How To Choose Running Poles For Racing

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

23 November 2020

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When signing up for an Ultra X, or indeed any ultra marathon, you will most likely be presented with a mandatory kit list. This can be somewhat daunting if it is your first race. However, as you will quickly discover, when it comes to running ultras success is as much about having the right kit and good admin as it is physical preparation. You literally cannot be too organised!

There is a minefield of information out there and so it can be tricky when deciding what to pack (and indeed what pack to even start with!). As such, over the next few weeks, we’re looking at some of the important kit required for ultra-running events (with a focus on Ultra X races) in the hope of answering some of the most common questions we receive.

We have never had a film screening, training day, or pre-race info session without the inevitable questions about running poles coming up. We are always braced for the “Do I need them?”, “Should I buy some?”, “Will they help?” questions. The simple, and probably annoying answer, is: it depends…

Poles are like Marmite; you either like them, or you don’t, and a lot of runners have strong opinions about them. Personally, we find them especially useful, particularly for mountain races. For those who intend to walk part or all of a race, they will come in very handy and with the correct technique can help you move faster for longer. They can be used to aid in propulsion and stability and to help spread out the total load of running uphill and downhill.

This article takes you through some of the pros, cons, and potential considerations if deciding to buy a pair of running poles and how to decide upon your best poles for ultra running.

If you do decide to go for poles, make sure you train with them. The difference in efficiency is massive and you don’t want to leave it to the final 10km of your race before you work out how best to use them.

Wadi Rum Ultra 2017

 Benefits of using running poles:

  • Help maintain upright posture (especially when fatigued)
  • May help propulsion
  • Spread the load by letting your arms do some of the work

Cons of using running poles:

  • More faff – something else to carry and can take time to construct and deconstruct
  • Energy impact? They may not save you any energy and in some instances will be less economical and thus require more energy. That said, training consistently with poles may improve your economy when using them.

Below we’ve outlined some more considerations when it comes to using poles.

Weight, material and swing

The most common materials are aluminium and carbon fibre. Both are strong and lightweight.

Carbon fibre tends to result in a stiffer pole, e.g. less vibration passing from the shaft through your hand and arm, but it is also more expensive.

The weight of the pole is important and should not be ignored. However, what is often overlooked is the ease by which the pole swings back and forth – the “swing rate”. The weight distribution of the pole determines this. Therefore, looking purely at weight may not give you the full picture of the effort required to use the poles and it is important that you get a real feel for the poles in question. After all, if you use them with the correct technique, they will swing back into place pretty much by themselves without you really lifting them, thereby conserving energy.

Handle and strap

The shape and material of the grip vary between models and brands. Some poles feature grips that extend down the shaft, allowing you to grasp the poles more easily on short uphill sections. Many poles have designated left and right-hand grips or straps. Most common materials are: foam (absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is soft to the touch), cork (resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and conforms to the shape of your hands), and rubber (insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration but more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands).

The most common straps are traditional design with some padding. However, there are poles which have the Nordic walking/skiing style glove strap. This is detachable from the pole handle so offers quick release when you need to use your hands.

Female Running at Ultra X Sri Lanka

Construction

If you are after the absolute best performance at the least amount of weight then a fixed, non-collapsible pole is the best option.

However, these are not practical unless you are planning on using poles for 100% of your event. Just two reasons why it can be more convenient to choose collapsible poles include the ease at which they can be stuffed away when not in use and ease of travelling. Collapsible poles can be either a “z-fold” construction where the pole is constructed from 3-4 sections that collapse in a folding manner, or a telescopic construction where the sections slide into each other. It is personal preference which to choose. The z-fold poles typically pack down shorter, whereas the telescopic are longer when collapsed but with the benefit of the pole neatly fitting into itself.

Length

There are a couple of simple methods you can use to find the right pole length for you. The first one is to multiply your height in centimetres by 0.68 and round this to the nearest 5cm. The second method is to imagine that you are holding a pole with your elbow at a 90-degree angle and measure the distance from the ground to the top of your hand.  Basically, your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle when you are holding the grip of a pole with the tip placed on the ground, your upper arm should be vertical in line with your upper body and your underarm should be parallel to the ground.

It can be useful to factor in what shoes you are normally wearing when fine-tuning what height to choose. For example, you may want to round up rather than down if you frequently run in Hokas (with high soles) and you find yourself between two pole sizes. If you expect to primarily be using your poles when climbing uphill, you may want to size down if you’re between sizes.

Most pole manufacturers (Leki, Mountain King etc) have useful sizing charts on their websites but, as always, we would recommend trying before you buy.

If you’ve still not made up your mind on poles, why not just put them in your bag anyway? At Ultra X races you will always have a bag which is transported between campsites and so, if, after two stages of Ultra X Jordan, you decide that poles are going to help, you can get them out, if not, then at least you don’t have to carry them for all five stages of the ultra.

The difficulty of the Ultra X Mexico route means that the majority of competitors will bring poles.

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