It’s rather ironic that over time the lifestyle of a mountain sports enthusiast is often incompatible with happy knees, hips or lower back. Summer days spent enchaining ridges of Munros, long winter hill days, fell running, skiing and those awkward moves on the local climbing wall can all take their toll.
The prospect of enforced retirement and replaced joints doesn’t bear thinking about - so just what can you do? Well, be kind to your knees as you might miss the use of them one day - start using trekking poles.
Why should I use poles?
The most obvious reason is the significant reduction in the amount of accumulated stress on the knees. When stepping down the physiology of the knee causes the articular cartilage of the knee joint to be squeezed dry of its lubricating and nourishing synovial fluid. This is why your knees will feel sore after a day of long descents. If the cartilage is repeatedly squeezed in this way, day upon day, it runs dry. The resulting friction will cause inflammation, pain and ultimately leads to a thinning and wearing away of the cartilage. Then bone rubs against bone and the result is osteo-arthritis. Ouch.
When using poles as much as 20% of a walker’s bodyweight is taken on the arms during each step down, which reduces the stress on the lower body - especially the knee joint. For a 12½ stone (80kgs) man that’s 2½stone (16kgs) per step down. On a long steep descent of 1,000m this equates to a saving of approximately 20 metric tonnes (10 tonnes per leg!) of cumulative stress on all of the joints in the lower body and significantly less wear and tear on those all important knee joints. The reduction is even more important if you regularly carry a heavy rucksack or are an outdoor professional.
Poles also help in keeping your body posture more upright, which aids breathing - a useful aid to acclimatisation at altitude. They also take a lot of stress off the back eliminating some types of back pain, improve upper body tone, aid balance and can prevent injury especially when crossing streams or awkward scree covered terrain carrying heavy packs. They’re not magical though, and using them doesn’t save on energy expenditure. But your legs do feel less tired especially when walking uphill because the strain is shared with the arms and shoulders.
Don’t trip up
Initially poles feel alien to use, but very quickly they feel like a welcome extension of your arms, and you’ll soon venture into areas where the ground becomes steep, rocky and complicated whilst still using your poles. Beware! Poles are useful but they don’t grip rock well and can become an unwelcome hazard. If your hands are still in the loops the poles may well stop you reaching for that vital handhold causing a fall. So on technical ground (boulder fields, river crossings, etc) take your hands out of the tape loops so that the poles can be discarded in the event of a slip, fall or avalanche.
In winter assess the changing snow or ice conditions early. If there is any risk of a fall get your ice axe out and carry the poles on your rucksack sooner rather than later; poles make lousy self-arrest tools as Scottish mountain rescue reports too often testify.
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.
Firstly adjust the poles to the correct length - so that the pole handle touches the floor when you grip the pole above the basket with your elbow bent at 90°. Then make sure all elements are properly tightened and adjusted before you start prodding your way along, and you’re good to go.
The most common technique to adopt is the “cross-country skier” style. The poles are angled backwards and alternately pushed into the ground and then dragged forward with each arm swing and step. With a little practice a smooth rhythm is found and the benefits can be easily felt when moving uphill. When negotiating short, rocky steps keep both poles slightly behind you and push down on them as the step is made. Placing the poles above the step and pulling up on them is another technique but it is more tiring. When descending or stepping down place the hands on the top of the pole handles lean forwards placing the poles below the step. Transfer some of your weight onto the poles and step down lightly. With practice you’ll find other ways of using poles.
What to look for
For summer walking poles with small baskets and a screw adjustment system (e.g. Leki) are most suitable. In winter this adjustment system freezes up and slips so the clip system is best (e.g. Black Diamond), and these types are often also fitted with a snow basket. If poles are to be used for approaches to climbs too then it’s best if they can be stored inside the rucksack rather than on the outside - look for three section poles. Some poles have shock absorbing capabilities and others have ergonomic handles, both of which are good ideas but often add to the cost. Finally, don’t get Nordic Walking poles, these aren’t suitable for hill use.
Richard Ayres holds the MIA and IML and is Professional Standards Officer for BAIML. He delivers anatomy and physiology lectures on IML courses at Plas y Brenin and Glenmore Lodge. He is currently a PE teacher but soon to be Adviser for Cadet Adventurous Training.
Our hill skills expert is Helen Parker. Helen is a physiotherapist with extensive mountain and alpine walking experience in the UK, Alps, Pyrenees, Corsica and Peru.
Q. Is it best to use one pole or two?
A. Two poles are normally better as they keep your walking balanced and prevent an uneven pattern. One pole will still give some benefits but you would be constantly swapping hands to prevent developing a lopsided walking pattern.
Q. What can I do about sore Achilles tendons?
A. If this is mainly when you are walking uphill an insole or small raise under the heel could help alleviate the pain. Also start a gentle stretching programme to maintain the length of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
Q. I get pain in the arches of my feet. Should I use footbeds?
A. Footbeds or insoles can help relieve pain in the feet, knees and even hips if the pain is caused by a biomechanical problem in the foot such as flatter arches or stiff joints. Footbeds should offer the foot support to help it with its vital roles of pushing off when walking and shock absorption when stepping or jumping down. Footbeds may give relief but if the problem continues a full assessment by a health professional is recommended. They may give you some simple exercises which could solve the problems completely.
Q. Why do my knees hurt when I step up or down?
A. This can be down to many reasons such as wear and tear in the joint, poor strength and muscle control around the knee or even hip and foot problems. Keeping the knees strong is one of the best ways to prevent this from happening; this will also help if there is wear and tear in the joint. Exercises like s-l-o-w squats and single leg dipscan easily be done at home. Do them in a controlled and slow way to increase the control of the muscle around the knee as well as the strength and increase the depth and the number of repetitions gradually so as not to overload the knee and flare it up.
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