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So, you love hillwalking and you’re reasonably fit, but you’re beginning to realise that you actually prefer walking uphill, and that the downhill bits make your knees hurt – sometimes quite a lot! The steeper and longer the downhill, the worse it feels. You find you tense your leg muscles more, which results in muscle pain AND joint pain at the end of the day. If this sounds all too familiar, then it may be time to consider using walking poles, particularly if you are planning a trekking or walking holiday.
Knee troubles can affect us at any age, and you could argue that the younger you are, the more important it is to ensure that you look after your knees. Modern walking poles are similar to ski touring poles, and their use is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world. They provide extra stability and can lower the amount of stress on your legs and knee joints by taking the weight onto the poles through your arms.
Using a walking pole, or poles will reduce knee pain and increase hill climbing power and endurance. They can also help with balance when crossing soft or boggy ground or when crossing rivers, scree running, and doing other activities which put additional strain on your balance. One of the main disadvantages, however, is that their use increases your total energy expenditure, as you are using your arms to take a lot of the strain. They also keep your hands full and can get in the way on technical sections when you need to use your hands, such as on ladders and short scrambling sections.
(Photo by Jim Ryan from 'Aconcagua: Highest Trek in the World')
To get the maximum benefit from using walking poles, its important that you hold the poles correctly and that you adopt the right techniques. Firstly, make sure that the grip feels comfortable to you. Thread your hand up through the strap and grip the pole handle with the strap under the palm of your hand. Adjust the strap to keep the hand secure. You can now lean all your weight onto the straps, while your grip on the poles can remain comfortably relaxed.
The length of the poles can be adjusted exactly to suit your height and the activity you are doing. Generally speaking, lengthen the poles for descents, and shorten them for ascents. The length for walking along flat or gently slopes should be around waist height, adjusted until you feel comfortable.
The best technique is to place the poles in time with each step. Just naturally let your arms swing in their normal rhythm and place the poles on the ground, then apply load to them as you walk through the step. Good technique quickly brings benefits. If you find your arms are tiring, you either have your poles too long, or you are tending to push the pole down, rather than using a smooth flowing movement.
Don’t worry if it feels a bit odd using poles for the first day or two. You will soon get the hang of it, and the benefits will become apparent really quickly.
There are a number of very good brands of walking poles, and the choice is down to your own preference regarding weight, price, and other aspects such as hand grip angle and material, shock-absorbers, baskets etc.
For an excellent website on walking poles and their benefits try http://www.personal.dundee.ac.uk/~pjclinch/poles.htm