It’s worth the extra few seconds it takes to stow your poles properly between uses. Just like fueling on the go, it’ll only get easier with practice. Explore the storage options on your vest and dial in your transitions. It may take more effort to nail those than how to use the poles themselves. But with practice, you’ll earn back the time it once took to keep yourself out of harm’s way—and go on to run another day while you’re at it. 

Running Pole Recommendations

The best running poles will support your stride without getting in the way. Look for poles made from aluminum or carbon to keep your load light. Make sure they collapse or fold down into three segments for compact storage when they’re not needed. The Black Diamond Distance Z design covers all these bases at the most affordable rate of $140, or or upgrade to ultralight carbon with the Distance Carbon Z poles ($189). The Addict Trail Carbon 4 model ($186) from French company TSL Outdoor ramps up the convenience with magnetic detachable gloves that take the hassle out of wrestling with straps, and extend to full length with the  literal click of a button. Go premium with the Leki Ultratrail FX.One poles ($220) that feature its own version of detachable handles, plus two different grip options and air channels in the cork upper that eliminate even more excess weight.

RELATED: I Never Used to Run with Poles. Now I Won’t Hit the Trails Without Them.

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