Using Poles in Mountain Races

Using poles in mountain races – views of a mid-pack runner.

The Cooper family are certainly not new to Skyrunning, mountains or difficult terrain. Matt & Leeah Cooper (Bright Vic locals and Founders of Ultra Made training) have hiked, run and raced in mountains all over the world. Along the way they have had the chance to refine some of finer points to moving with speed in the mountains.

Today we welcome Leeah (Accredited Exercise Physiologist) for some MUST HAVE hints on how to effectively use poles in races.

On our first holiday to Europe in 2010, I decided to enter the 23km Mont Blanc Cross, with some 1650m elevation gain. I was not entered to win or place but to challenge myself in the beauty of the French Alps. I had hiked some mountains before, run a half marathon and been training appropriately (or so I thought!). I remember vividly, during the race everyone started out conservatively and I was happily slowly jogging the ups and downs and overtaking many people between Chamonix and Argentiere- the flatter part of the course. It wasn’t until the 10km mark, where the mountain began, that my legs started to feel heavy and the climb went on and on and on! Something else I noticed was that majority of mid-pack participants (where I was) were using poles from very early on, they would retrieve them for the uphill and pack them away or hold them for the flats and short descents.

Buffalo Stampede 2015, Ultra Trail Run VIC
Buffalo Stampede 2015, Ultra Trail Run VIC

It wasn’t until 2013 that I started to use poles whilst hiking in the rather mountainous Andorra with our then 18 month old daughter, whilst Matt Coops (hubby) was preparing for the Ronda Del Cims- 170km with 13,500m elevation gain (he too used poles for this event). What I noticed was, with the poles I felt I could climb for longer with less fatigue in my legs, it was still taxing on the lungs, but it seemed to give me an extra gear. I also found whilst using poles on long steep descents, I experienced less strain on the knees and it improved my stability (especially on the technical trails). I have since used poles as part of every run with substantial elevation, including; the North Face 50, Buffalo Stampede Marathon, Oxfam Trailwalker 100km & Bright 4 Peaks.

Being a self taught pole-user I was never quite sure I was using them to their full potential, however I knew I must be doing something right when I could be overtaking people on the climbs and towards the end of a race by pacing myself through walking and running! Nevertheless, I decided to train as an instructor in Nordic Walking earlier this year, to improve my technique for Skyrunning type events and to assist my clients gain fitness and strength benefits.

How different runners will use poles within an event really depends on the course and each runner’s strengths, weaknesses and goals. The technique I use in ultra distance events is not technically “Nordic Walking”, but it is based on the same principles and adapted so the poles help produce power and reduce the fatigue and strain in the legs. For those runners who may be “self-taught” or those thinking of using poles in their training/races here are few points to think about:

  1. Buy a good quality set of poles. This should include a glove or wrist strap- a very important part of the equipment. The glove allows you to apply pressure through the strap allowing you to keep the hand (and therefore forearm muscles) relaxed. Ideally a foldable type, such as Leki Micro Trail Pro (new this year!) or Black Diamond Distance poles, will reduce the time it takes to get your poles set up or pack them away.
  2. Choose the right height of pole. There are a couple of equations you can use to determine the correct pole length. 1. Your height x 0.68 2. With your upper arm by your side, bend your elbow to 90 degrees. The height of the pole should be your hand height to the ground or a tad more.
  3. In events that have a lot of elevation gain, such as the Buffalo Stampede, make it your mantra to hike the steeper uphill’s (e.g. Clearspot and first 2km of Mt Buffalo). Use your poles from the start of the climb to help get you into a good rhythm. This will not only keep your legs fresh for the flatter running sections it will help to reduce overall fatigue and help you conserve energy for later in the race.
  4. Use your poles on the steep descents if you want extra stability and lack confidence in pelting downhill. Aim to place the poles close to your feet or just in front, shortening your stride. Using an alternating arm leg action on every step will increase the balance you get from the poles. Whether you use a skiing motion (diagonal movements down the hill) or go straight down will depend on your leg strength, steepness and type of trail.
  5. Keep your chest elevated. This will help you keep your lungs open and increases the force you are exerting through the arms.
  6. Keep arms relaxed at the elbow. This is the biggest change I have observed in my technique following the training. Instead of constantly bending the elbow to move the pole forward, move through the shoulder. This allows you to angle the pole more diagonally, increasing forward propulsion. Genius!
  7. Last but not least- train with your poles before using them in an event! Yes poles will help to take the load off your legs and joints during the climbs and downhill sections, but you will heavily tax your upper body and cardiovascular system if you are not accustomed to using them, which may be of detriment to your finishing time!

If you haven’t tried poles and are thinking of using them- why not? Europeans have used them to improve endurance, performance and prevent injuries for the past 20+ years. With the introduction of some big mountain races through Skyrunning Australia/New Zealand, it’s the perfect time to try poles as a means of enhancing performance and enjoying those big climbs! I’ll be using mine for the Buffalo Stampede Marathon in April.

If you would like professional guidance on using poles, please visit for Nordic Walking instructors across Australia.

Leeah Cooper

Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Equilibre Health.