Surely you have noticed that more and more people use poles in trail and ultra running, there is a reason! Using poles is beneficial for uphill, downhill and on the flat to reduce the amount of energy used over a distance, but it is no good taking them in a race if you have not trained with them and use the effectively. There is a large variety of poles, length is important, types of handle for comfort, weight, pack size, ease of use. All of these things are to be considered before you purchase a pair of poles.
We know there are a lot of choices, so hopefully this article will guide you through the minefield of choice, and give you some important tips and hints on using them effectively. RaidLight poles are available online or through our retailers.
Poles: the reasons why
What are poles for?
Although some runners think that poles are an unnecessary burden, with time and experience you may change your thinking (this does not apply to everyone, some runners do quite well without poles too!). There is a certain amount of technique to understand and master to use poles effectively, but once you have learned the skills, you will improve your performance. Depending on your requirements and style of running, poles can be used effectively in different stages of a race. On ascents, the poles allow you to propel yourself with the upper body and not only with the legs, saving energy. When descending, they can be used to avoid the excessive forces that increase muscle fatigue. You can even use them for balance. Finally, on flatter trail, poles will help you to increase or at least maintain speed as you use them for forward movement. In simple terms, poles allow you to travel further, more easily, for less effort.
How to use poles
Forward progress efficiently and effectively. Different methods exist, including using both poles in unison or alternately with your natural arm swing. There is no perfect single method, it depends on the terrain and your preference, part of training with poles is to learn what methods work for you (maybe a Nordic walking lesson will help here). It is generally accepted that when ascending gradual slopes that placing the poles alternately and opposite to your feet and pushing all the way through is most effective, whereas on steep terrain many runners opt for the double pole method in short pushes.
What to do with poles when not using them
Sometimes, on very technical ground for instance, you might decide that poles are a hinderance and not a help, you need to store the poles out of the way, quickly. Thankfully at RaidLight we have considered this in our designs of race vests and running packs. With all models you can store poles on the front and on the rear of the pack, allowing to quickly put poles out of the way, so you can use you hands on technical ground, or to just run free for a while.
General advice from a Team RaidLight athlete on using poles
Incredibly useful for mountainous trail racing, poles are essential for ultra! The energy savings made through the use of poles allows you to be more efficient and faster (not a bad thing in a timed sport!). So, which poles do you prefer?
How to choose the type of pole for you
Different types of pole
There are different poles for different activities, some specialist and some multi-purpose: trail running, trekking, ski mountaineering or Nordic walking, depending on what you like to do you can choose one for all, or specialist for a particular sport. From single-section to telescopic and folding poles, there are many possibilities and you need to be familiar with each type of pole to be able to make your own opinion. Below is information on the different options available.
Runners generally prefer this type of pole: folding poles are extremely practical because they are short when collapsed. The more sections your pole has, the smaller the size of each of these sections will be and therefore the shorter the pole will be when collapsed. However, too many sections can make a pole weaker. 4-section poles are the most common. When folded, these poles are very easy to store in or on the pack. As far as folding and unfolding is concerned, you can do it quickly (see video here). The main disadvantage in this type of pole is that the size is not adjustable, so make sure you choose the correct length.
Advantages of this type of pole: length adjustment is possible, also generally more durable than folding poles. Disadvantages: Although more durable than folding poles, they are often heavier too. There are normally two adjustment options for telescopic poles: screw or clip. It is not uncommon to have some problems with adjustment on screw clamping models. They can loosen in use, causing a sudden shortening of the pole. Weather also factors as snow, ice, rain, or simply fatigue, can make it hard or impossible to unscrew the sections.
At RaidLight, we offer you a clip R-Lock system, which allows you to lock and unlock your poles without having to screw or unscrew. Simpler and faster, this system tightens better and is safer. (Think exactly like a quick release on a bike wheel or seat post).
Single section (non-folding)
This is the traditional pole. They tend to be the lightest, because it consists of only one single tube, without additional fixings or adjustments. The one-piece pole offers more response and rebound, which helps when pushing. For some, there is also the comforting aspect of not thinking about the potential failure of the pole during use. However, the problem of storage is a major disadvantage. Non-folding, this pole is not adjustable in length: you will have to have them in your hands at all times. Single-section poles are ideal for Vertical Kilometre races where weight is important in a sprint to the summit, you will not have the time or the need to pack them away. Nordic walking, where you will use the pole consistently on the more generally non-technical terrain.
Folding/Telescopic hybrid poles
This type of format makes it possible to combine the two systems mentioned above. The main advantage is the adjustable size combined with the small pack size, though they are heavier, they can be used for all sports where you require poles, so if you need one pole for all, this is it.
So, single section or folding poles?
It is important that you take the time to think about the different options so that you can build your own opinion on your needs. Generally, on long trails, it is advisable to opt for foldable poles to be able to store them more easily. On the other hand, over short distances, or less technical courses it seems more difficult to have a really clear-cut opinion. Of course, all this is only a generality and it is up to you to choose the poles that suit you best, no matter the distance!
How do I decide on length of pole?
In Nordic walking for example, it is common to use relatively long poles to get a real push. From a mathematical point of view, there is a formula that estimates that the poles must be 0.67 times the athlete's height (example for a 1m80 runner: 180*0.67 = 120cm). However, if this formula can give an idea, it is not an exact science because body shape and arm length vary from one person to another. Another method: When standing and holding the pole with your hand in the strap, the angle formed by the arm at the elbow should be 90°. Once again, it is up to you to adjust according to personal comfort. Some people think it's the right height while others prefer slightly smaller or larger depending on type of terrain they run in or different sports that they do.
Carbon or Aluminium?
Aluminium poles are the least expensive on the market. Of course, there are different levels of quality of aluminium poles. The advantage is that they are more durable, since this material allows them to withstand deformation. This also means that they are more likely to permanently bend if forced: they will be harder to break but may be bent. Aluminium poles are quite light, but still heavier than carbon poles.
In short: Cheaper, heavier, more durable
Carbon poles are generally more expensive. But also, lighter and have an advantage in vibration absorption which reduces strain on the upper body. Unlike aluminium poles, carbon poles return to their original shape once flexed. However, if they are overloaded, they may break more spectacularly! By being thinner and lighter, they are easier to carry
In short: More expensive, lighter, more comfortable to use
What’s the point?
In any terrain and whatever the sport, the bite of the point is very important, you waste energy in pole slipping. You will be efficient if the poles grip to the ground when you place them. Although more expensive, the tungsten carbide tip is more durable over time, which is why our range of poles use this type of tip.
What are the main criteria to choose my poles?
Take time to think. Consider all the criteria in your choice, weigh the pros and cons, list your needs and budget. During your various activities, a pair of suitable poles will allow you to gain considerably in efficiency while a badly suited pole will leave you feeling like they are pointless additions to your equipment. Allow yourself to go over budget if you think that such a pole suits you better, you will be a winner. On the other hand, it is not worth putting a high price on it if the model that seems to best suit your level and needs is not the most expensive.
In short, think about: size; carbon or aluminium; folding, telescopic or single section; weight; strength; type of strap; tip; number of sections; size when folded (if multi-section).
Personal advice from a Team RaidLight athlete on choosing poles
"It is important to know if the poles will serve as simple assistance or real support, as well as if you need to pack and carry them sometimes, often or if they will always be in your hands"