Hard-won insights on gear and skills

Trail Tested

The Best Poles for Trail and Ultrarunning

Sometimes they're the difference between a PR and a DNF

Pushing hard on my poles at UTMB, climbing out of Arnouvaz towards Grand Col Ferret shortly after sunrise at Mile 61. (Andrew Skurka)
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Sometimes they're the difference between a PR and a DNF

Poles have long been considered essential equipment by most backpackers, but runners have been slower to adopt them. But I sense this is changing, based on the number of pole-carrying runners I now see at the starting lines of ultra- and mountain-trail marathons. The realization seems to be, “If Kilian, François, and Walmsley all use poles in hard races, maybe I should, too.”

The value of poles in an ultra depends on:

  • Individual fitness

  • Course length

  • Amount of vertical climbing

Essentially, the more hiking you expect to do, the more valuable they’ll be. (At most running speeds they have minimal or no benefit, and mostly just get in the way and alter proper running form.) Middle-of-the-pack and back-of-the-pack participants will hike more than the front-runners, but some courses like Hardrock—a 100-miler with over 30,000 vertical feet of climbing at elevations up to 14,048 feet—bring even the world’s fittest ultrarunners to a crawl. Whether to bring poles is a personal decision for every competitor: Is the benefit worth some added weight and fuss?

I’ve used poles in two races: Vulcano Ultra Trail, a 100K with 13,000 vertical feet of gain and 30 miles of sand-like volcanic ash, and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the famous 100-miler in Europe that last year had 32,000 vertical feet of gain.

Benefits of poles for ultrarunners

Poles enable the arms to help the legs with forward and upward propulsion, and with braking on descents. Net energy burn may actually be greater with poles, but the legs incur less stress, helping to preserve strength for later in the race. Poles also provide stability on slick surfaces like mud or wet rocks, and additional points of contact when fording or rock-hopping across streams.

Recommended poles for ultrarunners

Traditional telescoping poles like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (long-term review) or Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles (long-term review) do not work well for ultrarunning. They are too unwieldy, too slow to extend or collapse, and unnecessarily sturdy and heavy.

Much more appropriate for ultrarunning are foldable poles like these:

These models pack down much smaller and are therefore less clumsy to carry. For example, my 47.2-inch poles collapse to just 15.4 inches. In comparison, my go-to backpacking poles collapse to just 25 inches, almost ten inches longer.

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Foldable poles are dramatically shorter than traditional telescoping poles, making them much less unwieldy while being carried. (Andrew Skurka)

Most foldable models are fixed-length and can’t be adjusted. Some offer a microadjustment of six inches, but I don’t find this to be valuable for ultrarunning. First, I’m unlikely to make minor tweaks in a race environment. Second, the feature adds expense and weight—about $20 and three ounces per pair, in the case of the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z versus the Distance Carbon FLZ.

To keep them light, foldable poles have thin shafts that are not as strong or sturdy as most telescoping poles. But for running and hiking on trails without a heavy pack, I think they are sufficient, and I don’t see a reason to buy poles with beefier shafts like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Z.

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The length of traditional telescoping poles is finely adjustable, whereas most foldable poles are fixed-length. To collapse them, press the push-button at the lower end of the grip. To lock them, extend the poles until the bush-button snaps into place. (Andrew Skurka)

Sizing

When holding my pole vertically, I like my elbow to be at a 90-degree angle. If I’m between sizes I size up, so that my elbow is slightly less than 90 degrees. A longer pole allows for a more sustained push, as demonstrated by nordic skiers.

Baskets and straps

If possible, I remove the included mud baskets—they tend to snag in vegetation and rocks, and the extra weight slows down the swing speed. Plus, very seldom have I encountered mud that could swallow an entire pole tip.

Straps are optional. With them, greater pressure can be applied to the pole and the grips need not be held so tightly. However, straps tether the poles to my hands, which I also need for eating, drinking, navigating (depending on the race), and—God forbid—catching myself if I fall. For races with long, sustained climbs, they make more sense to me than on rolling courses with short but constant climbs that will necessitate frequent transitions.

Carrying

Do not wait until race day to determine how best to carry poles when not in use. Bring them on training runs beforehand so that you can practice transitions and experiment with various carrying options. If you do not heed this advice, you will probably find the the poles to be clumsy and you will probably lose time futzing with them.

There are several options for carrying stowed poles, listed below. Your equipment may have a default method—if you don’t like it, buy something different or modify its attachment system.

There is no perfect technique—each has downsides, some more than others. Ultimately, your method should:

  • Allow for a quick and clean transition

  • Secure the poles well, with no bouncing and no risk of them falling out

  • Keep your hands free and your poles out of the way

Personally, I think slinging them diagonally over the shoulder is the way to go.

skurka
Prior to Vulcano Ultra Trail I had not trained with my poles and did not have a good way to carry them, besides in my hands. I thought the poles were worth it, but I regretted my lack of preparation. (Andrew Skurka)

Filed To: Running / Trail Running / Ultrarunning / Gear
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