Tucson in January. Below is a desert pony. This saguaro skeleton really was like a prancing pony. To the right is a healthy young saguaro in front of a Palo Verde (AZ state tree and very green 🙂
Saguaros can grow to 60” tall (although the tallest we saw was probably 20′ and, according to the Sabino guide, the largest was 75′, they can go 3 years without water, they don’t flower until 35 years of age and it takes 75 years for the first arm to grow so they get to be very old.
Rain in the desert is magical and it poured while I was there. Below: The tannins from oaks on Mt. Lemmon cause the water in Sabino canyon to be brown. Next to the water are saguaro reflections in a small lake. Click on any photo (especially the reflections one below and the pony above) to enlarge and click the back button to return to post.
After a hard early-morning hike, I relaxed on a tram ride up Sabino Canyon: canyon waterfall (note the brown water and striated rocks), a VERY little cactus – see the pole tip to the L of it and how the spines look like little fishhooks? I was enchanted by the color of the rocks very near the waterfall.
At the Desert Museum, we were honored to see my cousin’s photographic exhibit. After enjoying Howard’s amazing photographs of Arizona nature, I explored the museum and saw some wonderful creatures including Bighorn sheep, Grosbeak, walking like a duck and a female cardinal.
When hiking in the desert, the locals go early. The morning we blasted up Blackett’s ridge, we hit the trail promptly at 7 a.m. In the summer they start at 5 or 5:30 to beat the heat. The terrain is rocky and steep. I use my poles in the desert and love the long foam grips for when I’m on frequently changing and rocky terrain.
Above is my on-the-go morning shot and a picture Cousin Howard took of me. Morteros – grinding holes – are part of ancient cultures’ kitchens. Finding one in the desert (usually near a stream) is special!
Bob is 65. He works hard so ends up being a weekend warrior which puts him at increased risk for injury. On our Thanksgiving trip to Utah, we hiked 6 days in a row. We would not have even considered doing this without our poles.
People are always asking – POLES? Why???? They seem surprised when we answer – Poles feel good – it’s great whole body exercise. They get us places we want to go, for instance, Part 3 of our journey:
I remember the lady in sandals who had driven to the top of Mt. Tam’s East Peak asking me, as I had just climbed to the top of the mountain, if my poles were canes. Can you imagine?
Let’s talk about improving power on the up hill. Hauling yourself up with small muscles in your shoulders is not only inefficient, it’s also potentially harmful to your shoulder joint. Why NOT use big muscles in your back – the ones that support and elongate your spine? (uh, the ones that keep you tall and reverse the aging process).
Notice the angle of the poles. Click on any picture to enlarge and click back button to return to post. Notice how Bob’s arms are relatively straight. The latissimus dorsi muscles are attached to the humerus. Elbow pumping does not engage the lats only the whole arm movement does. This also engages your obliques. Imagine someone walking behind you squirting WD-40 into your spine as you walk. That’s what optimal technique feels like 🙂
What about down? Do you have knees? Photo #1 above – Remember, if you flick the poles out in front of you on the down, they’ll support your lower body joints and engage rectus abdominus, pecs and biceps. The steeper the hill, the smaller the steps. Photo # 3 above – If I had $300 to casually spend, this vase would be in my new living room. We found it at the visitor center of Grand Staircase Escalante.
Photo #1 above, Bob using plant push technique – power at 8,000′ on the 6th day of hiking…thank you VERY much 🙂
Photo #2 above is me in front of Calf Creek Falls – a lovely and easy 6 mile hike (in and out) at Grand Staircase Escalante on the way to Bryce. Driving from Moab to Bryce is one of the most stunning road trips if you go via Torrey. Make sure to stop in at the Red Desert Candy Company in Torrey and get some of their Red Desert Jellies and Truffles as well as a cup of chai or a latte for the road. You’re hiking – what better time to splurge?
Photo #3 is a really great example of the swing assist for making time on downhill. Join us on a practice hike to learn/practice this wonderful technique.
Photo #4 is from the Nature Center at Zion. We took the scenic route back towards Vegas from Bryce through Zion – another amazing road experience.
So, will learning optimal use of poles really make a difference? YES!
Enjoy the outdoors, enjoy your poles 🙂
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
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.
- 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)
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.
The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is the largest park district in the nation; second largest in the world. Every 2 months, they have an activity guide called Regional In Nature “RIN” in which they list an amazing array of classes/workshops/events, including a variety of PoleWalking classes and practice hikes/walks…presented and taught by yours truly 🙂 My class sizes are limited to facilitate optimal learning. They fill fast, so reserve early.
Friday’s Practice Pole Hike at Tilden Park’s Botanic Garden was magical. Go NOW! It’s Free! Glorious blooming flowers smile at you! The creeks are roaring and you get to explore the entire State of CA (botanically) in about 2 hours. Stop in the nature center, say howdy, and see the cool pine cone display. EBRPD staff are friendly, knowledgeable and genuinely interested in helping you have the best possible experience in the park you visit. Above are the Fawn Lillies and the Giant Wake Robin (Trillium). Click on any picture to enlarge then the back button to return to post.
Below, in photo #3 Helen’s poles are behind her on the stairs – they would support her better if they were out in front of her. I met Helen at Yosemite Conservancy’s Spring Forum (scroll down to see that blog post). At 85, she wants to keep hiking so I encouraged to her come to the Botanic Gardens Practice Hike. It was a lovely afternoon in a spectacular setting 🙂 We wandered all around the Gardens exploring and marveling at our CA abundance.
The next day, Saturday, was our 3rd time this year at Black Diamond Mines Regional Park. May-Oct we head to cooler climes. But right now, it’s spectacular. Take the Mine Tour 🙂
The morning Basic Skills Class was a great intro for 11 Happy Hikers. We cover the basics, learn (or re-learn) how to walk with attitude and spinal rotation, then we pick a hill with reasonable footing and march up and down. We practice powering up the hill and supporting our joints on the down. We lengthen, then lengthen again, again and again until we know the OPTIMAL length to use on downhill. It’s not until you know what TOO long is, that you will feel what long enough does for your knees. This phenomenon is something you really want to experience. Having good hand and body position is essential, but pole length is an important factor in achieving optimal performance when hiking downhill.
On our afternoon Practice PoleHike, we started and ended with the steep mine tailings – working on our footing and doing lots of adjusting to FEEL the optimal length on the downs. Then we wandered over to the Visitor Center Mine which is OPEN after a long closure. We watched the historical short video on the area then headed out on the trail on a gorgeous clear day. The views were stunning!
Even when the rest of the East Bay is a mud-fest, the sandstone here provides good footing. Our hike is somewhat challenging and gives us lots of opportunities to practice pushing up with power and picking our way down. With practice, confidence improves. Everyone has some homework to do and is encouraged to practice what feels a bit awkward. We provide many tools for your hiking toolbox and every class is different, which is why some folks take classes again – to refresh, to learn additional skills and to expand their hiking horizons!
Determining which poles best suit a person’s issues and goals is an important part of the learning process. We use all 3 types of poles, helping participants figure out what works best for their structure (fit), their issues and their goals.
Take a look at this Article in the Pacifica Tribune this morning. We offer 3 levels of classes so anyone can learn great skills to more fully enjoy the outdoors.
- How to use POLES for Hiking & Outdoor Exercise
- How to use POLES for Balance, Mobility and Basic (Functional) Walking
- Walking Workout: Urban PoleWalking for Health & Fitness (Nordic Walking)
Regardless of your activity level, you can achieve many benefits from learning these skills. Your back and knees will thank you and you’ll feel taller.
Increased circulation to the brain is a good thing! Being outside, with your buddies, enjoying a full body experience is the triple win of poles!
Check our calendar for all class listings, including Rocky Mountain National Park!
No, but… Using poles provides many benefits for people who like to walk or hike. Optimal use of poles encourages better posture, endurance, confidence and gait. Using the upper body muscles helps to preserve joints all over the body.
In the literally thousands of people I’ve encountered over the last 15 years, I’ve met a handful that really were not pole people. One lady was so uncoordinated, that she was terrified. It was a bad fit. People that have progressed to a walker often can no longer benefit. A hiking buddy of mine (who loves to talk) trips on poles when he uses them. Best for him to not have poles.
Sometimes people have to ease into learning new skills like using poles – or any new thing (think orthotics). Here’s a very recent example: One lady was given this prescription: Use your new poles for only three to five minutes, 2 or 3 times a day. Consistency/Frequency with very low intensity & duration. She then went out for an hour with a friend and overdid it. She damaged her fragile shoulder and hated her poles. She admitted she was out too long, was distracted and did not focus on her form. She called her poles “toxic.” I silently shook my head in frustration at her admitted and blatant violation of her body. She blamed the poles even while admitting her ridiculous and (as it turned out) dangerous behavior. Rather than gently and progressively lubricating the shoulder joint and slowly building muscles that support the shoulder, she ended up back at the doctor’s office in severe pain.
Poles COULD have helped her in many ways, but she did not listen to either her body or her trainer. Regular readers of this blog know that I like to focus on the positive. So I end this post with happier thoughts.
“To be interested in the changing seasons
is a happier state of mind
than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” ~ George Santayana
“Giving people self-confidence
is by far the most important thing that I can do.
Because then they will act.” ~ Jack Welch
Once you’ve learned optimal form and muscle recruitment for going uphill, we have another tip that will significantly improve your performance.
In just one word – Cadence! Bikers know about cycling cadence. With proper gear shifting, pedal stroke is rhythmic and gears are not ground.
It’s the same on the trail. As you change terrain, modify your stride to maintain your rhythm. Here’s how:
- Find your natural walking rhythm without poles. Make sure you’re using your optimal walking form – natural arm swing with spinal rotation.
- Using poles, feel that same rhythm.
- Focusing on your form, notice how you can maintain the relatively same pace as you start up a gentle hill. In order to do this, you’ll need to shorten your stride.
- Imagine that you’re shifting into low gear as you would in a car going steeply uphill. Plan your “gear shift.”
Practice this without your IPod or cell phone or any other distractions. Lock in your form so that you can maintain your rhythm and cadence even while chatting with your buddies on the trail.
Remember, when ever you think of something that brings you back into your body – honor that awareness. When you think of cadence, work on your rhythm. Everything is linked. You’ll notice better breathing, better use of the muscles in your back and you’ll be able to relax your hands/jaw/shoulders. Optimal form is a lifelong process.
Enjoy your poles; enjoy the outdoors!
What’s the very best way to learn optimal use of poles and really feel the many benefits? Out on the trail. We try out different models, we learn ways to improve performance on a variety of terrain, we explore ways to preserve our joints and to improve confidence, endurance and strength. We share tips and strategies for more completely enjoying the glorious outdoors!
Here are some photos from my recent visit to CO. We hold this seminar through the Rocky Mountain Nature Association on one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever seen: from Wild Basin Trailhead (get there early because the parking lot fills up) to Ouzel Falls by way of Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades. Roaring water most of the way up. Waterfall after cascading waterfall. Click on any photo to enlarge and click the back button to return to the post.
On rocky terrain/trails, try to step on “flat” places. This will help your ankles.
Be careful you don’t leave your poles just lying around. Notice how our poles are nicely propped safely out of the way? And no, they’re not teetering ready to fall into the raging torrent. I’ve heard tales of chipmunks eating pole straps. I’ve seen and heard so many strange tales that this did not surprise me. Plus those little guys are BOLD.
Happy Summer 2011! Late Spring in Rocky Mountain National Park was glorious.
HIKERS: Try snugging up your straps. Yes, it’s that simple. If you use the straps correctly and your body optimally, the poles are an extension of your arms. It’s easier to feel the PUSH of the poles on flat and uphill if you’re using them in a pushing action. This sounds simplistic, but try tightening your straps the next time you want to really MOVE and see how it feels.
This extra POWER presumes you’re using poles optimally and also using gloves. We like simple bike gloves – no Velcro and finger pockets for easy removal. They can significantly improve your performance, reduce hand strain and protect your hands on the trail.
Notice the distinction we make between correctly and optimally. This is very important and deliberate. EveryBODY is different and it’s important to LISTEN to your body. Make accommodation where and when you need to.
- Optimal use of poles means you’re getting the most benefit for your body based on your goals. Your goals usually depend on your issues and the terrain.
- Correct use means you know the basics. For example, how many times have you seen people hiking with their travel tips on or hauling themselves uphill? Or using straps in a way that facilitates what we call “The Death Grip?”
The list of non-optimal things we see on the trail goes on and on. I like to focus on good form and I enjoy when people want to learn and understand that, by learning, they get better exercise, improve their performance and their enjoyment of the outdoors.
On June 11, 2011, I’ll be teaching a POLES for Hiking Field Seminar at Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ll explore roaring waterfalls as we hike, learn and explore. This is a magical trail and a wonderful place to learn skills that enable people to achieve the many benefits of hiking with poles.
This class is offered thru the Rocky Mountain Nature Association for anyone who loves to hike. In addition, ACE-certified personal trainers can get .8 credits for this class by contacting me thru this blog for more info.