Running Poles: 4 Tips to Boost Trail Running Performance

Can running poles actually help you crush more trail miles, reduce injury risk, and help you go longer?
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If you don't currently use running poles, you might be skeptical. Right?
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Some of the common misconceptions about running poles include:

  • They're too heavy
  • They'll slow you down
  • They're hard to carry
  • They don't really help you

But if you're even remotely curious about using running poles on your next trail run, race or mountain adventure, it's time to take a closer look at running poles.
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In this article, WeeViews Ambassador Lucie Hanes (& Leadville 100 Women's 2nd Place Winner), shares four trail-tested tips to help you boost performance with running poles.
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Here's what you need to know...

Trail runner Brynn Cunningham uses running poles

Running poles: 3 reasons for trail runners to gear up

Sometimes, running is as simple as slipping into your favorite pair of zoomers before heading out the door on a morning tour of the neighborhood.
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Other times, well, it’s a little more complicated.
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Long-distance trail running beefs up the process with more than a few additional items and considerations:

  • Watch
  • Vest
  • Water
  • Gels
  • Electrolytes
  • Jacket
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Bandaids
  • Headlamp
  • Body glide (IYKYK)
  • Satellite communicator
  • And the list only gets longer the further you go

All that extra gear might feel like it takes away from the experience.
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After all, isn’t the whole point of running to strip away everything but the essentials and embrace self-powered adventure?
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Yes, but sometimes adventure requires changing your definition of “essential.”
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Those extras aren’t actually extra if they allow you to go further, faster, and stay safe all the while. 
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Sacrificing the quality of your run at best, or your wellbeing at worst, in the name of simplicity isn’t worth the consequences. 
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Don’t be stubborn. 

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s add another item to the list: Running poles.

They’re not just for thru-hikers or your dad’s bad knees. There's at least FOUR big benefits to running poles...
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1. Poles might just rival caffeine as one of the best (legal) performance-enhancers for long-distance trail runners.
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2. They boost momentum going uphill, absorb impact going downhill, and provide stability on technical terrain.
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3. They’ll keep your hardworking hips from fatiguing quite as quickly. That’s a big one for not only increasing your endurance but also reducing injury risk. 

  • As your hips begin to tap out throughout the final stretches of a long race, running technique follows suit. Cue the onslaught of injuries all the way down the leg, from IT Band Syndrome to shin splints to plantar fasciitis. 
  • Poles help keep the hips fresher for longer so you can cross the finish line still feeling strong. 
Trail runner DJ Fox and his pacer crew used running poles during an FKT attempt on the 500-mile Colorado Trail.

1. How to select running poles

To start, it’s important to understand the difference between TREKKING POLES and RUNNING POLES.

  • Trekking poles tend to be heavier and sturdier than running poles.
  • Why? They’re made to support those moving at relatively slow and steady speeds while carrying anywhere from a few hours’ to a few weeks’ worth of supplies on their shoulders. 
  • Trekking poles need to be able to hold up under that kind of burden. In those cases, weight and bulk matter less than durability. 

Running poles, on the other hand, need to be light enough to help more than hurt at higher speeds.

  • Heavy poles just won’t make the cut for a weight-conscious trail runner who doesn’t want to significantly compromise on speed or energy. 
  • Since they won’t be supporting nearly as much of a load, poles fit for trail running don’t require the same heft. 
  • The quick and nimble nature of running also means that the poles usually only flirt with the ground rather than sink deep into the dirt.
  • This all translates to a lighter, more limber pole. In light of these distinctions, make sure to pick poles made specifically for running. 

How to pick running poles

Running poles should also be shorter than your typical trekking pole. 

  • Aim for a 180 degree angle with your arms (or only slightly bent instead of perpendicular with your chest). 
  • This is so that the poles won’t get in the way of your stride. 
  • They’re a tool, not a crutch. Leaning into them with every step interrupts your flow and halts momentum—the exact opposite of what we’re going for here. 
  • Keep your poles short to avoid the temptation to dump all your weight into them. 

For a few recommendations that fit the bill for trail runners, try…

Trail runner Gabe Joyes still uses running poles, but he switched to rubber tips after a bloody fall that required a call to search and rescue.

2. How to carry running poles

You likely won’t need to use poles for your entire run. 

  • They’re not necessary on flatter terrain.
  • They might only hold you back when you’d be better off striding it out. 
  • Plus, they make situations where you need full use of your hands, like scrambling through boulders or refueling at an aid station, more difficult than they need to be. 

When they become more trouble than they’re worth, stow your poles away properly. 

  • Avoid just carrying them folded up in your hands or under your arm, no matter how smart it may seem in the moment. 
  • Yes, they’re much easier to whip back out that way…but at a big cost to your safety. 
  • Those tips can be treacherous. They’ll take an eye out or puncture an artery if you’re not careful. Just ask Gabe Joyes, who took a tumble into his pole and nearly bled out while running alone through the Wyoming wilderness. Let’s not repeat history there. 

Instead, get used to packing your poles in your vest.

  • Every running vest features its own storage system, so look into the method yours uses. 
  • Bungee cords and quivers are most common. 
  • Spend time dialing in the transition so you’re able to put them away and pull them out as you go. 
  • It’s worth the extra step. With practice, you’ll appreciate the ability to go hands-free when you need to.
Brynn Cunningham used running poles to set an unsupported FKT record on the Big Savage Mountain Trail in Maryland.

3. How to use running poles on uphills

Hills are hard, and poles won’t eliminate the difficulty.
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But they will make the grind more efficient so you don’t burn out nearly as fast.
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Use poles to power up steep climbs as a way of adding extra drive to your stride. 

  • Think about pushing back more than driving forward. 
  • Plant them alongside and angled slightly behind you instead of far out in front. This position keeps the forces your poles create close to the body for maximum efficiency. 

All the while, focus on using the poles to supplement your stride without drastically changing it.

  • Create a rhythm with your steps. As your arm swings back and your foot lifts, push back into the pole for momentum. 
  • As your arm swings forward and your foot lands, plant the pole alongside your toes. 
  • Alternate sides so that only one pole touches the ground at a time, just like your feet. 

The pattern should take just enough weight off of your quivering quads to make the slog more sustainable. 
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Don’t be afraid to put some muscle into it, either. Engage your triceps with each push. Putting your upper body to work lessens the load on your lower half. 

Runner David Holland finished The Rut 28K in Big Sky, Montana, using running poles.

4. How to use running poles on downhills

On downhills, poles serve as a welcome source of support.
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Runners often find themselves all too eager for the descent after a grueling climb.

  • But going down is just as hard on the body as going up—if not worse. 
  • The angle makes it difficult to keep a light step, so you’re likely to pound even harder into the ground with every step. 
  • Your legs are left to absorb all of that impact. Poles take some of that onus off of your muscles and joints. 

Take everything you just learned about using poles on uphills and flip it on its head.

  • Stability, not speed, should take precedent this time. 
  • Plant your poles ahead of you and lower your weight into them as you descend. 
  • Focus on landing lightly and letting the pole take the hit. 
  • The less force left to channel through your feet, the better your hips and knees will hold up. 

Rely on your poles to slow your roll when the descent gets hairy.

  • Let them catch your fall, stall your momentum, and steer you around obstacles like rocks and roots. 
  • Use them for balance if you begin to lose your footing. 
  • Treat each pole like a third leg that you can kick out in front or to the side. 
  • In this way, poles actually make it possible to charge downhill more confidently. 
  • They’re able to make up for missteps and uneven landings that might otherwise send you plummeting face-first into the dirt. 
Trail runner DJ Fox frequently uses running poles to boost performance, run far, and prevent injuries.

Use running poles to boost trail-running performance

Running poles benefit runners best when they’re woven into the natural flow of running. 

  • Treat them as an extension of your body. 
  • That means holding them close and letting them bear some of the brunt so that your own build can carry you further. 
  • Don’t expect them to suddenly make running effortless. That’s not the point, of poles or of running in general. 

They’re your sidekick, but you’re still the main character here. 
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Poles just make it easier to embrace the challenge. 

Do you use running poles?

Tell us about it in the comments or Create a WeeView about your favorite running poles.

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Lucie Hanes
Ambassador
Eagle, CO
25 Followers
8 Following

Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big fee...

Comments

Marty Roddy I have wooden, custom carved,sanded poles that are quite long and perfect for me. I am 6’8” and a former football 🏈 player with some knee repair history and the poles were for hiking initially. Very helpful on down hills ALL the time and a great assist on uphills late in a hike. As a runner they have been useful for all terrain and attitudes.
I am too big and strong for most standard poles.

Marty

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