The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat editions 161 & 162: Using All Fours Revisited

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Hiking with poles; a trendy gimmick, or a valuable skill? This edition of The WildeBeat: Using All Fours Revisited.

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

This is a combined version of program numbers one sixty one and one sixty two.

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. 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. That all kinds of people, hikers, trekkers, people with balance issues, I've worked with people with Parkinson's, MS, even Alzheimer's. 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. ...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: 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. Because I'm hiking, I'm getting exercise. ...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 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 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.

STEVE: So using hiking poles does 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 you're on, getting whatever amount of benefit you want. Even if it's just safety.

STEVE: This week, I got back in touch with Julianne Abendroth-Smith. It's bee a year and a half since I last talked with her, so I checked-in to find out if her research has uncovered anything new.

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 right now out 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. And then at the end of that fifteen minutes, they repeated all the balance tests.

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 our 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, combined program numbers one sixty one and one sixty two. Thank you for listening.

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