Poles have become an increasingly popular piece of running kit both on trail & fell, in races and in training.
Now available in a myriad of different formats from cheap to sophisticated, ergonomic or basic, aluminium versus carbon, fixed length or collapsible - this all makes it hard to decide what to add to your kit wishlist. With the mountaineering mantra of 'light is right' it's no surprise that pole manufacturers have got the designers in to shed the grams and reinvent the pole!
So, what do we look for in a running poles and what to use in long distance races like the UTMB? As part of the June/July 2014 Trail Running Magazine bumper gear review I was asked to test 4 of the best poles currently on the market so here are the results. You can also download the full article here:
When used correctly, trail poles transfer some of the stresses and strains placed on the legs onto the upper body. For fell and trail runners who regularly run long distances with sustained ascents, poles are an excellent bit of kit.
A 'must have' for ultra-distance runners to save the knees and distribute the work load across the body Extra leverage to help on long hills & steeper terrain Encourage a good pace/rhythm for stages where you need to walk When only using the legs for long periods of uphill your stance can stoop forward, constricting air from getting into the lungs. Poles can keep you upright and help you breathe! Stabilises you uphill on awkward rocky / uneven terrain Excellent toning / strengthening effect for the shoulders and arms If you decide to use them downhill (quite likely at the end of a long race for a little help) they help to save the knees from too much pounding/ confidence on awkward terrain. But using poles to descend does also slow you down (4 placements to consider not just 2 feet!) Top Tips on which Pole to choose?
Full length - when choosing the right trail pole size remember they are designed to be more of a climbing aid rather than a descending aid. To find out your desired pole length calculate your body height in cm's by 0.68. Normally poles are measured from the top to the tip...but this can vary with makes. Size when stowed/not used – if collapsible will you stow the poles in a backpack or carry them? Weight – light is 'normally' right for running poles but are they strong enough for you if you intend to do any long periods of descending with them? If you have a history of sore knees and intend to 'trust' the poles to aid a long downhill section I would look at more durable pole to prevent a possible break. Does ultralight mean you loose power from the poling action because they bend? Carbon vs. Aluminium – generally carbon will be stronger, stiffer and more expensive. It's not unusual to have a carbon pole break/crack. Aluminium is normally cheaper, can also be light but for heavier runners will have too much flex. Fixed length or collapsible? I would only consider a fixed length pole if I was intending to use them for the entire training session /race in mind. Otherwise collapsible poles are far more versatile, easy to travel with and can be stowed when on flats and downs. Modern designs mean they are now far stronger and do not have 'heavy' joints between sections adding unnecessary weight. Which is the reason to go for a running pole not just a normal trekking pole. Comfort – in a long ultra event you will want to have tried and tested your hand grip to ensure you won't get any blisters on the hands and you may even prefer to wear a lightweight glove. Price – the most expensive is certainly not always the best. Easy to use – pole management on the move needs some practice, if you intend on being out on the trails for some time you will want to know that your poles are quick and easy to assemble and stow. Durability – if you have a number of events and rigorous training schedule ahead you will want something that lasts the test of time! One or two poles - for trail running the poles are certainly designed to be used as a pair and work more efficiently that way. Do beware of very cheap poles they are awkward to adjust, bend and the locking mechanisms fail easily. Whatever your budget there are poles that will fit your needs and save your knees! Top 4 Poles on Test Leki - Micro Magic Poles Most Durable
Weight: 400gm/pair of 110cms
Available in carbon grey/black only
Minimum packing size: 35cm for the 110cm version
The Micro Magic looks and feels like it will last the test of time. A 100% carbon pole with carbide flex tip that feels strong and stable. It features a cork grip and the Leki quick release detachable 'Trigger Shark' hand strap which neatly & comfortably wraps around almost any hand size but in my opinion would not be that easy to release once fatigued! They are comfy to use over long periods and you really feel connected to the pole. It folds to be quite compact with an easy to use push button release mechanism. Although not the lightest the extra weight helps give a positive swing and pole plant.
Uses: All terrain trail running pole tough enough for very technical/rocky trails. Very sturdy excellent to train with ideal for heavier/powerful armed runners!
Raidlight Carbon Trail Poles RRP. £125.00
Weight: 280gm/pair of 110cms
Sizes: 110cm or 123cm
Available in black only
Min packing size: 37cm for the 110cms
The RL Carbon pole combines light with strong featuring ultralight carbon tubing, tensioned with a simple strong paragliding a cable and finished with a Kevlar tip. The hand grip is a light mesh grip with a quick release detachable hand strap (an important feature when having to change clothes/ eat on the move) and their design works really swiftly. They are reasonably compact once folded. On test the pole feels strong and not as soft as most of the classic lightweight poles. It's a shame they've not made more sizes.
Uses: Ultra light trail running pole ideal for racing & training long distances and routes like the UTMB.
Mountain Kingdon - Trail Blaze Poles Superlight & Best Value
Weight: 230gm/pair of 110cms
Available in black, blue, pink, magenta, green, orange and yellow.
Min packing size: 38cm for 110cms
The Trail Blaze poles are the only aluminium poles in the test and are noticeably the lightest collapsing neatly into 4 sections for easy stowing. The airflow hand grip is just a simple one sized wrist loop but very comfortable & easy to use it doesn't detach and for a small hand is a bit too big. They fix in place with a perlon cord under tension, finished with a carbide wear tip. They come in many sizes and colours with a mesh carry bag and mud baskets. For aluminium they seem particularly strong, whilst being as light weight as possible. They are extremely good value and offer replacement parts of all sections if needed!
Uses: Ultra light trail running pole ideal for racing & training long distances and routes like the UTMB. Heavier runners may wish to test the pole flex if you intend to use them for long descents.
Black Diamond - Ultra Distance Trekking Pole Good All-rounder
Weight: 285gm/pair of 110cms
Available in carbon/blue
Min packing size: 36.5cm for 110cms
The BD Ultra Distance Poles are 100% carbon and combine super lightweight with compact and sturdy. They are not the cheapest on test but I think you do get your money's worth in design. They feature a 3-section 'Z-Pole' folding design with a coated inner cord & single push-button release. They smoothly take seconds to put together. They have a foam grip with a breathable, moisture-wicking non-detachable strap, carbide Tech Tips and stow bag. On test they score well for lightness on the ups and stability on the downs.
Uses: All terrain trail running pole tough enough for very technical/rocky trails & long downhills. Both sturdy and light excellent to train & race suitable for all category of runner.
For a combination of lightweight and light on the wallet the Trail Blazer is hard to beat if you have more to spend then Black Diamond would be my next on the list.