The Science Behind Trekking Poles
I love a good gear list. Who doesn’t? I’m a self-proclaimed gear nerd and that’s fine. Thanks to The Trek’s new gear list feature, I’ve been able to fuel this obsession and have a stickybeak at everyone’s gear. I’ve noticed a lot of people are opting for the use of sticks or trekking poles as a luxury or miscellaneous item. Reading lots of blogs and opinions online, it seems like there is a divide down the middle as to whether or not they are worth the weight and if people think they actually help.
Full disclosure: I’m a stick man. I love them. Every time I need a second wind for energy or I’m navigating a tough rocky section, I’ve been so thankful to have my poles with me. Uphill, downhill, I really believe they have their place.
I deal with people everyday for work who use walking sticks or canes and was curious to see what research has been done on using sticks, canes, or poles. Does it reduce load on joints? Does it improve efficiency? Does it improve balance or speed? Here’s what I found:
Note: Most of the studies I mention were performed on clinical populations with musculoskeletal or orthopaedic pathologies using canes vs. trekking poles. However, I believe there is a link and these studies are transferable to nonclinical individuals. These studies are on the older side but are from good journals and cited in many later papers. I encourage you to give these papers a read if you’re interested on the topic.
1. Reducing Ground Reaction Force
Aragaki et al, (2009). Immediate Effects of Contralateral and Ipsilateral Cane Use On Normal Adult Gait.
This study showed that using a stick or cane reduced ground reactive forces through each lower limb in 15 healthy adults. This creates an unloading effect by expanding the base of support and shifting some of the body weight (around 15% BW) to the stick. This proposed mechanism has been shown to reduce joint pain by reducing joint pressures or loads.
2. Reducing Joint Load Specifically in the Knee
Kemp et al (2008). Reducing Joint Loading in Medial Knee Osteoarthritis: Shoes and Canes.
This paper with 40 participants showed that using a stick reduced medial adduction load in knees by 10-20% which excessive amounts are thought to predispose someone to knee osteoarthritis. Similar to the first study I showed, this group was also able to reduce ground reaction force when using a cane compared with unaided walking.
3. Improving Propulsion and Balance During Gait
Bateni and Maki (2005). Assistive Devices for Balance and Mobility: Benefits, Demands, and Adverse Consequences.
This review compared many studies looking at a variety of gait-related variables. Looking through all the research they were able to show that stick use was able to improve horizontal propulsive force, which theoretically can improve lower limb efficiency and speed.
4. Metabolic Demands
The above study also discusses that there are conflicting opinions on whether or not using a stick uses more oxygen, and therefore energy. However, a recent study in 2014 by Foley and Bowen showed using a stick increased oxygen consumption in elderly individuals when climbing stairs.
What Will I Do?
So there is some science behind your reasoning for choosing poles or not. It’s been shown to reduce load through hip, knee, and ankle joints, which might come in handy for those steep climbs or tough days when you’re ready to call it quits because you’re sore. It will improve your balance over those tricky rocky sections and can help with your propulsive drive. It might come at a cost using those arms a little more though.
At end of the day, choose what’s right for you and what works with your setup. I’ll be taking poles for my SOBO trip so they can give me that little drive and push to get me through to Spring Mountain in one piece.
- Aragaki, D. R., Nasmyth, M. C., Schultz, S. C., Nguyen, G. M., Yentes, J. M., Kao, K., … Fang, M. A. (2009). Immediate Effects of Contralateral and Ipsilateral Cane Use On Normal Adult Gait. PM&R, 1(3), 208–213.doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2008.10.002
- Kemp, G., Crossley, K. M., Wrigley, T. V., Metcalf, B. R., & Hinman, R. S. (2008). Reducing joint loading in medial knee osteoarthritis: shoes and canes. Arthritis Care & Research: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 59(5), 609-614.
- Bateni, H., & Maki, B. E. (2005). Assistive devices for balance and mobility: benefits, demands, and adverse consequences. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 86(1), 134-145.
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