If you are making the jump to ultramarathons from a road running background then the idea of using poles during a race may feel like a very foreign concept. The deeper into this world you go, however, the more you’ll realize just how essential these tools of the trade can be for certain types of races.
So, what are the best poles for ultra trail running? I absolutely love my Black Diamond Distance Z Poles. Built with carbon fiber they are super lightweight. Their unique “Z” folding design allows them to be collapsed down to a nice compact bundle that can be easily stowed away when not in use.
Why I Use Poles For Trail Running
My First 100 Miler – My very first 100 mile race was the Mountain Lakes 100 in the Cascade mountain range of Oregon. Boy oh boy was I in for an awakening on how tough a 100 miler would be. I don’t think I ran a single step after about 70 miles. 30 miles left in the race and my legs were completely shot.
I still wonder sometimes how I ever finished that race. One thing I know for sure though, is that my poles definitely aided in my ability to get it done. There were points in that race when I was so sore and tired, the poles were the only thing keeping me upright!
PR On Steep Climbs – My favorite local climb is up South Sister mountain here in central Oregon. It’s the perfect training ground for a mountainous ultra with a stout 5K feet of vertical in just about 6 miles from highway to summit. I had been doing this hike for years and had been tracking my times to the summit.
So, I went out to test my new poles and they performed like champs helping me get a personal best. That’s when I was sold and knew they would be worth carrying come race day with big vert.
UTMB 100 – I love spending time in the mountains and the more vertical gain come race day the better. So, I set out 3 years ago to qualify for the UTMB 100 which is one of the most difficult mountain races in the world with over 33,000 feet of vertical gain/loss. I finally qualified and will be toeing the line come this August!
Over the last years trying to get into this race i have watched a lot of youtube footage. And it’s no big surprise, it seems as though almost everyone uses poles during this race! I am going to trust those runners in the Alps! They know the steep terrain better than anyone and if poles are good enough for them, then they are good enough for me too.
Predator Distancing – I’m not afraid to admit that I can get a bit freaked out running through the night in cougar or bear country. Having poles with me actually provides a bit of comfort. I am yet to use them to defend myself in the wild, but they have saved my butt more than once from snarling dogs.
Potential Cons Of Using Poles During A Trail Race
Using poles during a race will have some downsides and things to make sure you are aware of…
Poling Muscle Fatigue – You must train with your poles and try to simulate race day in training. If your first time using your poles is race day, then they will just end up as dead weight. You’ll quickly discover that your arms are not conditioned to the movement and the poles become more of a nuisance than a help.
Inhibited Calorie Uptake – By the very nature of you already having something in your hands, you’ll be less likely to use them for intake of calories. Again, this will come down to practice during long training days. If you struggle during training to take in enough, then you could try setting an alarm to make sure you are eating every XX amount of minutes during the race.
Another tip is to try and up your liquid calories. Sipping out of your chest bottles or hydration pack straw will be easier to do with poles in your hands than trying to unwrap a solid food item or fumbling through one of your storage pockets. Just make sure to practice eating while using poles and try setting a reminder timer as well.
Also read: Are Trekking Poles Worth It?
Falling Danger – The other natural side effect of having a pole in each hand is that your hands will not be ready to catch yourself if you begin to fall. I found this out the hard way and took a pretty bad tumble during a race. I began slipping down a hillside and since my hands were already grabbing something, I couldn’t grab on to my surroundings to stop myself.
Now, out of precaution I always stow my poles when I see a narrow or exposed bit of path ahead. It’s better safe than sorry on some of the extreme terrain you can come across in these races.
Slowing On Flats/Downhills – I found that it’s easy to be lazy with the poles and use them more than necessary. If you have long stretches of downhill or flats, put the poles away! Use the poles for what they are intended for – grueling climbs. The rest of the race, they aren’t really that important unless you are so exhausted they are just there to keep you upright.
To Recap… Get Poles If You Race In The Mountains!
Ultimately, I believe you will be better off using poles on a mountainous race day. I feel the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Especially since you can eliminate most all of the mentioned downsides by simply making sure you get in a lot of practice hours before race day.
Choosing The Right Size
Getting the right size is pretty important. Too short and you won’t be able to generate the maximum amount of push through power. Too long and they’ll just be awkward trying to place on the ground. You’ll also want to consider the terrain you’ll primarily be using them for. I prefer a bit longer pole so I can get a lot of drive on really steep slopes.
The Black Diamond website (graphic below) recommends sizing down a bit for running. My personal preference is actually the opposite and I lean towards slightly longer poles. Like most everything in this sport, the best thing to do is put a lot of hours in using a piece of gear and you’ll learn what your preference is.
If it’s your first time using poles, just go with the recommended size based on your height. Here’s the size chart from BD:
Where To Buy The Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles And Get A Great Price
If you are in a pinch and need a new set of poles ASAP, then just call your local outdoor stores. REI usually has them in stock. Otherwise, I usually check 3 places online to see who has the best price at the moment… REI and Backcountry currently offer free shipping on orders over $50. Amazon Prime members get free shipping as well if you can find the right seller on the platform.
Model: I recommend you get the “Distance Carbon Z” model poles as these are the lightest weight and fold up easily. There are other models that look very similar. So, just make sure to double check before ordering!
Enjoy your new toy!