The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 87: Using All Fours, part 2

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Hiking with poles; a trendy gimmick, or a valuable skill? This week on The WildeBeat: Using All Fours, part two.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number eighty seven.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE Last time, in part one, we heard from Julianne Abendroth-Smith, a biomechanics professor at Willamette University in Portland Oregon.

JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: ...We are looking at hiking poles from the standpoint of, do they in fact lessen forces on the body.

STEVE: We also heard from Jayah Faye Paley, an author, educator, and co-host of an educational video production about trekking poles.

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: ...Giving people the benefits of four legs, bilateral stability, and teaching them correct and optimal use, has become a life's passion.

STEVE: So what does the science actually tell us about the effectiveness using trekking poles?

JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: In our research we did see a real mixed bag of responses with pole use. And ...there are several hikers out there who don't seem to get much benefit from the pole, at least from an unloading standpoint. And it did not correlate real well with the level of fitness or their ability to hike... What we didn't see was, there weren't really anybody who were using the poles and causing harm to themselves. In other words, we really didn't see anyone who had more forces placed on their body because they were using the poles. So the choice of pole use or not, we're pretty sure they're not going to hurt you unless you're just so uncoordinated you're going to trip over them. But for a certain group of people, they probably won't do much good either.

STEVE: What are your theories as to why some papers show ...that poles are more efficient versus less efficient than walking without them?

JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: I think a lot of it comes down to one, training with the poles. How familiar you are with them... And I think you do see quite a few changes in efficiency with experienced pole users. So using them correctly would be a helpful thing.

STEVE: So how do we use them correctly? Jayah Faye Paley gives us a quick introduction.

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: The techniques we've created... enable people to get optimal use from the poles on whatever kind of terrain they're on. So on flat terrain our technique is called the two-finger swing... Most hikers don't really need the poles on flat terrain... The key to that is using the strap correctly. If you use the strap correctly, you don't have to use the death grip... so that there's less movement in the arm, there's more of a natural swing with a gentle flick of the wrist.

STEVE: And the science seems to confirm that this is an effective technique.

JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: What we've seen is on level walking people tend to actually take longer strides with the poles, and I think they tend to get more of a propulsive force or a push-off from the poles, which then lengthens their stride out... ...if you grip that pole tightly, it's not going to be long before you're going to have some serious level of fatigue and discomfort in the hands and the arms and the wrists and a lot of people I talk to who dislike pole use when I've talked to them I think one of the problems they've had is they have a true death grip on their poles... You can keep a fairly loose grip and still transfer forces quite nicely.

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Climbing a hill the poles need to be behind you. If you're pulling yourself up the hill with the poles you're using the shoulder joint. If you're pushing yourself, using the strap you're able to recruit the latissimus dorsi, the triceps, and when you really get grooving, your obliques. So you need to have the poles down and beside you, and swinging your arms from the shoulder in a pushing action. The steeper the hill, the sharper the angle. The poles tend to be at about base-line length, which is pretty short on uphill.

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. People tend to get more of a back issue, and there's been a couple of studies that have come out that looked at metabolic rates and pole use, and they're real mixed results... So we haven't looked at that too much.

STEVE: OK. And so then we get to the top of the hill and we have to go back down.

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Lengthen your poles. How long is not a number, it depends upon your body. If you have to shift your weight forward, the poles are too short. Lengthen your poles, soften your knees, that lowers your center of gravity. Make sure your straps are nice and tight. Keep those poles out in front of you. To learn that technique, we have what's called the fast flick drill, because you're flicking the poles out in front of you with a very gentle wrist flick. Gravity brings the poles down, the tips grip the ground. All you need to focus on is just that gentle lift, so that they stay out in front of you.

JULIANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Well what we saw in that study was as -- at the lesser slope, the fifteen degree slope... some people used the poles very effectively, a lot of people didn't seem to make use of the poles at all whether they had one or two in terms of going downhill. As the slope got steeper, then we saw a distinct difference in terms of both men and women tended to use the poles, did much better in terms of un-weighting, especially men, lessened the forces really well. Women didn't un-weight so much, but seemed to use the poles as a balance factor. Then at the steepest slope, when we got them at twenty five degrees, then everybody used the poles much better in terms of being able to un-weight or being able to lessen those forces on their joints. And two poles was still better than one pole, but one pole is still better than no poles.

STEVE: And then, we encounter rougher terrain. We've got big rocks in the trail, we've got a stair step here or there, maybe we've got a little bit of a stream bed to cross. How does your use change in those situations?

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: That's called transitioning. Anticipating the optimal technique for the terrain that you're on. Shortening for up, lengthening for down. If you're on frequently changing terrain, you can either hike with a slightly longer pole, or if you have long foam grips that's one place, on very rocky terrain, where you might take your hands out of the straps and use your long foam grips. Streams, you want to lengthen your poles, longer for deeper water, you want to keep the poles where they support either where you are, or where you're going... You want to keep your feet at a relatively wide position so that you're stable... Walking is important. The American Heart Association has said that thirty to forty five minutes of walking, ideally seven days a week... Anything that gets you outdoors. So whatever issues are, whether it's balance, or just wanting to be outdoors, or wanting to connect with your buddies. If you know the techniques, you will be able to use the poles on whatever kind of terrain your on, getting whatever amount of benefit you want. Even if it's just safety.

STEVE: So using hiking poles do seem to give you an advantage, if you know how to use them. I guess the wise and powerful of history and legend were on to something.

JAYAH FAYE PALEY: Walking is important. The American Heart Association has said that thirty to forty five minutes of walking, ideally seven days a week... Anything that gets you outdoors. So whatever issues are, whether it's balance, or just wanting to be outdoors, or wanting to connect with your buddies. If you know the techniques, you will be able to use the poles on whatever kind of terrain your on, getting whatever amount of benefit you want. Even if it's just safety.

STEVE: But to paraphrase another fictional hero, with this power comes some responsibility. Ben Lawhon, the education director of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, explains.

BEN LAWHON: There's a couple of situations where, trekking poles ...can create some substantial impacts. One of those are on trails that are constructed on what we call side-hill trails... after repeated pole plants, it can literally look like someone's run a garden tiller along that section of the trail... and over time you can narrow that trail to the point where it either has to have rehabilitation, or it needs to be completely -- the trail needs to be re-dug. Another is when you get in wet and muddy areas, where the ground is susceptible to those pole plants. And what can occur, again loosening soil, you add water, you've got loose soil which leads to erosion, runoff, so it creates issues there. ...if trekking poles can help you enjoy the out of doors in a safe way, use them. But be conscientious of the potential impact that those trekking poles may create, and think about where and when you use them, so that you can minimize those potential impacts.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experience, tips, and advice about hiking poles, or any comments you might have about this show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to more information, and a combined version of both parts of this edition, on our web site. Members of the WildeBeat can download an additional bonus segment, featuring Jayah Faye Paley in a beginner's tutorial about proper pole use.

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Next time -- Bear Junkies?

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. We need your help to make future shows possible; please 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 seven. Thank you for listening.

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