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
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)