Running Poles: Everything You Need to Know

If you follow ultra-running or run races yourself, you’ve most likely seen an abundance of people running with poles lately. Kilian Jornet, Courtney Dauwalter, François D’haene, and most sky runners use poles while competing to take advantage of the great benefits that come along with them. 

What exactly are running poles, and why and when should you give them a try? That’s what we are going to discuss today. 

What are running poles used for?

Running poles have become popular in trail races, especially when they include numerous steep uphill sections and tricky, technical terrain. Poles are mostly beneficial in longer ultramarathons and vertical kilometre races.

4 Benefits of Running with Poles

Using running poles for these types of tricky terrain and for steep uphills is full of benefits. 

Let’s take a look at them.

1. Take a load off of those legs.

If used with proper form, poles can take a load off of your legs while, in turn, engaging your core and upper body. This means that running with poles spreads out the work.

This is especially helpful in longer races where you want to give those fatigued leg muscles a break every now and again. Delaying localized fatigue can contribute to a much more enjoyable second half of an ultramarathon.

2. Speed up on those tricky sections.

Using running poles can give you an extra boost of speed while running uphill and even increase your speed and efficiency.

3. Gain Stability

Using running poles on any terrain provides extra stability. It gives you two more points of contact with the ground below which helps improve balance on unstable terrain. 

On downhills, running poles give you some extra help stabilizing your body as you cruise down the trails. It will also give you a confidence boost on those technical trails, helping avoid a slip and fall or losing your balance due to the extra contact points. 

You can also avoid obstacles and break them with greater ease. In addition, running poles will take some pressure off of your quads to not burn them out too early in the race. 

However, practising poles on downhills will be imperative as you don’t want the poles to end up being a hindrance instead of a help. Learn to navigate the poles with ease, so they don’t get in your own way or in someone else’s, as this could potentially cause an accident.

4. Improved Uphill Posture

When we become fatigued, which is pretty much inevitable in ultras, our uphill posture can suffer greatly as we tend to bend over as we gasp for air. Using poles correctly can help maintain your body upright. This aids the airflow to your lungs and helps to take the pressure off your lower back.

How to Choose Running Poles

Choose running poles for ultimate comfort and convenience. Collapsible, lightweight poles will be your best bet.


Most running poles are made from carbon or aluminium and can weigh as little as 10 ounces or a little under 300 grams.

Of course, the lighter the poles, the more expensive they are. But it’s worth its weight in gold to purchase the lightest ones possible within your budget. Every gram counts when you are schlepping gear around for the duration of an ultramarathon, but it’s worth those few extra grams in the end.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Running poles are not standard and come in a variety of sizes. Be sure and pick the ones that are the perfect fit for you. You can check out size charts for each brand of poles. However, there is a standard rule to go by when choosing your pole height. 

Hold the poles by the soft grips straight out in front of you and have the tips touch the ground. Your arms should be at a 90-degree angle and your forearms horizontal to the ground for a comfortable fit.  

Some poles are slightly adjustable, where you can vary the height.

Storing Poles While Running

In most races, you will not need to use your poles for the entire duration of the run. Therefore, it is most convenient to have collapsable poles to put away with ease. You can get poles that conveniently fold into two or three sections or telescoping poles that collapse down to a third of the length, making them small enough to tuck away. 

Some running vests are now conveniently equipped with small straps in the front or back where you can easily store the poles. Just fold them up and secure them in the loops each time you don’t need them, and pull them right back out when you do. 

If you do not wish to store them because you will need them frequently throughout the race, you can run with both poles in one hand, holding them off the ground horizontally. This way, you don’t need to be constantly putting them away.

How To Run With Poles: 2 Techniques

The technique you decide to use will vary, depending on the type of terrain or incline that you are facing at that specific moment in a race. The following are the two most common ones used in trail running.

Alternating Pole Technique / Nordic Walking Technique

This technique is best used on moderately steep terrain when advancing quickly. 

As you walk or jog naturally, your legs and arms will alternate as you advance. When you hold your poles, they should alternate in sync with your natural movement. 

When you are walking slower, your poles can go right along with your leg movement hitting each stride in sync. If you are running, you will want to allow a few strides between setting down each pole. This technique works well in faster sections of a race.

Double Pole Technique

This method is usually used when attempting to climb very steep hills, requiring a great deal of force to ascend.

Simultaneously, place both poles on the ground in front of you, ensuring the poles are at a similar angle as the hill’s incline. Take a few substantial strides and push through past your poles as you lean forward. Then lift the poles, bring them back in front of you and place them down slightly ahead of you and repeat.

Pole Tip Placement

Gently lay the poles down in front of you, making sure not to thrust them into the ground and exhaust extra energy. The skis should be tilted slightly downward in the direction of the slant, pushing you ahead as you ski.

Do not angle the poles back towards your body. This will hinder your natural movement and slow you right down. You want the poles to launch you forward instead of hold you back.

How to Hold the Straps

Using the straps will improve efficiency, but it needs to be done correctly, or it will have an adverse effect. 

Put your hands through the straps and lightly grip the handles. Have the straps wrap around the back of your hand on one side and up your palm on the other side. The strap should sit between your thumb and forefinger.

Be sure your grip on the handles is loose, and the weight is distributed on the straps to not tire out your hands and forearms. If your grip is too tight, you can also provoke painful blisters on your hands. 

Note: Do not wrap the straps around your wrists!

Pole Use in Trail Running

When to use poles

If you have ever found yourself hiking up a conga line of ultrarunners at a large European mountain ultra, you are sure to have found yourself getting stabbed by and dodging a lot of trekking poles. 

Trekking poles originated in the backpacking and hiking scene but are now commonly seen at many prestigious and vert-tasty running races worldwide. We know hiking is more efficient when our speed slows on steep grades, but can the use of trekking poles make it even easier?

A lot of the initial research on trekking poles originated in the backpacking industry and concluded that on less steep slopes, up to 10% or a 6-degree incline, poles do not make hiking metabolically easier (1). Because of the additional weight and recruitment of additional muscles (hello, arms, lats, and core!), at these lower inclines, poles do not improve efficiency. 

However, poles still show a lot of promise. An example of this is the rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard each athlete feels like they are working, decreases with pole use, and the use of poles can decrease muscle damage during hiking and may improve muscle function the days after the hike. 

Two recent studies investigated the use of poles by ultra-mountain runners at steeper grades and reiterated some of these findings. In 2019, research involving a study of slopes above 15 degrees. It was found that the RPE and vertical cost of transport was lower with the use of poles on slopes above 20 degrees.

Since laboratory data doesn’t always translate to field data, in 2021 the same group of researchers tested athletes on a trail that climbs 433m in 1.3km (or 1,420’ in 0.8 miles) (7). Or in layman’s terms – an extremely steep trail. 

When using poles, athletes completed maximum effort hill climbs roughly 30s (~2.5%) faster than without using poles. However, when hiking at 80% of maximum effort, poles did not impact the finish time. Hiking with poles changes hiking gait, increasing stride length and lowering frequency allowing participants to move quickly uphill.  

Poles have also been hypothesized to assist with stability during locomotion, something you’ve likely felt while out on the trail. In general, while running on flat, even surfaces, 2% of the energy you use to move down the path is just to maintain lateral stability. 

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise you that running on uneven terrain requires 5% more energy for stability and walking requires 26% more. When running on uneven terrain, you activate more muscles in your thighs and require more energy to stay upright. Thus, if poles can assist with stability on the trail, it is hypothesized that using poles could be even more beneficial long term. 

To help understand this concept, try doing a single-legged squat without poles, and then performing the same with poles and seeing how much more stable you feel.

Although no studies have looked into the benefits of using poles during ultra-endurance events, it can be hypothesized that poles may assist by spreading the muscle demand to other parts of the body to delay muscle fatigue and damage during a long-ultra. Additionally, they may assist with balance, which may become worse as runners fatigue.   

Pole Use Tips for Hilly Training or Race

  • It is better to use poles when you are walking uphill (>20 degrees) because you save muscular energy.
  • Bring poles for the long races, because they have the potential to lessen muscle fatigue, damage, and balance. These benefits likely outweigh any possible negatives.
  • Start using poles at least a couple of months before your big event on long runs at a minimum of once per week. This will help you become more efficient and make sure they are not detrimental to your race.
  • Practice different techniques: double poling, diagonal striding, and ski striding (longer strides).
  • Adding in some upper-body strength training before using poles will help with the transition.
  • Use the poles on the type of terrain you will see on race day because techniques differ based on the steepness of climbs, the technical nature of the trail, and the length of the climb.

Typically, you do not need poles on flat ground or downhills, especially the faster you move, but again you might find them beneficial for balance as you become fatigued.

Be Cautious

With other runners around you, be aware of your surroundings and be careful not to trip or hit anyone around you with your poles. Practising with them sufficiently before a race will help you get accustomed to handling them correctly and keep them under control at all times. 

Training with poles before a race is a must to ensure you use them as efficiently as possible. Use poles on your long runs and hill workouts at least 4 weeks before your race. This will also give you the chance to decide whether you are comfortable using them, or feel more comfortable without the poles.

Be sure to check your race guidelines before incorporating them into your training, as running poles are actually prohibited in some races. This can be due to the sheer number of participants or narrow, single-track trails where limited space could make running poles a hazard. 


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