Should poles be banned in trail races?

They’re commonplace on hiking treks and in many ultra races. They can boost your speed and efficiency, but some say they are dangerous and erode the trails. Two elite trail runners put the case for and against.

runner with poles

by Trail Running |

No, they shouldn't be banned, says Damian Hall (fifth in 2018 UTMB)

Damian Hall, top-five finisher in the UTMB
Damian Hall, top-five finisher in the UTMB

Hand-held sticks or poles have been used by skiers since the Middle Ages. In recent decades, hikers and runners have cottoned on to their effectiveness and adopted them, too, especially in Europe. In ultra-distance mountain races nowadays you might guess at least 75% of runners are using them, including the likes of Kilian Jornet and Francois D’Haene, Mimmi Kotka and Núria Picas – all UTMB winners.

A 2010 Northumbria University study showed poles reduce soreness (“almost to the point of complete disappearance”) after a hill walk and help maintain muscle function, provide “motivation to enjoy the benefits of exercise for longer”, and avoid injury. Three US studies (from the Universities of Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Steadman-Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation) found the same things: poles lead to less fatigue, less stress on the joints and fewer injuries.

You hear occasional complaints about popular races where pole use is sometimes unruly in crowded situations. But races such as Transgrancanaria ban their use for the first 2km, which does a lot to alleviate the situation.

Poles probably do add to trail erosion on some terrains, but it’s up to local ecological authorities to decide whether a complete or temporary pole ban is the best answer, or temporary re-routing for runners and hikers.

Ultimately, if poles are likely to make it less painful to go up and down mountains, and therefore mean more people enjoy the great outdoors, that must be a good thing.

In my experience, the major downside to poles is they do tend to look a little less heroic in race photographs. So there is some skill in being aware and quick enough to tuck them away in your pack before a photographer has a chance to act.

Yes, they should be banned, says Joseph Gray (current world mountain running champion)

Joseph Gray, twice world mountain running champion
Joseph Gray, twice world mountain running champion

About 1km into a vertical kilometre race I almost got my eyes poked out by a competitor using trekking poles. As he pressed into the mountain with his death sticks, I figured I’d had more than my share of avoiding eye pokes, so I tried to pass.

Although the trail was a little wider than single track, his poles were taking up the space that would typically allow one to pass without concern. I was forced to pass off-trail to avoid being tripped by the poles.

Time passed and I began spending time watching groups of hikers attached to poles on trails across the globe. I realised my story wasn’t isolated. I saw numerous people being tripped by the poles of passing hikers and plenty of trekkers poked by pole tips. Even worse, the poles were digging into the terrain, putting small holes into the earth with every step they took.

I’ve noticed over the years that various trails I frequent have become noticeably more eroded, new rocks once beneath soil now resting their edges on exposed trail.

Is it time for us to ban the use of trails in public spaces? Definitely in races. They are dangerous to others around and, due to the fact that one must go wide to pass someone using poles, athletes are also forced to run off-trail, damaging new terrain and vegetation. We are already leaving our footprint on natural areas across the globe; do we need to speed up the process simply to allow someone to use an unnecessary piece of equipment to entertain themselves in the outdoors?

Our ancient ancestors climbed rugged mountains without poles. I’ve witnessed old and young summit technical ridges without poles. And slowing down erosion of natural areas is more important than making it easier for someone to climb a mountain.

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