Do you use hiking poles when you hike?
I’m a certified personal trainer, plus group fitness instructor; I teach my clients cardio exercise protocols that encourage the most efficient use of the body possible. Using hiking poles does not fall under this category.
Your body has a built-in “sonar” system that allows it to continuously adapt to ever-changing external forces. This sonar-known as proprioception-can be fine-tuned by hiking on various terrain. Using those poles cheats your body’s proprioceptive system from a full workload.
Who should use hiking poles?
People with unstable hips or knees. But a smarter alternative for people recovering from injuries or who have weak joints would be to choose easier terrain so that you can ambulate without the crutches. The more you ambulate in a natural state-without holding onto anything-the quicker your body will become more efficient.
Many pole-users move as though they’d do just fine without the instruments. Perhaps they use them because it’s a novelty (some hiking sticks are pretty-darned fancy), or because they only think they need them. Or maybe because “everyone else” uses them?
Wean off the poles
First off, slow your pace if you feel anxious without the crutches. If you still struggle, then you can polish up your proprioception on a less-difficult course until you sense an improvement in maneuvering skills. There’s always room for advancement, no matter how awkward you feel without those poles. The body adapts at an amazing rate, but only when given the opportunity.
If you’re klutzy and off-balance, just how are you ever going to improve your coordination if you don’t challenge your body? Hiking poles remove that challenge. If you’ve never hiked before, or if you’re deconditioned, and you decide to tackle a strenuous downhill trail full of protruding formations, you may feel more secure with the poles.
But a wiser move would be to develop natural maneuvering prowess on an easier trail, and then progress from there. Don’t get ahead of yourself. As with any new endeavor, the key is to advance gradually. Thus, if your balance is poor, start out first on a simple trail that’s free of slipperyness and steepness, yet at the same time, one that provides just enough perk to force your body into adaptation mode.
Your neuro-musculoskeletal system will then start adjusting to this stimulation. New neural connections will form. Simply put, your agility will improve.
Once you can ambulate with a fair degree of ease on simple trails, it’s time to graduate to a more demanding trail, perhaps one that includes a moderately sloped grassy hill, or maybe one with sections of uneven earth, or an assortment of big stones to step upon or around.
While your proprioception adapts (improves), your knees, hips and soft tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments, etc.) will become stronger. One of the best ways to strengthen knees is the so-called “negative” contraction. As you ambulate downhill, the muscles in your upper legs contract negatively, and this strengthens the entire knee joint. Hiking poles will absorb some of this force–ideal for people with “bad” knees–but if you have healthy knees, a graceful pole-free descent (as opposed to an erratic, sloppy one) will increase joint integrity.
Pole-free hikes will boost strength and stamina in your lower leg muscles and ankles, so if you one day decide to try inline skating, you won’t suffer from sore ankles the next day! Pole-free hikes will upgrade fine-motor control.
As your soft tissue becomes more efficient and your balance sharpens, you’ll be able to move on to even more daunting trails. The ability to effortlessly traverse brutal terrain produces a most wondrous euphoria. On the other hand, if you prefer moderate-level trails, that’s fine; with your new-found superior equilibrium, you’ll be able to ambulate them with ease and minimal injury risk.
If your goal is to acquire notable results (cardio fitness, strong hamstrings and quads, tough hips and knees, great ankles, and a high level of agility), then leave the poles at home. Of course, this assumes you’re minus any orthopedic condition that necessitates assistive implements.
If your objective is only to enjoy the scenery (not that hardcore hikers don’t!) and acquire some basic cardio stamina — again-your goals will be best achieved without poles.
If weight loss is your primary aim — once again — forget the poles. You may think that using them works out your upper body, thus burning more calories. Not so. Legs use more calories than arms. Make your legs do all the work and thus burn more calories!