Trekking poles reduce muscle damage from downhill walking


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There has been a surprising amount of research into the effect of trekking poles (or hiking poles or Nordic walking poles or whatever you want to call them) in the last few years. It’s still unclear whether they raise or lower heart rate and effort — it probably depends on how you set up the experiment, and how vigorously you use your arms. But a new study that just appeared online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has an interesting finding about muscle damage that seems fairly clear-cut.

Researchers from a couple of British universities led a group of 37 people on a day-hike to the top of Mount Snowdon and back down again; half used poles and the other half didn’t. They measured all sorts of variables before, during and after, including heart rate, perceived exertion, maximal voluntary muscle contraction, soreness, etc. Both groups took the same amount of time and had (on average) the same heart rates, but the pole group reported lower perceived exertion on the way up — which agrees with some (but not all) previous studies.

The new finding in this study is that the pole-users had less leg soreness from the downhill portion of the hike (which involves damage-inducing eccentric muscle contractions) immediately after and in the days following. They also had less reduction in their maximal voluntary muscle contractions.

Now, this isn’t particularly earth-shattering. Taking the load off your legs during downhills is precisely the rationale that convinced me to try using (borrowed) poles during a hike in the Rockies a few years ago. If anything, it’s surprising that no one has tested the link between muscle soreness and poles before. So now, with a tough eight-day hike through hilly terrain coming up in exactly a week, I have to decide whether it’s worth investing in poles…

(My current strategy to avoid soreness is based on the principle that inducing DOMS once reduces the severity of the next bout. Lauren and I did a hill workout this morning — 10x30s — and for an added twisted we sprinted back down the hill after three of the intervals. Well see whether that manages to induce any protective soreness tomorrow!)

4 Replies to “Trekking poles reduce muscle damage from downhill walking”

  1. Through 2 award-winning DVD’s, I teach people to use poles to achieve, maintain and even regain mobility. Each person is different. Assessing an individual’s goals, issues and challenges is part of helping someone to use poles most effectively.

    Optimal use provides many benefits, including:
    – reduction of knee stress
    – improved gait
    – improved posture, balance & upper body strength
    – more confidence on varied terrain

    Understanding that using poles is a SKILL and that optimal use provides more benefits is critical to achieving optimal benefit.

    Anyone can reduce knee stress, but transferring that energy to the fragile bones of the hand is counterproductive. Instead, using (and strengthening) the upper body muscles to tackle terrain (whether it’s hard hiking or walking down the sidewalk) is the goal of optimal use.

    Which poles best suit a person’s issues, body & goals? Interesting question for another post.

    Jayah Faye Paley

  2. Great article about the obvious benefits of walking with poles!

    The facts are in – Nordic Walking Poles really do help to burn more calories than regular walking, they also help to reduce the stress to the weight bearing joints, improve walking posture and as any backpacker knows they are a life saver on the downhill.

    Cross country ski racers have used poles in their summer Ski Walking training when deprived of snow. And of course these skiers used one-piece poles that prove to be safer, lighter and much more durable than cheap/flimsy flip-lock and twist-lock 2-piece and 3-piece poles that tend to rattle, vibrate, freeze-up and/or collapse unexpectedly. Many backpackers can attest to the problems they have encountered with their twist-lock and flip-lock poles – collapsing unexpectedly.

    Seniors and individuals with balance issues can hugely benefit from quality walking poles, but they should avoid cheap twist-lock and flip-lock poles – especially those from China. Walking poles can also radically improve balance and stability, but be sure to look for quality one-piece poles.

    We have tested one-piece poles in the Grand Canyon, the Allegheny Mountains, White Mountains, Pikes Peak, up in Alaska, on the beach and on the sand dunes. In every situation our quality one-piece poles proved to out-perform twist-lock and flip-lock poles.

    When hosting free Nordic Walking Clinics for MS, Parkinson’s, and Diabetes Support Groups, plus Wounded Warrior Programs, one-piece Nordic Walking poles also prove to be the most stabile and effective. We only utilize one-piece poles for all of our Nordic Walking Classes (available in 16 different). All of our SWIX and EXEL Nordic Walking Poles are also equipped with real Nordic Walking Straps – comfortable fingerless glove-type straps patented by the Salomon Ski Company.

    The key is to be sure you are using the Perfect Length Poles and the correct technique. Perfect length poles help us to automatically walk with a super straight back – better walking posture is biomechanically a good thing. This improved walking posture when combined with the unique 4-Wheel-Drive type action of walking with poles radically reduces the stress to the shins, knees, hips and back. Nordic Walking is low impact and yet provides a highly effective workout – burning more calories and working more muscle groups than regular walking.

    Walking with poles is the best!

  3. The simple truth about the “best” poles for Nordic walking, hiking and trekking may be as simple as a pair of the downhill or cross country ski poles that you already own. Why invest in cheap/flimsy 2-piece or 3-piece twist-lock or flip-lock collapsible poles?

    One piece poles that are sized correctly will prove to be safer, lighter and much more durable than cheap/flimsy collapsible poles that tend to rattle, vibrate, gradually collapse and/or collapse unexpectedly.

    When we tested our one-piece SWIX Nordic Walking Poles in the Grand Canyon they dominated. One-piece poles are hassle free. My daughter is a professional wilderness guide and professionals in her field report that the number one equipment failures are due to the cheap/flimsy twist-locks and flip-locks on collapsible poles.

    SWIX and EXEL Nordic Walking Poles are the number one selling one-piece poles in North America and they are available in 16 different lengths. All 16 lengths can exclusively be found at http://WWW.SKIWALKING.COM and the American Nordic Walking System.

    Walking with one-piece poles that are sized correctly are the best.

    For more info:

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