Mountaineering Training | Training With Trekking Poles

Posted by: | January 19, 2014
Categories: *Mountaineering Fitness & Training

The use of trekking poles during climbs (in appropriate terrain) can dramatically reduce your expended effort, allow you to move more efficiently, and ultimately let you climb longer and further.  Trekking poles help us to balance, taking some of the work away from the small muscles in our feet and ankles responsible for balancing, and involving the core and skeleton instead.  They also help enormously when it comes to managing a large and unwieldy backpack.  There are ways to use and hold trekking poles that improve their efficiency.  

A common question is how long should the poles be?  For climbers’ purposes, trekking poles should be significantly shorter than most would think: right around hip height.  By setting our poles at hip height, and holding the pole by placing the palm on the top of the grip and draping fingers over the pole, the skeleton can take much of the load from the pole, reducing fatigue and effort.  The shorter height allows the bones of the arm to stack over each other, taking the load rather than the muscles.  Remember, this is not cross country skiing and having the pole tall and out in front of you only means more, yet less effective, work for your arms.  

Another element to think about is how overly active arms can actually create more exertion for your body.   Imagine that you were hiking up a set of stairs.  Now put a tall pair of poles in your hand, and hike the same stairs while you try to push yourself up with the poles at the same time.  Rather than two of your limbs working hard to move your mass uphill (lots of work already!) all four are doing the job; only your arms, working out in front of you, act as levers instead of pistons (like your legs) so they are mechanically much less suited to the task.  But, by moving your arms and trying to push on those levers, your heart rate will rise with the extra exertion; the result is a higher heart rate, earlier fatigue, and less efficient use of your system if your poles are out in front of you (like a cross country skier).  Even with the poles set to hip height, we see this happen often on steep rolls, when climbers don’t lower their grip on the pole to keep their hands at a comfortable height.  Once the hands are above the heart, they have little effect on balance or upward motion, and the heart has to work harder to pump blood uphill to them. Through small steep terrain features it’s key to choke up on your poles to avoid this.  

These are not absolute principles but suggestions. Play with them during your training to teach yourself to move more comfortably and efficiently with poles.  It will pay big dividends on your next climb, and can help to take some of the training stress of hiking up and downhill with heavy packs, off of your joints, helping to prevent injury!

Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!

An RMI Team ascends Mt. Rainier's Muir Snowfield (Jon Mancuso).



I’m doing the Ironman Lake Tahoe as a training program for my Mountaineering goals.  What are your thoughts?  If I do well with the Ironman at 6,000+ feet in elevation will this be more than plenty of training?  I have 9 months until the race.  After the race I expect to be in the best shape of my life.

Posted by: Will Beaubien on 1/26/2014 at 6:44 pm

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