Using poles for a more efficient trail running experience

Poles can greatly add to a more efficient trail running experience, primarily while walking on uphills. Poles are especially useful in longer in trail running races with lots of sustained or steep terrain. Walking with poles can be a good way to conserve leg power as it allows athletes to engage otherwise unused muscles in the upper body.

Poles can also be helpful on very steep uphills with loose footing. In these situations racers can take up body weight with the upper body and reduce foot slip. On steep downhills the use of poles can aid balance and stability.

Pro Tip: While striding with poles, keep your hands relaxed get into a natural rhythm. Let momentum & gravity swing the pole forward.

While poles can be used while running on trails, it’s often less efficient due to the high power demands of the technique. To understand why, it’s useful to look at cross country skiing and the key factor making it different from trail running – glide. Skiing has glide; running does not. The application of upper body power during cross country skiing allows an athlete to glide further during or in between applications of power from the lower body. Since efficient running technique doesn’t involve gliding, poles are best employed in a narrow range of conditions to help trail runners conserve leg power during long duration events.

In this article we’ll show short video clips to demonstrate different techniques that can be employed in longer trail running races. We’ll also demonstrate some features common to most trail running poles as well as those unique to poles from ATRA corporate member LEKI USA. Specifically their Trigger Shark 2.0 grip and Trigger Shark Active Strap available on the 100% carbon shaft Micro Trail Pro folding pole.

Technique #1 – The off-set double pole. This is the most versatile technique for a wide range of uphill conditions. It starts with a smooth, natural and elongated walking stride. Add in an off-set double pole where your left pole tip strikes the ground at the same time as your left foot. Shortly after your right pole tip should strike the ground at the same time as your right foot. Poling happens every other stride to conserve energy. This technique is best for medium tempo striding.  For long sustained uphills switch from leading with your left side to leading with your right side every 10 to 15 cycles.

Technique #2 – The diagonal stride. Borrowed directly from cross country skiing, this technique is fully symmetrical with each pole striking the ground at the same time as the opposite foot. This technique uses more energy and is best for high tempo striding.

Technique #3 – The bounding diagonal stride. This is a very high tempo, high energy consumption technique best utilized in very short and steep races like Vertical Kilometers (VK). Used by cross country skiers to develop sport specific speed & power during the off season. Best employed when footing is good. Not recommended for longer trail running races.

Technique #4 – The double pole steep hill scramble. This technique is most useful on very steep off-trail slopes with loose footing. Reach up the hill with both poles simultaneously and forcefully drive the tips in the ground. Pull or hold your body weight up while stepping up the hill. Scan the terrain ahead and immediately in front to find solid footing.

Technique #5 – Mix it up! Over uneven or varied terrain you may find that mixing all of the above mentioned techniques is most efficient.

Pro Tip: Upper body muscle engagement should start lightly; reserve your strongest push at the end of the polling stroke when your hands are almost adjacent to your hips.

One of the best features of the Leki Micro Trail Pro is the Trigger Shark 2.0 grip and Trigger Shark Active Strap. Using technology borrowed from their world class cross country ski poles, this system features left/right specific form fitting straps with a trim glove-like construction for better fit and direct power transmission. The Trigger Shark grip features a quick release thumb trigger mechanism that enables runners to disconnect both poles simultaneously. With a little practice it’s possible to re engage the straps one handed as well.

Transition from running to walking with poles – One of the great features of folding poles is that you can carry them in a trail running pack.  All packs are different but some allow easy access to poles without having to remove the pack.  Below is a demonstration using the S-LAB Sense Ultra 5 Set from ATRA corporate member Salomon.

Pro Tip: Don’t cut the straps off your trail running poles! When properly used, straps contribute to efficient power transmission and reduce wrist and hand muscle fatigue.

To help understand the primary techniques it helps to view them in slow motion.  Here is the diagonal stride:

Pro Tip: If your poles have a standard strap, push your hand up through the strap and pull down. The strap should go around the back of your hand and return up the palm of your hand between your thumb and forefinger. If the strap is around your wrist, you’re doing it wrong.

Here is a slow motion version of the off-set double pole technique:

Pro Tip: Train with poles before you race with poles, perfecting your technique before getting on the start line.

Want to see even more videos of using poles for trail running?  Check out this playlist on our YouTube channel.

What are your favorite techniques and tips for trail running with poles?  Hit us up in the comments or send us your thoughts.

You can learn more about the Leki Micro Trail Pro at:

[Editors Note] Prior to becoming a trail runner, the author raced in the 1992, 1994 and 1998 U.S. Olympic Cross Country Skiing Trials and represented the United States at the 1993 World University Games in Zakopane, Poland. Are you a trail runner interested in cross country skiing? Read about Richard’s experience racing the 2018 Slumberland American Birkebeiner – the largest cross country ski race in North America with over 13,000 skiers and an estimated 30,000 spectators.

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