How To Run with Poles: Our Top Tips + Techniques Of Running With Poles

To pole or not to pole, that is the question. 

Running poles are used by a wide array of trail runners, from elite athletes at the top of the food chain competing in ultra-marathons and traversing through mountains with insane amounts of vertical gain to weekend warriors hiking their local trails. 

As a running coach and seasoned ultramarathoner, I’m here to help you navigate through, literally, all the ups and downs of running with poles.

In this guide, we’ll dive into how to run with poles, give you a bit more insight into the benefits of running with poles, and the best way to use them to improve your running efficiency overall.

A trail runner running with poles.

What Are Running Poles Used For?

Running poles have become popular in ultrarunning and trail races, especially when the course includes numerous steep ascents and descents and tricky, technical terrain.

Poles are mostly beneficial for long distances such as ultramarathons, vertical kilometer races, and long treks.

What Are The Benefits Of Running With Poles?

#1: More Power

Defying gravity while running uphill can be extremely taxing on your legs alone. 

Running at or above a 10% grade recruits the majority of your leg muscles. Your quads, calves, and hamstrings are just about fully activated at this incline level, so any extra help is welcome.

Adding poles to your uphill running will allow your upper body to compensate for the work your legs are doing, add more power to your overall running, and, if done properly, relieve some of the fatigue you feel in your legs. 

#2: Better Balance and Control

Quadruped animals have a greater advantage in stability and balance compared to humans. Especially in uneven and technical terrain, four-legged critters distribute their weight more evenly, giving them a lower center of gravity and a wider stance for support.

We will gain these same advantages when using poles for trail running through rocky, muddy, or steep terrain. We’ll have two more points of contact with the ground below, which will help improve our balance on unstable ground. 

Running poles help stabilize your body as you cruise down steep descents. They will also boost your confidence on technical trails, helping you avoid slipping, falling, or losing your balance while uphill and downhill running due to the extra contact points. 

A trail runner running with poles.

#3: Weight Off Your Back And Better Posture

When comparing race day photos, look at those majestic shots of you at the beginning of the race. Yes, your posture looks amazing—upright, and your form looks perfect.

Then, as you scroll towards the end of those photos, your posture starts to look shabby.

Running poles will redistribute up to 20-25% of your weight off your back and legs and onto your arms.

This will result in improved posture, keeping you upright, your shoulders back, and your chest open, allowing you to run longer and breathe more easily instead of your shoulder rolled and hunched over as you fatigue.

#4: Improved Running Efficiency

If used properly, which we’ll get to later on, poles can be an amazing tool for running more efficiently.

Taking a load off your back1Duckham, R. (2006). The Effects of Hiking Poles on Performance and Physiological Variables During Mountain Climbing. Masters Theses. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_gradthes/4466/ and giving your legs a slight break will help them feel fresher for longer. You’ll probably expend the same amount of overall energy, but you don’t have to rely solely on your lower body to do all the work.

Delaying localized fatigue by sharing the workload with a pair of poles can contribute to a much more enjoyable second half of an ultramarathon or any mountain running distance for that matter!

A trail runner running with poles.

What Are The Downsides Of Running With Poles?

As with all great things, there are some cons to running with poles.

#1: Extra Weight

Besides the fact that some of the latest carbon fiber poles can now weigh less than 300 grams a pair, some heavier options can weigh up to twice as much.

That being said, if you have to carry your water, food, running pack, jacket, and extra gear, it all starts to add up. Some minimalist ultrarunners looking to shave seconds off their PR might not see the benefit of running with poles, thinking they may slow them down.

However, there are plenty of ultra-light options out there with top-of-the-line tech. You’ll have to decide whether adding 300 grams of weight to your pack is worth the extra boost.

#2: Upper Body Fatigue

This is one of the main reasons some runners never get used to running with poles.

If your upper body is not strong enough or at least not used to the mechanics of running with poles, your triceps, shoulders, and lats will suffer from soreness the next day.

Ease into using poles, give them a chance, and let your body adapt to these new movement patterns. Before you know it, you’ll never leave the house without them again.

#3: Hands Are No Longer Free

Running and hiking poles have straps to keep you attached for safety and convenience. 

Even though some new poles have proprietary quick-release systems to make detaching easier, this is one of my personal annoyances when running with poles.

Since my hands are looped around the handle, every time I need to grab a gel or pull out any of my running gear, I must detach from one or both poles and masterfully juggle them while running.

This may not be a dealbreaker, but you’ll probably remember me next time you’re off running with poles and trying to fuel at the same time.

Trail runners running with poles.

My Top Tips For Using Running Poles

I have been running ultra marathons for over a decade and always pick and choose which races merit the use of running poles.

Consider using poles if you feel the total elevation gain and loss is great, or the terrain will be technical. Leave them at home if you feel they will get in the way more than help.

It’s not just about whether or not you use trekking poles, but the proper way to choose and use them to reap the benefits discussed.

#1: Choose The Correct Pole Size And Length For You

Just like your running shoes, your poles need to fit! Choose running poles for ultimate comfort and convenience. Collapsible, lightweight poles will be your best bet.

Choosing the right pole length is essential to having a great running experience and getting the most out of them.

Poles that are too short will make you bend over too far, adding extra strain to your lower back. Poles that are too long, will push you back and force you to lift your arms higher than necessary, making your shoulders work harder than they need to. 

A good “Goldie Locks” starting point is to stand upright, with your arms bent at a 90-degree angle, holding the handles perpendicular to the ground. Some poles are adjustable, and some have a fixed length, so ensure you get the correct length.

You might prefer a slightly shorter length if you are a more aggressive runner and mostly use your poles for climbing very steep and technical terrain. 

Using a shorter pole will give you a bit more control and agility. It will also reduce the distance you have to raise your arms in every stride, lowering the stress on your shoulders.

A trail runner running with poles.

#2: Use Proper Pole Placement

Remember that one of the main reasons for using poles is to slightly redistribute your weight and take a load off your back, especially in steep climbs.

I’ve seen repeatedly where runners shift so much weight onto their arms that they are pretty much overexerting themselves due to the extreme upper body workout they are imposing on themselves.

When taking your first steps running with poles, start by simply placing the pole down and gradually adding your weight.

#3: Use The Correct Running Pole Technique

Technique plays a key role in running with poles. As mentioned, you will only improve your efficiency running with poles if you use them properly. 

Use The Correct Attack Angle

The way the poles contact the ground is fundamental to your forward propulsion.

When making contact, the handles or grips of your poles should be slightly ahead of the tips. Make sure the tips of your poles never land far out in front of you since this would be the equivalent of slamming on the brakes every time you put your poles down.

As you place each pole on the ground in front of you, be sure and place them down gently, avoiding digging into the terrain, causing more energy to be expelled. They should be angled slightly inclined toward the slope, propelling you forward as you go

In other words, your poles should be leaning slightly forward at contact, which leads us to the next tip.

Lean Into The Poles

Don’t pull or drive your arm back whenever you put your pole down. Since your pole handle should already be leaning forward, simply lean into your pole, and gravity will do the rest. You only have to lift your poles and place them back down. 

Remember, your legs should do most of the heavy lifting, and your upper body is just giving you a little boost forward.

A trail runner running with poles.

Grip The Handles Gentley

Poles nowadays have awesome 3D contoured cork or foam handles shaped perfectly for your hands.

Put your hands through the straps and lightly grip onto the handles. Have the straps wrap around the back of your hand on one side and up your palm on the other side. The strap should sit between your thumb and forefinger.

Be sure your grip on the handles is loose, and the weight is distributed on the straps so your hands and forearms don’t get tired. If your grip is too tight, you can also provoke painful blisters.

Choose A Pole Swing Technique

There are two common pole swing techniques, double and alternating. You can pick which one you prefer or alternate depending on the terrain and speed you are running.

Double Pole Technique

This technique is most common when tackling steep inclines where more power is needed to trek up the hill. It is also the easiest to synchronize with your running gait.

In the double swing, you bring both poles forward and have them land in front of you simultaneously, ensuring the poles are at a similar angle as the hill’s incline. Depending on how fast you are running or the steepness of the hill, you’ll want to bring both poles forward every few steps and repeat.

A trail runner running with poles.

Alternating Pole Technique / Nordic Walking Technique

This swing style is a bit trickier and my favorite to use in races, especially when running at a faster pace or a moderate incline.

This technique is best used on moderately steep terrain when advancing quickly. 

As you run, your legs and arms will alternate naturally as you advance. When you hold your poles, they should alternate in sync with your natural movement

The hardest part about this technique is synchronizing the pole landing to help you launch off your back foot. For example, when your right foot lands ahead of you, ideally, your left leg and left pole should be helping you launch forward.

In the meantime, your right pole is in the air, ready to set up for the next transition when your right leg is about to launch. 

Your cadence changes constantly when you are mountain running, so don’t worry if you are not in perfect synchronicity as long as you are flowing comfortably. This style gives you a more consistent boost and helps you stay upright throughout your stride.

Two trail runners running with stored poles.

How Can I Store My Poles While Running?

In most races, you will not need to use your poles for the entire run. Therefore, it is most convenient to have collapsable poles, so you can put them away easily.

You can get poles that conveniently fold into two or three sections or telescoping poles that collapse to a third of the length, making them small enough to tuck away. 

Most running vests are now conveniently equipped with small straps in the front or back where you can easily store the poles. Just fold them up, secure them in the loops each time you don’t need them, and pull them right back out when you do. 

If you do not wish to store them because you will need them frequently throughout the race, you can run with both poles in one hand, holding them off the ground horizontally. This way, you don’t need to be constantly putting them away.

Be Cautious!

Be aware of your surroundings and careful not to accidentally trip or hit anyone around you with your poles.

Practice using them in your trail runs to help you get accustomed to handling them properly. It’s also the only way you will be able to decide whether or not using poles is really for you.

Also, check the race guidelines before incorporating them into your training, as running poles are not allowed in some races.

Using running poles is a great way to improve your overall speed and comfort during a tough race. The more you practice using them, the better your running economy will become and the more efficiently you will hike and run. 

Hopefully, this pole jargon will help you feel a bit more comfortable the next time you decide to bring them along with you on some tough terrain.

Maybe some of you non-polers might give walking sticks a second chance after all.

Check out some of the best trail running pole options out there:

Looking for some uphill technique? Check out this next guide:


Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.