How to choose and use the right walking poles to boost your walking adventures
Walking poles are no longer seen as something just for the elderly rambler. From trail runners to ultrarunners, hikers to mountain climbers – walking poles are now a familiar sight on hills and mountains across Britain.
James Forrest, who has been termed ‘mountain man’, swears by poles: ‘I never go out into the hills without my LEKI Black Series Micro Vario Carbon poles – they are my new essential, not optional, accessories. And they’ve really helped during my current challenge to walk all 282 Munros this spring and summer,’ James says.
It’s all down to a recognition of the benefits poles can give – both for your health and your performance. When used correctly, walking poles can make a real difference to the comfort and results of your walk, run, or climb.
Using poles for the first time can feel strange, especially if you haven’t got the basics right. And that means buying the right poles for your body.
First things first, make sure your poles are the right length. Ideally you want your forearms to rest at 90˚ to your body when holding your poles out in front, with the tips on the ground. Some LEKI poles extend to 145cm, which are particularly suitable for taller walkers; while others, like LEKI ‘Lite’ poles, extend to 135cm. You can also find women’s-specific models, which extend to a shorter 125cm.
‘Why do I love them so much?’ James says. “Well, firstly, they help look after my vulnerable joints. Without poles I often get pains and aching in my knees, which end up feeling tender and sore during descents.’
And remember that the design and shape of a pole’s grip is very important as it determines how comfortable the handle will feel. Poor grip choice can also lead to blisters on your hands and a very unpleasant walk.
The grips on all LEKI walking poles feature what is known as ‘Positive Angle’ – an 8˚ offset to the pole shaft – resulting in the wrist being in a totally neutral position when using the poles. The various materials used, from soft rubber to closed-cell foam, are designed to be durable and comfortable all day long.
Another option to consider when choosing your poles is an anti-shock mechanism. This can reduce the impact on your wrist, elbows, shoulders and neck by up to 40 per cent compared to poles that do not incorporate this feature, but this benefit will only be of value on harder surfaces.
‘When using my LEKI poles, I find the anchor points provide more stability and balance during descents and seem to cushion each step enough to reduce, if not eradicate, all of the knee pains and aches.’
As James explains, by using two poles you’re doubling your contact points with the ground. This minimises the impacts on the joints in the lower body, distributing the body’s weight more evenly – particularly if you’re carrying a heavy backpack. By employing the upper body to propel you uphill or stabilise you as you head downhill, you’re also spreading the effort.
This will mean that the first few times you use them your arms and shoulders may feel more tired than usual. Make sure you get into a nice comfortable rhythm when using poles. Try not to thrust them forward, pulling your body towards the handles and pressing a lot of your weight down the shaft. This will tire you very quickly. Instead treat them as an extension of your arms; relax your shoulders and upper arms and gently place them slightly in front of your natural gait.
For anyone struggling with knee or ankle problems, popping a pole in each hand should result in an immediate, noticeable change. That’s because walking poles take a certain amount of strain and stress off the back and legs. For that reason, it is best to buy poles that are adjustable, especially if you plan to cover a lot of undulating terrain. You want to be able to shorten them by 5-10cm depending on the steepness of a hill before you climb it to give you more leverage. And then lengthen them by the same amount when heading back downhill in order to keep your body in an upright position.
If you get them to the right height then walking poles will push your posture upright. Walking tall opens up the lungs and improves breathing – a health benefit for all, no matter whether you have an ailment or not. When you get your walking poles, try ascending a local hill with and without poles to fully appreciate the benefit.
All of this means you can walk faster, for longer periods, and recover more quickly. ‘A lot of people find they fall into a rhythmic walking style when they use poles,’ says Michael Brechtelsbauer from LEKI. ‘This can help you to increase your pace and maintain speed on tricky undulating terrain. LEKI poles offer outstanding support and uncompromising performance because of their easy length adjustment and perfect grip.’
You can buy walking poles that fold up – much like tent poles do. These are particularly useful for people who don’t want to use their poles for the entire time they’re walking. By folding them into a more compact size you can attach them to the outside of your backpack, or pop them inside, when you don’t need them. It’s also easier to take them on holiday. One of LEKI’s best sellers, the Micro Vario Carbon, is a folding pole that’s fast becoming the pole of choice for many walkers.
Walkers and runners who choose to use poles also tend to notice an improvement in their performance, which brings health benefits. With the extra stability poles provide, you’re able to improve both power and endurance when walking uphill and increase your speed on the downhills. This means that you’ll become fitter and burn more calories, giving you a workout for both your upper body as well as lower body. Using poles also builds and works the arms, shoulders, and neck – strengthening the muscles that support your back.
The list of benefits is endless, as adventurer James explains: ‘Fewer falls and trips due to improved balance; more secure footing during river crossings or on rough, uneven terrain; and increased speed when ascending, as the poles enable me to dig in and power uphill more efficiently and rhythmically. My LEKI poles are also super-lightweight and they fold down quickly, so they are easy to transport wherever I’m adventuring.’
He adds: ‘I’ve also used them in Tasmania on the Overland Track – Australia’s best hike – to chase away a brushtail possum that was desperately trying to steal my food! Ha ha.’