Using poles for running steep trails

running with poles

Poles are best used on convincingly steep tracks. Superfast mountain runners use poles in a way that blends seamlessly into their movement.

When to use:

On the uphill, you can use your arms to add extra propulsion. On the downhill, sticks can be used for touches of balance, especially on slippery or exceptionally challenging terrain.


When to not use:

Poles are often over used by trail runners. There is a shifting point where poles become a hindrance to efficiency. Using poles on flat to moderate gradients will be more of a hindrance than a help.

Using poles on overgrown single track is often fruitless. Your poles get caught on sticks and branches; better to pack them away until later on when the track opens up.

Sticks are unhelpful if you need your hands. Scrambling or climbing is a time to have your poles packed and your hands free.


Setting them up:

The simple setup procedure is that your forearm should be horizontal when holding the poles on flat ground. This is a good start to fine tune from. You will probably find that your most effective pole height will vary somewhere within 5cm above or below this. If you buy poles that are a fixed length from the outset, you might find that they don’t match your most preferred height.

Commonly, people might shorten their poles for the uphill and lengthen for the downhill. I suggest that you find a mid-ground that doesn’t require regular mid-run adjustment.

Practice retrieving, assembling, using, disassembling and storing your poles whilst on the go. 


Holding the poles:

Hold the poles by bringing your hand up from underneath the loop, then lightly hold the grip. This means that if you slip, your hand is free from the pole and reduces the chance of a hand or wrist injury.

Tighten the loop if needed so that your hand doesn’t slip down the grip and onto the pole.



As you plant your pole, angle the stick so your hand is in front of the tip. This angles your pole slightly ‘into the hill’ and lets you drive more effectively through your arms. Push the ground back and down, assisting your propulsion. An error can happen if you extend the pole out in front until it is perpendicular to the slope. This can work to push you back, not forward.

Find your natural rhythm. This works for both running or power walking uphill. Your legs will turn over at a rate much quicker than your arms. Knowing this is normal, you can find a rhythm for your legs and a rhythm for your arms. Keep a check on your effort because poles can encourage you to boost, which is okay assuming you have energy to finish your run strongly.

If you are catching your tips on the ground when charging uphill, you might be either extending your poles too far in front of you or the poles might be too long.

Keep your head and shoulders relaxed.

‘Double up’ – an advanced technique which uses both of your arms in synchronisation. Put both poles forwards, pull through as you run through, and repeat. This is a super move that is best used on seriously steep and fast sections. It will cost you bucket loads of energy, so keep an eye on your effort.



If the surface is encouraging of an open fast run then poles are probably going to slow you down. Sticks come into their own when you need extra balance or support. It plays out something like this:

Cruising down, going well – sounds like ‘pa pa pa pa pa’

The trail throws you a challenge – sounds like ‘PHOWH PHOWH’ (in this case, two big touches)

Back into light touches ‘pa pa pa pa pa’

The poles are there when you need them and then dissolve into the background when you don’t.

Your downhill pole is the one that you can load to help you stabilise. If you start to slide, you can use what I call a ‘double down’ – your second pole comes in to help at the same time. Again, this is a special move – like in a video game, keep it for the trickiest bits. Hopefully you can keep yourself from going ass up.

Keep the tips of your poles wider than your feet. This keeps them out of the way and prevents you tripping over.

If the trail gets really tough, shorter quicker steps are your best method to keeping control. Your poles give a little extra poke, but don’t rely on them.


Wrap up:

Poles can be a winner when used well. Borrow before you buy. Learn when and how to use them. Have a bit of fun with it.



Sing out with your questions or your tricks.

Toby Moen

RunningDave Moen