Should you use poles on your next ultramarathon?
I always think of poles as the marmite of a kit list. Some people love them and wouldn't go anywhere without them and others cannot see the point of carrying these cumbersome sticks on their back.
So, when it comes to putting your kit together for your next ultra, should you pack them? There's a couple of things to take into consideration to make sure they don't trip you up. Let's look at them one by one to help you decide if they're going to help you on the day
The most important thing to know is that poles can only potentially help you if you're using them correctly. I recommend watching an instructional video to understand how to make sure your technique is helping and not hindering you.
If your ultra is hilly or in the mountains like our Sea to Summit series or the Ultra Tour of Arran, poles might seem like a no brainer. However, poles are equally valid for long, flatter road ultras like The Wall but for different reasons.
In the mountains poles can help propel you up the ups and slow you down on the downs. They help you save energy on the uphill allowing you to move more efficiently and they take some strain off your joints staving off those common aches and pains you might experience with sustained steep climbing. On the way down they help you move more confidently on technical terrain, if you're running down rocky/uneven trails you're undoubtedly watching every foot placement to make sure you don't take a spill. Planting your poles in front of you gives stability to those choices and absorbs some of them momentum as you move downhill at speed, which will help stop you going head over heels. They also make a good leaning post if you need to take a breather!
Your expected pace
What is your expected pace on your next ultra? Are you shooting for a PB and are you comfortable maintaining that pace over that distance or is this your first ultra and you're unsure how it's going to go down? On flat ground poles can help you maintain a good average pace to help ensure you hit any cut offs in place in your event. As the hours tick by and the miles rack up in your legs even the strongest walkers may struggle to keep a good 3mph pace, a solid pole support technique will keep pushing your forward when the tiredness sets in. If you're a runner poles can help take some of the load off your legs on the flat meaning you can run faster and further.
If you're planning to use poles you should practise with them as part of your training programme, in addition you should dedicate some strength training to your upper body if you're going to be using them for an extended amount of time. As you take some of the load off your legs you're transferring it to your arms and to ensure you're the most economical with your energy and your upper body has the stamina to support you.
If you're looking to get to grips with a set of poles our go-to brand at Rat Race HQ is Black Diamond and you want to be looking at poles that fold down so you can store them in your pack when you're not using them.
My favourites are the Distance Carbon FLZ Trekking poles and I have used them in our Namibia and Dominica multi-day treks and many ultra distance treks here in the UK and they're still going strong!
If you're signed up to one of our ultras and you have any kit questions or need any advice you can always get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org and you can check out our upcoming ultramarathons here.