Monday, September 25, 2017

Two Poles or NOT Two Poles ~ There is NO question

Learning to use trekking poles for hiking is a skill that all hikers will, at some point, appreciate.  Whether you’re 30 or 90, optimal use of poles provides significant benefits on the trail.  (click on any photo to enlarge).

In this post we’ll discuss

  • Why Poles?
  • Why Optimal Use?
  • Benefits of Optimal Use of Poles
  • 3 Goals with Poles
  • Common Mistakes
  • Pole Etiquette
  • FAQs

Why Poles?

Our natural walking pattern is a reciprocal gait, the diagonal pattern of opposite arm and leg, which enables spinal rotation.  This spinal rotation feels good, looks young and is healthy.

As we age, spine function diminishes.  Without focused attention, gravity acts, the spine compresses and we get shorter. Using poles for exercise walking and for hiking can actually reverse the spinal compression.  Optimal use of poles recruits large core muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius and oblique muscles.  Muscles, when used, strengthen.  Using poles enables us to engage (and therefore strengthen) our upper body muscles to help preserve our joints and get taller!

Why Optimal Use? ~ Imagine being able to WD-40 your spine 🙂

 Learning optimal use of poles is key to achieving the many benefits.  The natural arm swing is how you can engage that healthy spinal rotation and muscle recruitment.  Non-optimal use can involve repetitive movement of a joint, which can cause joint stress.  The “death grip,” for example, can cause tension in the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and even the neck.  Using poles in a way that does not look or feel like the natural walking pattern can negate some of the many benefits and cause strain.

3 Goals with Poles

When using trekking poles for hiking, you want to focus on 3 things:

  • On flat terrain, you want either ease of use or exercise.
  • On uphill terrain, you want more power and improved endurance.
  • On downhill terrain, you want to reduce joint stress on your hips and knees.

It’s that simple.  Learning optimal use will enable you to achieve these goals.

Common Mistakes

  • Incorrect use of straps (this blog has a 3 minute video on how to adjust and use straps)
  • Non-optimal pole length (stay tuned for part 2 of this article)
  • Incurring joint stress vs. muscle recruitment/strengthening
  • Inappropriate pole etiquette (see below)

Pole Etiquette

Why don’t some people want to hike with pole users? I’ve heard people say they get stabbed or impaled on the trail.   Pole users: please be aware and considerate!   Victims of pole improprieties: Rather than shunning all pole users, let’s educate them.  Here are some tips:

  • Poles are not swords and should not be waved around.
  • Know where your pole tips are at all times.
  • Keep a safe distance between hikers.  If a pole hiker is crowding you, step aside and let him or her pass.
  • On steep uphill, poles can slip backwards and the sharp trail tips can put out an eye of someone hiking behind.
  • On steep downhill, allow extra space, especially in front.
  • If someone behind you is reaching forward with his or her poles, a sharp tip could jab your Achilles tendon. Just step aside and let the pole user (who is using seriously non-optimal technique) pass.
  • People carrying (not using) poles should know where their tips are.  Usually they can turn their tips forward to avoid accidentally stabbing someone.
  • Hiking with poles tucked into their arms can stab the hiker behind them if stopping suddenly.
  • People who lay their poles on the ground in the middle of the trail are at risk of having their poles stepped on, tripped on and broken.
  • If you stop to adjust your poles on the trail, do not face sharp trail tips towards the middle of the trail (no swordplay).
  • When taking poles apart to dry or clean, point tips down—not at your buddies or car windows.
  • Carry your rubber tips with you at all times.  If you encounter pavement, using rubber tips will save your trail tips and be way less noisy.  Noisy poles can be very annoying.  Rubber tips also can protect fragile surfaces.
  • If you hike with poles and are stabbing the ground, this noise can also annoy people.
  • At lunch stops, prop your poles out of the way, and not in the dirt or poison ivy.  (If the straps get dirty, the dirt can chafe your hands.)

Hiking Pole FAQs

Following are some of the most frequently asked questions I get from pole users and people who are considering using poles for hiking, walking, exercise and mobility:

FAQ: I know how to walk, so I can use poles without any instruction, right?

We weren’t born knowing how to walk.  We learned step by step until we could crawl, walk and run.

So yes, anyone can pick up poles and reduce knee stress, but that saved stress and energy has to go somewhere. With non-optimal technique, we risk injury and strain because that saved knee stress can transfer to the fragile joints of the hand, wrist, shoulder or even the neck.  With optimal pole technique, the energy goes to the core muscles of your body instead. When muscles are used, they strengthen.  Optimal technique enables you to use these stronger muscles to help preserve and protect your joints.

FAQ: Which is better: one pole or two?

Using two poles enables you to use your whole body while walking or hiking.

Using one pole can give you a little extra stability (over none), but at a cost. No matter how careful you are, using just one side of your body can create and even reinforce imbalance.  When you go downhill, gravity creates load in your knees. Using one pole can relieve some of this pressure, but it usually involves twisting and can create torque on your spine and potential stress in your shoulder and wrist joints.

Using two poles (with optimal technique), you strengthen upper body muscles and achieve both spinal rotation and elongation, which is very healthy for your spine.  Going downhill, you’ll bilaterally recruit your upper body muscles, including pectorals, rectus abdominus and biceps.  You’ll notice better balance and power. Because you’re using more muscles, you’ll notice you have more endurance but will feel less exertion!

FAQ: Can I become dependent on poles?

When using poles, do we lose some ability to use balance muscles?  I believe it IS possible to become reliant on your poles.  Is it a good idea to occasionally hike without your poles?  This is a very personal decision made based on your ability, the terrain and your goals.

When do I use my LEKI poles?

  • When I know I need them
  • When I have no idea what I’m getting into
  • When I want the total body experience and upper body workout
  • When hiking with someone stronger or faster (using poles give me an extra “edge”)

Hiking without poles can challenge, enhance and improve your agility and balance muscles, and may enable you to be more aware of your feet and legs (improving proprioception).  You will use muscles differently than when you are hiking with poles.  Exercising in different ways is important for achieving your optimal fitness.

Part 2 of this article focuses on how to learn to use poles so that you can achieve the 3 goals as well as which poles to select.  Stay tuned.

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