The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 162: Update: 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; an update of Using All Fours, part two.

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

This is program number one-sixty-two, an update of number eighty-seven.

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. 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. But do these things actually do any good? Or are they just another expensive piece of paraphernalia to make hiking more complicated?

STEVE: Last time, in part one, we heard from Julianne Abendroth-Smith, a biomechanics professor at Willamette University in Salem, 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: [Combined continued] 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 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 people 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 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: 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: This week, I got back in touch with Julianne Abendroth-Smith to find out if her research has uncovered anything new in the last year and a half.

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Well, ...we feel we've pretty much shown that hiking poles do reduce forces on the knees, on lots of people who use them, and certainly not everyone, ...and then on very steep slopes, if you get up to twenty-five degree slopes, even twenty degrees we see much more of an unloading or unweighting of the body or transfer of forces to the poles.

STEVE: Trekking poles and these kind of tools remain controversial in the outdoor industry, and how does that controversy look from your perspective?

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: The bigger controversy ...has been a statement that was put out by the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, ...they made statement that said continuous use of hiking sticks can decrease the hiker's coordination ability... What they're really saying is that if a person is out on a hike and you're using your poles... if you come to a situation where the poles have to be put away, your balance may become compromised compared to if you had not used those poles at all.

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: So we developed a simulated log that people walked across, and then we measured how much they swayed right to left, how much they used their arms in terms of their movement. How comfortable they were in their step length, ...and then measure muscle activity as well... They walked up the ramp and down the ramp and in circles, and just got a nice steady pace going, and half the group walked without poles first, half the group walked with poles first.

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Once they were done with that initial fifteen minutes walk, then they walked the other condition where they either walked without the poles if they had used them the first time, or walked with the poles if they hadn't used them the first round. And then we measured their balance again, just to see if that chronic use of poles would affect your acute balance.

STEVE: And what can you tell us about where you're at with the results so far?

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Our conclusion there was that warmup was far more important than pole use, that you reduce the amount of muscle activity you needed once your legs were warmed up. And you didn't have to worry so much about your balance once you were adequately warmed up because we saw no differences at all between the pole and no-pole use.

STEVE: Where do you see the future of this kind of research?

JULIEANNE ABENDROTH-SMITH: Our future is to be able to move more outdoors, to have the equipment available to actually put people into some different settings outdoors. So as they use poles, they can see maybe where poles are more beneficial or less beneficial, including then being able to measure the actual forces that get transferred to poles so that perhaps when we teach people to use poles, we can be more effective getting them to unload the forces on their knees with proper pole use.

STEVE: The original version of this edition was presented on May twenty fourth, two thousand seven.

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.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? 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 one-sixty-two, an update of number eighty seven. Thank you for listening.

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