Trekking Poles: Add Another Set of Legs to Your Walking Workouts

April 28, 2014

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My new favorite exercise tool: trekking poles. I’ve mentioned them briefly before, specifically in the context of winter exercise.

I use them for snowshoeing to improve traction and balance, help me navigate up, down, and across steep hills, as well as over fallen logs. They also come in handy for fording unfrozen seeps and for pushing brush and branches out of the way.

I got my poles many years ago as a gift—lightweight aluminium and telescoping (adjustable), with a bouncy, spring-loaded shock absorption feature. My pair has right and left poles.

I’d always known that hikers and mountaineers use them as a climbing aid while walking over bare, steep, and rocky terrain. I started using the poles early this spring when the dirt roads and roadsides got muddy, and some icy patches remained.

Amazingly, I found I could travel much faster and get my heartrate up to the point where my walks felt as good as my runs used to.

To protect the poles’ metal tips over bare ground, rocks, and asphalt, I invested a couple of bucks in a package of “chair tips,” the little rubber cups that slip over the ends of chair legs to protect floors and carpets. The ⅞-inch to 1-inch size fit the ends of my poles perfectly.

Of course you can buy tips manufactured specifically for your brand of poles, but the local outdoor outfitters’ store was out of stock, and the sales clerk recommended I head to the hardware store down the block for the chair tips.

I’ve found a lot of other benefits to pole-walking. The poles provide upper-body work and improve my footing and balance, especially on trails with rocks and exposed roots. I find them handy for poking into muddy ruts and puddles to gauge their depth.

I was excited to learn that a number of studies have found that “pole-walking” can take as much as 25 percent of the normal stress of walking off the lower back, hips, knees, and ankles. It also can burn almost half again as many calories as regular walking without poles.

Because the loops in trekking poles take most of the weight of poling, you don’t have to have a gorilla grip, making it easy on the finger and thumb joints. I found that adjusting my poles to stand about chest-height, with elbows bent around 90°, works best for me. Turns out, that’s what the experts recommend.

Of course I thought I’d discovered a new form of exercise and excitedly gushed about it to my friends.

“Oh, ‘Nordic walking,’ that’s been around for decades,” one guy told me. “I think the Finns developed it as a form of off-season training for Nordic skiers.”

Not only the Finns, but athletes and fitness exercisers all over the world have discovered the benefits of walking with poles. It goes by various names: Nordic walking, pole walking, ski-walking, exerstriding.

Competitive athletes use it  as an “easy-day” workout to relieve the stress and boredom of their regular routines. Pregnant women, walkers with bad knees or hips, and older folks use it for extra balance and support.

Another benefit: the poles will offer protection from menacing dogs, bears and other wildlife if I ever need it. People accosted by wildlife on remote trails swing their poles to make themselves look stronger and bigger. I haven’t tried it yet, and hope I never have to. I do plan to attach small bells to the wrist loops to let wild animals (and hunters during hunting season) know I’m coming.

Finally, pole-walking is really fun! I don’t say this about many other exercise options, but this one hardly feels like work, which lets me go further, faster, and with less overall strain.

 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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