When Tim Tollefson showed up at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc — widely considered the Super Bowl of ultra running — for the first time in August 2015, he felt out of place. Not because he was an American racing in Europe or because he wasn’t ready for the world-class competition, but because he didn’t have poles.
“I remember thinking: ‘Why do all the Euros have poles? Am I missing something? Do I need them?’” muses Tollefson, who bought a cheap pair two weeks before the race but admits he didn’t experiment with them enough to know the value. “Poles take time to learn and I wasn’t ready to race with them. I wish I had given it more practice. I ended up not using them and regret it a bit.”
Despite doing well at the race, Tollefson believes that poles could have helped him place higher. “Many runners were passing me on the uphill, likely due to the advantage poles provide on climbs.” Over the next year he trained consistently with poles near his home in Mammoth, California, using them on long runs and steep climbs.
In the two years that followed, Tim landed on the podium at UTMB as the top American at both races.
“For a race like UTMB, I use poles on every single climb,” he now says. “Poles help offset the demand on your legs so that you have enough for when it really matters. Often, in the later parts of the race, I use them on the downhills, too. This supports my hips and maintains strength there. If your hips go you have a whole host of problems.”
But it’s not just the pros who can benefit from using trekking poles on trail runs. You can, too. So here are some pertinent FAQs.
Are there different types of poles?
There are a few different types to consider, each with unique advantages. The four main categories are hiking, trail running, nordic skiing and alpine skiing poles.
“Hiking poles, which are sometimes called trekking poles, are designed to take the load off your body while trail running poles are more about forward propulsion and being lightweight,” explains Greg Wozer, vice president at Leki USA. “Running poles act as two extra legs to help you go faster uphill.” Both types of poles reduce the force on the knees and quads when going downhill and, when needed, as an extra balance point.
“Running pole design comes mostly from a nordic skiing design, rather than a standard hiking pole,” Wozer adds. “They are a bit longer and more focused on power transmission. While all of our poles are made from nearly the same materials, there are some big differences in design and configuration. The most obvious is the shape and weight of the grip, which is crucial for a great pole.”
Pole length is often determined by stride or glide length. Nordic skiing requires a much longer pole than hiking or alpine skiing, for example. Running poles are often collapsible so that you can stow them in your pack when not using them. Most have a breathable strap and solid grip to transfer as much power as possible.
Why and when should you use poles?
“The most important reason is efficiency on the uphill” says Brendan Perkins, the Running Hardgoods Manager at Black Diamond. “Poles help engage other parts of your body, distributing the load and spreading the exertion out over many muscle groups. This helps you avoid blowing up your legs.”
The value of poles extends past long and steep climbs, too. “Poles add a lot to downhill stability and minimizing impact on the knees,” Perkins explains. “They act as a tripod on loose rocks and tight corners, preventing you from slipping. For any run with a lot of vert or in the ‘ultra’ distance, I’d recommend them.”
Wozer agrees: “We see three obvious reasons to use poles: performance, in that they help you go faster uphill, endurance on long runs and races, and more general health and longevity, in that your body doesn't take the same beating it otherwise would.”
Tollefson, who works as a physical therapist during the day, echoes the longevity sentiment. “With my physio background it’s easy to see the value,” he says. “Poles help unload a joint like a knee on the downhill. There’s no question that this decreases the load on muscles and tendons and keeps you healthier.”
Why aren’t poles more popular?
In Europe, running poles are nearly ubiquitous, but they are less common in the States. “There is a perception here that you don’t need them,” says Wozer. “It’s almost an elitist attitude. A tough guy mentality. Fortunately with some education, people learn to love poles. Often all it takes is using poles on just a run or two.”
Tollefon concurs. “Americans often think poles are just for hikers and not for runners, but the reality is that even at the highest level of racing, you power hike up steep climbs,” he points out. “It’s more efficient with arm support. But the culture is quickly changing– in the past five years I’ve seen a huge uptick in the use of poles.”
“There are few downsides, really,” Perkins concludes. “They do add a little weight and volume in your pack, and the setup can take a second if you don’t know them well, but overall the value they provide easily outweighs any concerns.”
What are some good options to consider?
Two of our favorites are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Pole and the Leki MCT 12 Vario. The Distance Carbon poles are some of the lightest and most popular on the trails. The Varios are more versatile and, as far as we’re concerned, the best grip and strap combo, helping you feel locked in and more powerful. Both are worth a try.