Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More on Walking / Hiking / Trekking Poles - Todd Hargrove

I wanted to follow up on the post from earlier about the effect of poles on gait and how they might impact on balance and proprioception.

A Warning from the British Mountaineers

First of all I wanted to point out something that I noticed this on the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) website:

If you use poles all of the time you’ll lose the ability to balance naturally as you step up, walk over uneven ground or boulder hop. So if you are only taking a short walk with a light pack then leave the poles behind or save them for the steep descents. Youngsters need to develop this skill, called proprioception, before they walk any distance using poles.

Even the premier mountaineering organisation of Britain recognises the danger that poles pole use poses to proprioception!

Todd Hargrove - Better Movement

Anyway, I wanted to get the view of an expert on mobility, proprioception and human movement so I got in touch with Todd Hargrove

Todd has an excellent blog - Better Movement - where he discusses how to learn to move better, which means moving more efficiently and with less pain.

He recently wrote an very good post on the Perfect Health Diet blog about joint mobility exercises explaining their use not primarily to move the tissues and joints but, much more importantly, to develop the brain's sense of the body, its various "maps" of the body.  It is the brain - more specifically its use of the sensory data that the body provides through the mechanoreceptors - that is the crucial element of our movement and exercise.

Having given that introduction, here are Todd's thoughts on the use of walking poles and their impact on proprioception, balance and gait:


Todd Hargrove on Walking / Hiking / Trekking Poles

I saw your recent article on poles, and I thought it was an interesting question.


I think you are right about the role of shoes. Proprioceptive information from the feet are a key source of information for the brain to know how to move when walking.  Thick hiking shoes reduce this information in two ways.

  • First, it prevents you from feeling the ground. This is inherently threatening and causes you to press the ground little harder in order to sense it. 
  • Second, the shoes prevent joint motion, which is a source of mechanoreception.


As to the poles, you are right that this changes the normal mechanics of walking from that of a biped to that of a quadruped. My guess is that this is probably not the end of the world because we all started as quadrupeds as babies (we crawled as our initial mode of locomotion) and our ancestors were quadrupeds. So while it is  not a disaster but it is a regression.

People use their hands to move when they are babies (crawling), when they are old (walkers, handrails or canes) or when they are in the process of falling.  So the poles may simply be a sign that the hiker is afraid of falling.

And, under the SAID principle, walking with poles will make you better ...... at walking with poles, and worse waking without, just like using a crutch.  Of course  for some people crutches are a good idea -  I would guess that they can take pressure off the knees, just as a handrail does when you ascend stairs.


As to proprioception, the poles increase the amount of proprioceptive information from the arms. Perhaps this extra information is necessary for many people because the feet aren't doing their job. I think you are right that the poles would distract attention from the feet.  Again, you are training yourself to rely on the arms for your sensory data, rather than your feet.


So I guess my basic thought is they are crutch, both mechanically and proprioceptively. I don't know if the poles will "ruin your gait", but they are not  optimal for a healthy person, and I think they will cause you to lose an opportunity to improve your gait.  


Thanks for you thoughts Todd!

You can read more from Todd at his blog.  (one of my favourite posts from him is this one on posture)


Glen said...

Trekking poles do have several negatives. You've both touched on some of them (but not all of them). And yet, often the positives outweigh the negatives.

If your objective is training (whether strength, endurance, balance, and so on) and you can safely do so without trekking poles then you probably should do without them.

If the terrain is uncertain and your objective is to decrease the risk of a fall in getting from one point to another then you might want to use trekking poles to help with balance.

If a trail is narrow or does not afford good areas for you to plant your poles then you should consider doing without them.

If the terrain is good and your objective is to increase your speed in going from one point to another then you might want to use trekking poles to increase forward forces.

In my use of trekking poles I find all of the above come into play at various times. Trekking poles are neither always good nor always bad.

One final note: Before you can make proper use of trekking poles you must make a conscious effort to learn how to use them, discovering when and how they can be useful and when they can be detrimental.

Todd Hargrove said...


Thanks for the comments, very good description. I will confess to not having any experience with poles, those were just my thoughts. Interesting to hear from someone with experience.

Cerin said...

I agree with what Todd is saying here

My thoughts for things like this, is that they are a "tool" that you should use only if/when you need to use them. Otherwise, don't bother with them and let your body practice and get better.

Some other examples of the "tools" can be:

1) Weight lifting belts - use them on your maximum lifts when saftey may be an issue, but not during normal training.

2) Straps to improve your grip on a bar. Again, use them with your maximum lifts when maybe your grip is your limiting factor, but otherwise don't use them and let your grip improve.

3) Cars. If you need to travel to the next county, then drive, but if you are just going down the road to the shops, then walk or get on your bike.

4) Lifts/elevators. If you need to get to the top of a skyscraper, then use the lifts. But if you are just going up to the next floor, use the stairs.

Pool Tables said...

Now no more compromise with health.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris:

As I've mentioned in some of my comments, while I am not speaking to "Trekking," (i.e., off trail hill walking/hiking,) other uses of walking with poles, (whether called Exerstriding, NordicWalking, etc.,) offers MANY benefits, not the least of which is fun.

Has Todd ever tried Exerstriding before opining ? If not, I have a bad taste at such critical speculation. (e.g., tell me swimming is bad w/o ever having done it, etc.)

Chris, one of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is what I perceive to be your intellectual honesty. Why not reach out to Tom Rutlin, founder of Exerstrider for his thoughts here ?

Just sayin'...


Todd Hargrove said...


My thoughts are just guesses and they are presented as guesses. (I think I used the word guess about four times.)

I have not tried using poles and would be very interested to hear what experiences people have in using them.

By coincidence, one of my clients today told me that Norwegians do quite a lot of walking with poles even when they are not hiking. Perhaps this is a group that has some relevant data.

Rod McAlister said...

I've used pole(s)for over 30 years in the mountains and overall they are very useful for off trail terrain.You can get pretty good at stowing them away when you dont need them.Like all things they can have a downside.I see some people collappsing the upperbody into them and the downside to that is obvious.You can also develope elbow/forearm issues.One tip is dont use the straps and constantly move your hands up and down with the terrain,balance,etc.Just because strippers use a pole doesnt mean they arent athletic and in control of their body.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hargrove:

I appreciate that your work seeks to help people through healthy movement. As such, I'm confident that you and I are more aligned than not.

Yes, you did qualify your statement with the word "guess." This portion, describing poles for walking, was not offered as a guess: "...they are not optimal for a healthy person, and I think they will cause you to lose an opportunity to improve your gait."

Given that you offer yourself an authority on learning better movement (and Chris introduced you as "...an expert on mobility, proprioception and human movement,")and that this blog as well as your own likely have significant readership, I winced at the "not optimal," conclusion, given especially the lack of specific mention of your experience, or lack of same, with poles.

I would have a similar reaction if an orthopedist stated that Rolfing and/or Feldenkrais approaches were "not optimal for a healthy person," as they might cause lost opportunities to a achieve optimal wellness through approaches that specifically exclude Rolfing & Feldenkrais.

As I commented to Chris earlier, why not seek comment from knowledgeable folks who have been using poles for a long time ? As you, (correctly, IMO,) point out, "Norwegians do quite a lot of walking with poles even when they are not hiking. Perhaps this is a group that has some relevant data."

I think speaking to people who have done it and do it and hearing their opinion, offers better information than information from someone who (apparently,) has never done it but, based on his (relevant?) expertise, offers a potentially widely disseminated opinion that it is sub-optimal and potentially counter-productive (and even allowing an inference that they are potentially harmful.)

I hope you get to try it out for yourself and enjoy the experience :-)



Todd Hargrove said...


I agree that the wording of the last sentence could be improved. However, I think the speculative nature of the conclusion is apparent from the overall context if not the exact wording. This is not a peer reviewed paper, it's just the text of an e-mail I sent to Chris after about ten minutes of thinking about it. My intent was to explain how this looks from my perspective, not render an authoritative judgment. I am sure that there are many legitimate uses for the poles, that many people would find some benefit from them, and that the only way to know their true effect is to study people who use them, which I admit to not having done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply Todd. I look forward to reading and learning from your blog.


David A said...

Iwould recommend Pacerpoles as they make the use of straps unnecessary!

Chris G said...

I think someone should introduce Nordic/pole walking to Rant from the Moynihan Institute. He can be the judge.

Chris said...

@Chris G - excellent idea!

Thanks for the comments by the way. I'd forgotten just how controversial poles are.