Trail Running with Trekking Poles

Trail Running with Trekking Poles

Trekking poles can be valuable tools for trail runners, especially ultra-distance and mountain runners. They provide a variety of benefits, like giving you two extra points of contact with the ground and providing you extra stability on unstable terrain. They can help reduce some of the strain on your legs and help your posture and they can even double as tent poles for some lightweight shelters.

Trekking poles are most frequently used by runners on steep trails and technical terrain. I’m an avid ultra-distance runner and I regularly run with trekking poles, especially on mountainous routes with loose footing.

Do You Need Poles for Trail Running?

Poles or no poles? Do you really need them? Running with trekking poles is not for everyone or every scenario. Some runners swear by them while others can’t stand having something in their hands while they run. Using trekking poles is largely a personal preference, and while they can provide many benefits, there are also some downsides. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of running with trekking poles.

Using trekking poles is largely a personal preference, and while they can provide many benefits, there are also some downsides.

Pros of Running With Trekking Poles

Lateral stability and balance are improved

With two extra points of contact with the ground, it’s easier to catch yourself if you trip, slip, and lose footing, which is guaranteed to happen at some point on-trail. This is especially noticeable on technical, unstable, or snowy terrain. I’ve tripped and caught myself with my trekking poles on multiple occasions, and have also used them to help me pivot around corners when navigating down steep, tight switchbacks.

Improved posture

Running form and posture begin to suffer as fatigue sets in, which can impact running economy and increase the risk of injury. If you’ve ever tackled steep hills, you’ve probably done the hands-on-knees trick where you use your hands to push off your legs. While helpful and great for situations where you won’t need poles for a majority of the time, this forces you to stoop over, collapsing your chest and impacting breathing. Trekking poles help to keep you more upright, opening your chest and maintaining running form.

Less leg fatigue

It may seem obvious, but running with trekking poles will take some of the workload off your lower body and apply it to the upper body. Spreading out the workload like this can help reduce fatigue in the leg muscles, potentially allowing you to travel further and keeping your legs fresher. It’s worth noting that applying some of the workload to your upper body will fatigue your arms and shoulders, so it’s imperative that you practice with your poles before committing to them for a big race.

Lengthening your stride

They might make you faster. Using your upper body to propel you forward lengthens your stride on all terrains. This is another reason to make sure to practice running with your trekking poles, because a change in stride length is a change in running form, and a change in running form means altered muscle engagement.

Trekking poles that don't collapse or are still long when collapsed can be awkward to stow away
Trekking poles that don’t collapse or are still long when collapsed can be awkward to stow away.

Cons of Running With Trekking Poles

They’re another item to carry

Chances are that you won’t be using your trekking poles at all times during a run, so you have to figure out some way to carry them while running, or you may need a way to stow them in your pack. Having additional items in your running kit also means extra weight, bulk, and hassle.

They can get in the way

To a fatigued runner, having to jostle trekking poles around might be enough of an annoyance that the runner doesn’t eat or hydrate as they should. Or, as I’ve done on more than one occasion, you can trip on them, kick them, or even give yourself a hefty whack. I’ve accidentally kicked a trekking pole right out of my hand and sent it sailing off the side of a steep trail. Another trip-up led to a painful welt on my shin from accidentally hitting myself with the pole.

They add complexity

Altered stride, extra weight, dispersed workload, additional skill… these are all reasons that you’ll need to train with your poles. You may lose a lot of time in a trail race just having to stow or deploy your poles from your pack, especially if you don’t practice the movements. Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t wait until the week before your big race to make the decision to run with trekking poles.

Trekking poles can get hung up in brush

This is probably my biggest annoyance with trekking poles. Running, or even hiking, in areas with a lot of brush or undergrowth can make the use of trekking poles nearly impossible because they get tangled and caught. Trekking poles can also have an impact on the environment, especially on heavily trafficked trails and in delicate ecosystems by destroying trailside soils and damaging plants, leading to erosion.

The proper way to put your hand through wrist strap is to go through the strap from underneath
The proper way to put your hand through wrist strap is to go through the strap from underneath.

Types of Running Poles

There are three main types of trekking poles that runners use.

1. Fixed length & non-collapsible running poles

Without any of the extra components that collapsible poles have, this style tends to be incredibly lightweight. The downside is that they can’t easily be stowed away in a pack, so you’re stuck with them in your hands – not such a big deal if you plan on using them the entire time. Also, for the destination-driven runner, non-collapsible poles can be difficult to travel with by plane.

2. Collapsible, telescoping running poles

The real MVP for the frugal adventurer, this is the great “all-around” pole. A telescoping pole can be used for running, fastpacking, and backpacking, and can be adjusted to fit the terrain (shorter for uphill, longer for downhill, or one short and one long for sidehill traverses). For the adept mountain runner, a telescoping pole can also be used to self-arrest a fall on steep snow or even glissade. I have found that dirt or ice can sometimes hinder the ability to collapse them.

3. Collapsible, folding running poles

This is the style that most runners choose because they are lightweight and easily broken down for stowing. Folding poles tend to be extremely reliable because the folding function is less likely to be jammed by dirt or ice than the telescoping style. An added plus is that many running packs now come with features to stow folding poles.

Most running poles collapse into three sections.
Most running poles collapse into three sections.

Choosing the Right Running Poles

Choosing a trekking pole is largely based on personal preference. I wish I could tell you what pole to use in what situation, but there are many things that will factor into your decision-making. Here are a few that you’ll want to be aware of:

Length

Most trekking pole manufacturers provide size charts based on your height for ordering online. However, if you’re shopping in a store it’s a good idea to make sure the pole length is within an ideal range for you. Do this by standing with elbows at your sides and poles in your hands. Your elbows should be bent at about a 90-degree angle, putting your forearms parallel with the ground. It is okay if your elbows are bent a little more or a little less (+/- 10 degrees).

Material

Aluminum or carbon? Carbon trekking poles are lightweight and extremely strong when force is applied from the top down, but used incorrectly, or in situations where they might get levered between two rocks, they can easily break. Aluminum poles are a little heavier, but can take a beating more gracefully, and will bend or dent rather than break. That said, most runners choose carbon poles.

Grip

More often than not, trail running poles have foam grips because foam is lightweight. Cork and hard plastic grips are durable, but can be slippery in sweaty hands and tend to be heavier than foam. Size and shape also play a factor. Some poles have a grip that extends down the shaft of the pole, giving you a place to choke down on the pole when going up steep hills. I like this feature because it effectively allows you to shorten the pole without stopping and adjusting the height.

Sometimes the grip can cause blisters or hotspots on your hands with prolonged use. It’s a frustrating but common problem. If this happens to you, don’t get rid of those poles yet! You can pick up a pair of gloves to help protect your hands, like the Outdoor Research ActiveIce Sun Gloves (women’s, men’s).

Wrist Straps

Make sure you pay attention to the wrist strap when choosing your pole. Thinner straps can be a little more uncomfortable to push into, while wider or more padded straps can be more comfortable. Alternatively, LEKI has an innovative harness system that locks your hand to the pole itself.

It’s also important to note the correct way to put your hand through the strap; your hand should enter the strap from the bottom, so that the strap loops around the back of your hand. This is more secure, and allows you to relax your hand while pushing into the strap.

Men’s Specific and Women’s Specific

Yes, there are differences between men’s and women’s trekking poles. Women’s poles tend to come in shorter lengths and have smaller grips, which is important to be aware of. If you have a taller frame with bigger hands, men’s trekking poles will probably work better for you, and vice versa.

Many running packs have built-in features for storing trekking poles
Many running packs have built-in features for storing trekking poles

Recommended Trekking Poles

I have used many types of poles from several different brands. Here are some of my favorites:

Leki MCT 12 Vario: This has quickly become my favorite pole (I use the women’s specific version). They are super lightweight, durable, and I am in love with the hand harness feature. Leki’s hand harness system easily locks into the grip. It’s comfortable and allows for maximum downward force while reducing fatigue in the hands.

  • The drawback: the hand harness can be sweaty compared to other wrist straps.
  • Construction: Folding, adjustable length
  • Material: Carbon

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking/Running Poles: Black Diamond Z poles are a go-to for many runners because they are both affordable, good quality, and extremely lightweight. The extended foam grip allows you to choke down on the pole if needed.

  • The drawback: In my experience with these poles, they tend to break easily, however, the design has been updated with reinforced joints since the last set I owned and they have been receiving raving reviews.
  • Construction: Folding, fixed length
  • Material: Carbon

Gossamer Gear LT5 Trekking Poles:  The telescoping feature makes them ideal for use as tent poles for some lightweight shelters for fastpacking. Light enough to run with, they are an excellent option as your good-for-everything pole.

  • The drawback: They are quite long when collapsed, making them difficult to stow away in a pack.
  • Construction: Telescoping, adjustable length
  • Material: Carbon
It's important to consider what you'll be using the trekking poles for, and for how long
It’s important to consider what you’ll be using the trekking poles for, and for how long

Getting Started with Running Poles

There’s a lot to consider when contemplating using trekking poles for trail running, and let’s be fair, it can be really awkward running with poles at first. Try borrowing a set from a friend to try before you buy, or you can see about renting a set from your local gear rental. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re still not sure if running with poles is for you, feel free to ask me questions.

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About the author

Ashly Winchester spends most of her time roaming and running around the wild spaces of California and the Pacific Northwest. She has an insatiable appetite for adventure, which led her to become a mountain guide on Northern California's gem, Mount Shasta, and set a goal of climbing all of the Cascade volcanoes. She is an avid hiker and backpacker, but really comes alive when she's running long distances on trails, so it makes sense that she has started combining these activities into fastpacking trips. Even though she likes to move fast, Ashly also likes to slow down and study native plants and their traditional uses. You'll often find her examining plants on the trail and taking photos of them for identification. Find Ashly on her instagram, @ashly.winchester, or tune in to her podcast over at womxnofthewild.com

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12 comments

  1. Excellent discussion. I use poles for hiking, not running, but the factors are similar — just less intense. I sometimes use poles and sometimes don’t, but I always have them when using snowshoes or traction devices. What I think is missing from this article is the tendency of some users to rely too much on their poles. Especially when tired or on slippery terrain, some people put too much weight on their poles, throwing their center of gravity out of line. I’ve seen almost as many falls caused by leaning too much on poles as avoided by using poles for stabilization. Poles can be useful to reduce the strain on your ankles, knees and hips, but those are still far stronger than your wrists, elbows and shoulders. I also cringe when I see people stubbornly trying to use their poles when they should put them away to free their hands for boulder scrambling. Since it has been icy lately, I’ve also noticed that some people need to replace the worn-down steel tips on their poles. These are all matters of degree, rather than absolutely correct or incorrect approaches.

    • Thanks so much, MarkR. You make an excellent point – trekking poles are useful tools but they are not crutches, and shouldn’t be treated as such. One thing that I did not completely dive into in this post was how to properly use trekking poles while running. It’s kind of amazing how much of a discussion can be had over poles. Maybe a future post ;) Thanks so much for your input and for adding value here!

    • Hiking and running with poles are completely different from each other.

      The former uses poles as crutches, mostly for the dubious benefit of weight/effort distribution (legs are much better to use than arms.) The latter for dynamic speed improvement (via balance and risk reduction.)

      I’m a 40+ mile per week “mountain” runner and can’t count the number of fast downhill falls they’ve prevented, especially in the wet. They double your speed on slick descents by adding a “third foot” when you inevitably slip at speed.

      For hiking, they provide a marginal improvement in things like water crossings (and something to satisfy a “gear craving” that marketers play to), but for running over rough terrain, they are game changer.

      • Chris – great observations. They’ve saved me from some pretty gnarly falls as well.

        I guess you could say that if you’re running and you start using your poles as crutches, you’re pretty much hiking at that point!

  2. Great explanation on the different uses in running vs backpacking. I’ve had the leki mct 12 vario poles for a while now and really like them especially when i can just unhook the hand harness and run with the poles. Poles are especially useful going uphill, your point on improving posture is spot on. Ras the UltraPedestrian has a video on youtube for trekking pole techniques where he shows a double pole technique that works well. They are also good for pushing poison ivy out of the way and testing the depth of mud. How about an article on fastpacking ? Im just dipping my toes into this variation of backpacking and running. I bet you would have some good ideas to share !

  3. I do not see Pacer Poles mentioned, despite their deserved popularity among hikers and runners. They were designed by a British PT, and in my opinion, are heads and shoulders preferable to any of the poles sold by larger corporations.

    • You probably wouldn’t run with them. I’ve been using them for close to a decade and I think I’d prefer something with a less pronounced wrist cant and that required less pressure when running.

    • I would certainly be hesitant to run with them, although admittedly I have no experience using PacerPoles. I do feel that the angle might put too much pressure on the wrist while running, especially if you need to use the pole to catch a fall on a downhill.

  4. I am a new convert to trail running with Trekking Poles!! …I have tripped many times trail running and always caught myself but last year I had a bad fall (tripped on a root or tip of a rock barely sticking up from the ground) while trail running and fell really hard. I was really surprised how much damage one can do to oneself from such a fall …I hit my head on a rock, scraped up my bloody face, broke ribs and had a huge gash 6” long on my upper thigh.

    While recovering I came across an article about Europeans who commonly trail run with trekking poles. I gave it a try …and no will no trail run without them.

    It’s like a “ elliptical machine motion“ with your arms …I’ve been doing it now for 9 months and it’s second nature. The poles have saved me a few times now …I barely even notice a trip or stumble because the poles support me and my momentum continues forward …also helps me maintain my speed downhill as well.

    It’s awkward for the first run then it will become second nature …I thought I would have to give up running on the trails and the poles have renewed my running.

    • Charles B, that must have been one big fall! I’m so glad you’re okay and that you didn’t give up on trail running! Poles can make such a big difference on techy terrain. They’ve definitely saved me from some gnarly falls too. It’s kind of amazing how they feel so awkward at first, but once you get used to them it’s like they’re an extension of your body.

  5. I have Pacerpoles and I don’t run with them… but then again, I don’t run on trails, period… unless something’s chasing me… then I use the poles as weapons!

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