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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!)