Top

Reader Q || Poles for ultra trail running: recommendations, sizing, & carrying

Pushing hard on my poles at UTMB, climbing out of Arnouvaz towards Grand Col Ferret shortly after sunrise at Mile 61.

From reader Matt. P of Knoxville:

I’ve been hiking for years with conventional telescoping poles and love them. But in May I’m running/hiking the Cruel Jewel 100, which has 33,000 vertical feet of gain, and I’m looking for a trekking pole that is better suited to an ultra trail marathon. What poles do you recommend, and do you have any tips on how to size and carry them?

The value of poles in an ultra depends on:

  • Individual fitness,
  • Course length, and
  • Amount of vertical climbing.

Essentially, the more hiking you expect to do, the more valuable they will be. Participants in the middle and back of the pack will hike more than the front-runners, but some courses like Hardrock — a 100-miler with over 30,000 vertical feet of climbing at elevations up to 13,000 feet above sea level — bring even the world’s fittest ultra runners to a crawl. Whether to bring poles is a personal decision for every competitor: Is the benefit worth some added weight and fuss?

I’ve used poles only in two races: Vulcano Ultra Trail, a 100k with 13,000 vertical feet of gain and 30 miles of beach sand-like volcanic ash; and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the famous 100-miler in Europe that last year had 32,000 vertical feet of gain. Other runners in these races made their own calculation.

Benefits of poles for ultra runners

Backpackers have considered poles to be essential equipment for many years, and ultra “runners” are slowly coming around. When I ran the Leadville 100 in 2008, I was one of the few who used them. But when I last spectated the race in 2013, they seemed much more common. The realization is, “If Kilian, Francois, and Walmsley all use poles in hard races, maybe I should, too.”

Poles enable the arms to help the legs with forward and upward propulsion, and with braking on descents. Net energy burn may actually be greater with poles, but the workload endured by the legs is reduced, helping to preserve strength for later in the race. Poles also provide stability on slick surfaces like mud or wet rocks, and additional points of contact when fording or rock-hopping across streams.

Recommended poles for ultra runners

Traditional telescoping poles like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (long-term review) or Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles (long-term review) do not work well for ultra running. They are:

  • Too unwieldy even at their minimum length;
  • Slow to extend or collapse; and,
  • Unnecessarily sturdy (and heavy).

Much more appropriate for ultra running are foldable poles like the:

These models pack down much smaller, and are therefore less clumsy to carry. For example, my 47.2-in (120-cm) poles collapse to just 15.4 in (40 cm). In comparison, my go-to backpacking poles collapse to just 25 in (63 cm), or almost 10 inches longer.

Foldable poles are dramatically shorter than traditional telescoping poles, making them much less unwieldy while being carried.

Most foldable models are fixed-length, i.e. non-adjustable. Some offer a micro-adjustment of 6 inches (15 cm) but I don’t find this to be a valuable feature for ultra running. It also adds weight and expense — about $20 and 3 oz per pair, in the case of the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z versus the Distance Carbon FLZ.

To keep these poles lightweight, these poles have thin shafts that are not as strong or sturdy as most telescoping poles. But for running/hiking on trails without a heavy pack, I think they are sufficient, and I don’t see reason to buy poles with beefier shafts like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Z.

The length of traditional telescoping poles is finely adjustable, whereas most foldable poles are fixed-length. To collapse them, press the push-button at the lower end of the grip. To lock them, extend the poles until the bush-button snaps into place.

Sizing

When holding my pole vertically, I like my elbow to be at a 90-degree angle. If I’m between sizes, I size up, so that my elbow is slightly less than 90 degrees. A longer pole allows for a more sustained push, as demonstrated by Nordic skiers.

Baskets & straps

If possible, I remove the included “mud baskets” — they serve little purpose, and they slow down the swing speed.

Straps are more optional. With them, greater pressure can be applied to the pole, and they need not be held so tightly. However, they tether the poles to my hands, which I also need for eating, drinking, and — God forbid — catching myself if I were to fall. For races with long, sustained climbs, they make more sense to me than on rolling courses with short but constant climbs that will necessitate frequent transitions.

Carrying

Do not wait until race day to determine how best to carry poles when not in use. Bring them on training runs beforehand so that you can practice transitions and experiment with various carrying options. If you do not heed this advice, you will probably find the the poles to be clumsy and you will probably lose time to futzing with them.

There are several options for carrying stowed poles, listed below. Your equipment may have a default method — if you don’t like it, buy something different or modify its attachment system.

There is no perfect technique — each has downsides, some more than others. Ultimately, your method should:

  • Allow for a quick and clean transition;
  • Secure the poles well, with no bouncing and no risk of them falling out; and,
  • Keep your hands free and your poles out of the way.

Prior to Vulcano Ultra Trail I had not trained with my poles and did not have a good way to carry them, besides in my hands. I thought the poles were worth it, but I regretted my lack of preparation.

Questions about buying or using poles for an ultra? Have an experience that you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.



14 Responses to Reader Q || Poles for ultra trail running: recommendations, sizing, & carrying

  1. Chris February 26, 2018 at 4:40 pm #

    Andrew,

    Great article. Poles can be the difference between finishing and DNFing for mid-pack runners, particularly as downhills become the limiting factor late in races. During training, I spent lots of time experimenting with an effective carry system. While I ultimately found that the Salomon ADV 12 holds the Carbon Zs securely, one still must mess with straps and make an awkward reach – things I am not inclined to do after 20-40 hours of moving. The quiver seems to offer a solution that is simpler – just slide the poles in. But I can’t seem to find an actual retailer who will sell them in the US (the Salomon site does not have purchase option). Do you know where the quiver can be purchased?

    • Michael February 26, 2018 at 7:03 pm #

      Runningwarehouse has them.

  2. Chris February 26, 2018 at 8:09 pm #

    Thanks Michael. Will try out the quiver and report back.

    • Ryan October 4, 2018 at 5:08 am #

      How did you attach the Custom Quiver to the Avd 12 set?

  3. Sabine Heiland February 27, 2018 at 7:20 am #

    Great and very informative article. Regarding the ways to carry poles, I have written a blog post after last year’s UTMB. It is in german, but I guess that the photos speak for themselves.

    • Mathias February 27, 2018 at 10:04 am #

      Toller Artikel! Danke!

  4. Ron LaPoint February 27, 2018 at 7:56 am #

    The Naked Running Band works wonders for me! Of all the options I’ve tried, the Naked band allows me the quickest access to poles, it’s my #1 piece of running gear!!!

  5. Aaron S. February 27, 2018 at 8:56 am #

    Hi Andrew!

    I’m fond of using the nordic/skimo method for pole length. Being over 6 feet tall kind of relegates me to 130cm. But at the same time in the winter, using my 140 Nordic poles when running has been pretty effective.

    As for carrying them, I don’t mind the ultimate direction idea of the over the shoulder salomon method. Most often I find myself just carrying them.

    • Andrew Skurka February 27, 2018 at 9:09 am #

      Do you find that such long poles get cumbersome on semi-technical trail, e.g. rocky or staircases? I agree that a longer pole affords more push-off, but to me they seem limited to wide, smooth trails that could double as a Nordic trail in the winter.

      • Aaron S. February 27, 2018 at 9:18 am #

        That is a fantastic question, the more technical the terrain becomes, the more I like the long “drive” of my poles. I think they generally work best for smoother terrain as well however, I plan on using poles for the first time in a race this year, because of skimo.. it just makes too much sense at this point.

        One thing I’ve noticed in areas like the gore range, I appreciate them for stability as well, though as soon as I hit about class 3, I generally dump them in my bag. Though I have seen a wiley character using them in the flatirons!

  6. Joe March 1, 2018 at 1:07 pm #

    I’m not an ultra-runner, but I have thoughts on pole length.

    As Andrew has said in other posts, various hand positions are very useful.

    Most seem to choose length as the most comfortable for flats, using the full grip, but I have found that a lower grip, encircling the “heel swell” of the grip with my thumb and forefinger every bit as comfortable and powerful as the higher, full grip.

    So now I adjust length to that middle grip as default, and still have the instantly available option of a 3″ longer pole when useful. It often is.

    And of course I still have the short grip below, but I seldom use it.

    For me, pushoffs with trekking poles never begin to approach the force of those with ski poles, and straps are just annoying and useless.

    Belt and suspenders.

  7. Joe March 18, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

    I recently watched a video of UTMB where Francois apparently ran the whole thing with his poles in his hands, ready for use, but rarely using them. Bombing down roadie hills with poles wildly flailing.

    He beat Kilian, so I reckon it worked OK.

    It inspired me to try it, and I’m finding it’s working for me too.

    On moderate running climbs, the pole gives me a boost when needed, even if I don’t plant on every stride. It’s especially helpful for that occasional big step up.

    With the pole, I’m running up hills I’d otherwise walk.

    It’s still kind of annoying in my hand on downhills and flats, but carrying it horizontally at the balance point mitigates that. I ditched the straps.

    I’m moving toward just keeping the pole ready in my hand for use all the time, I think.

    But as noted above, I’m not an ultrarunner. Yet.

  8. Chris March 23, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    I purchased one of the Salomon quivers and recently took it on a long training run. First impressions: it is by far the simplest system for quickly stowing poles that I have used. Once the poles are broken down, it takes less than 5 seconds to stow and involves no messing with straps. Once stowed, the poles seemed secure while running, no rattling.

    Potential limitations: (1) The straps that attach the quiver work appear to be designed for Salomon vests; they may not be compatible with other vests. (2) The quiver is sized to fit Z-poles and other poles that break down; telescoping poles really stick out the top.

    To Matt’s original question, even on a course like Cruel Jewel where poles would probably be in my hands 90% of the time, I would consider the quiver. I see the benefit primarily in aid stations – especially if you are not elite and/or do not have a dedicated crew support. Quick storage frees up two hands and avoids the risk of losing/breaking/mixing up poles in crowded aid stations. It also could limit aid station time by making it easier to fill up your cup and grab a sandwich and keep hiking while eating.

  9. Mitch April 28, 2018 at 7:30 pm #

    Personally I have had great experiences with the Gossamer Gear LT3C poles, which are fixed-length, single-piece. Specific to Matt’s question, I used them on the Cruel Jewel 50 last year, and will be using them on the Cruel Jewel 100 next month. Sure, as a long piece of carbon fiber, they are unwieldy to transport or stow away during a run, but that small annoyance is more than offset by running with a 2.8oz pole in each hand.

    Sizing – I prefer to go shorter than the norm at 120cm length – although technically “too small” for me at 6’4″, I’ve found that relatively shorter poles (i.e. elbow angle on level ground closer to 100 rather than 90 degrees) provides better control, generates more power on the ascents, and keeps my posture more aligned on the descents with the poles planting closer to my feet rather than out ahead and below me.

    Carrying – For something like the Cruel Jewel, I’d be using the poles on every step for all the ascents and steep descents, and for the easier flatter terrain than I’m running I’d just choke up to the balance point like Joe mentioned and run with them horizontally. If I need my hands free, I just tuck the poles under an armpit and voila.

    Looking forward to when Ultimate Direction finally releases their fixed-length carbon pole to compete with the LT3C. The only other pole in this class that I’m aware of is the BD Vapor Carbon poles which are a “hefty” 5.5oz each. Andrew’s got reviews on both of these.

Leave a Reply