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More Training Info > Trekking Poles

Trekking Poles: To Use, or Not To Use?

Q: Should hikers, backpackers, trekkers and climbers use trekking poles or knee braces on the approaches and descents if they have knee problems, or do such tools just act as a temporary crutch, causing dependence problems?

A: If you have gone on steep climbs or hikes (whether on scree, talus, dirt paths, boulders, or snow) you probably have already noticed that ascending with trekking poles helps set up a natural pace or rhythm for the walk in, and descending with trekking poles helps you spare your knees to some degree. The short answer to both questions is yes!

In a recent study by Roithner and others in Austria ("Comparison of Knee Joint Forces During Downhill Walking With and Without Hiking Poles") authors showed that use of trekking or ski poles caused reductions of external and internal loads on the knee joint up to 20%. This means that if you already have weak knees and wish to protect them over the long term, having moderate support on the descents can save the knees and help prevent severe muscle soreness in the quadriceps. Authors of another study (from Muskuloskeletal Dynamics, Locomotion and Clinical Applications, by Andriacchi and Mikosz, 1991) observed four times higher knee joint moments during descending stairs compared to walking on flat ground. Those people who have trouble walking down stairs in the city will almost undoubtedly have more difficulty on uneven terrain in the mountains, where your steps can be even steeper, and occur over longer time periods. It's best to strengthen (well in advance) all the muscles in the lower leg that will be needed for climbing and descending, but trekking poles are a viable tool especially in early season as you get your legs ready for longer and harder climbs. Wearing a properly fitting knee brace is another option, though again, you want to train yourself to be strong without the support as quickly as possible.

Some people (the mountain goats out there) argue that trekking poles or knee braces act as a crutch for those who rely on them. Their point is this: if you rely on trekking poles for braces or balance and stability, or for help getting yourself across boulder fields or scree slopes, you never develop your own "goat legs." There may come a time when you forget your brace, or break or lose your poles, and then have difficulty completing the climb or hike because you lack the confidence in your foot work to keep up with the others in your party. In addition, if you have a pole in each hand, and need to grab for tree branches or roots (for stream crossings or bank ascents, for example) the poles become a nuisance or distraction. Finally, if you rely too much on them and neglect proper conditioning or strengthening of the legs (particularly the quads) when you don't have your poles handy, you'll tend to experience more soreness.

Bottom line: ski or trekking poles DO help reduce forces through the knee joint and can be appropriate for those who already suffer knee pain or for those beginning a long season of hikes and backpacking trips. However, whenever possible, try to develop the balance and leg strength necessary to be brace- free and pole-free when the need arises.


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