The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 86: Using All Fours, part 1
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Hiking with poles; a trendy gimmick, or a valuable skill? This week on The WildeBeat; Using All Fours, part one.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number eighty six.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: I'm taking a poll, do you walk with a stick? People have been using some kind of stick or pole or cane to walk with, dating back to the earliest dawn of our species. Great literature throughout history presents images of high and powerful wizards, warriors, and kings, as well as humble and wise holy men, all proudly planting their walking stick in front of them at each step. In legends, a tall walking staff is often a symbol of power. But in modern times, a shorter kind of walking stick called a trekking pole has become popular with day-hikers and backpackers. Trekking poles are used in pairs, much like ski poles. Even if *you* don't use them, you've probably seen them on the trail. Trekking pole users seem to charge confidently down the trail, jamming their poles into the ground at every step. But do these things actually do any good? Or are they just another expensive piece of paraphernalia to make hiking more complicated? It turns out there are a few scientists on the case. Julianne Abendroth-Smith is a biomechanics professor at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Biomechanics of course is studying movement from a physics standpoint. And I specialize in human movement and prefer human movement that is fun to do, so I started looking at hiking a few years back. There isn't a lot of practical research done because, as all professors know, there's not a lot of money in looking at something like hiking and backpacking. So there's very few of us out there who do it.
STEVE: How do you do this kind of research?
JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Well, in a laboratory setting, we have a simulated hill. So I actually have a ramp that I can change the slope on it. And we've looked at slopes anywhere from about fifteen degrees up to twenty five degrees, so it gets quite steep. And within this ramp we have a force-plate embedded. And a force-plate is really an ultra-sensitive bathroom scale, that measures forces in three different directions. It can measure vertical forces, and then as anterior/posterior, and so breaking forces; how much you slow yourself down. Of course, downhill you don't have much of a propulsive forces; how much you push off. And then it also will look at medial and lateral forces, so how much you rock back and forth. You can think of that as a stability measure. So that's probably our main piece of equipment that we use. And then we also use videotape and then do the motion analysis, where we can actually draw stick figures of a person and look at joint angles and step length and other factors that are involved in hiking.
STEVE: Typically when you see people using these things on the trail, you see them using them all the time, whether they are walking along perfectly flat two-track road sort of surface, or if they're on a gentle incline or even a steep decline, they just kind of keep using them the whole way. ...have you studied the other terrains other than downhill to see what the efficiencies are there?
JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: We very briefly looked at uphill hiking, just on a pilot level at this point. Mostly to see if we can reduce some of the forces on the back. ...my research partner now is in the process of collecting data for the nordic walkers. And Mike is looking at how your walk changes on level ground when you use the poles, and in fact do you walk faster or get more of a -- I'll say a better workout, it wouldn't be more efficient, but you're working at working harder.
STEVE: Julianne Abendroth-Smith has drawn some clear conclusions from her research. We'll get back to those, but first, let's take a look at the poles, and how they're supposed to be used. Jayah Faye Paley is an author and educator, and co-host of an educational D-V-D video disk about how to use trekking poles. The video has a section that describes a typical trekking pole.
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Let's look at a hiking pole. We'll start at the top. Hiking poles have handles that are called grips. Coming out of the grip is a strap. Then there are expandable, or telescoping sections. In this case, a top middle and lower. They are separated by plastic sleeves that protect the shafts from debris getting up into them. At the bottom of the pole, is a basket and a tip.
STEVE: You might call Jayah a true believer in the value of trekking poles to improve people's lives.
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: ...I realized that I was on to something. Something very powerful. And I work with clients, I've seen people who thought they could never walk on uneven terrain again, and gotten them hiking. And so I started using the poles in my training business, realized the power of giving hope to people. ...And I've seen the magical transition that having essentially four legs gives to people. The confidence, the ability, that having that bilateral stability gives to people. It's really a magical feeling, and it's a part of being a healer.
STEVE: ...So is this teaching pole usage sort of your life's work now?
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Yes, it is. And I integrate the poles into my work with clients. I work with people of all ages and abilities. I teach seminars. I teach hikers. I teach trekkers, walkers. ...I work with people with M-S, with Parkinson's, with serious joint issues, balance issues, and what I'm finding is that everybody benefits in some way. It enhances a person's ability to do what they want to do, so that people can expand their horizons.
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: ...When I teach trekking poles, because terrain is so varied it takes about five or six hours to do that. And I go through, ...progressively, starting with the equipment, the basics, the strap, adjusting baseline length, adjusting poles, learning to walk on flat terrain using different kinds of techniques. And breaking down that technique so that people get the ease of use. ...and then I go on to more challenging terrain. And then I do stairs. Stairs are something that really, really help people, and stairs are treated exactly as obstacles on the trail. Then we usually have lunch and talk about the gear, and what makes some gear better than other gear, and it's basically features. Then we go after lunch, we talk about steeper terrain; steeper up, steeper down. Then we work on transitioning. And when there's time we go on a practice hike. We always do streams last.
STEVE: Let's talk about what you believe are the benefits of using two poles to aid you in walking.
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Two poles gives you the upper body work-out. So if you compare two poles to one pole, you're able to achieve the use of your muscles to preserve your joints. That's the biggest benefit in my opinion. They reduce the risk of falling, which is huge for people who have balance issues. They improve people's confidence. ...In using the poles on the uphill, the poles put you into a more upright posture which gives your lungs more room to breathe. That improves your posture and your endurance. You get more power on the uphill. On the downhill, you reduce knee stress.
STEVE: Now some of your comments earlier suggested that this was a good answer for people who suffer the various problems mostly of aging. And so it makes it sound like, well this is totally irrelevant for somebody in their twenties.
JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Oh, poles are fun. Trekking poles are fun no matter what you can do, you can do more with optimal use of poles... It spreads the work over more of the body. This helps with fat-burning. There's a big problem in this country with weight issues, diabetes. ...and I'd like to circle back to your original question, which is what brought me to this. ...I love sharing the outdoors. Giving the ability to enjoy the outdoors, and possible by-product; if you enjoy it you might help to protect it. I'm very passionate about the outdoors. How do we get people away from their computers, away from the gyms, out into this glorious outdoors? We do it by giving them the skills to enjoy it.
STEVE: So what does the science actually tell us about the value of trekking poles? And what is proper technique? We'll be back with more from Julianne Abrendroth-Smith and Jayah Faye Paley in part two.
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Next time -- part 2 of Using All Fours.
Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please support future editions of this free service; just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.
This has been The WildeBeat, program number eighty six. Thank you for listening.
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