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I haven't used trekking poles but I've used wooden poles and they make a huge difference while hiking. Ascents are somewhat easier, and descents are much more so thanks to the poles as another thing you can hold on for balance especially for trails where the only thing you can hold on to is the land you're stepping on.

But if I rely on poles too much, would I be robbing myself of training and building my body to be able to cope with hiking challenges especially at points where poles aren't needed, like when scrambling or scaling rocky vertical terrain? Also, overall strengthening of the body to build stamina, strength, and endurance since you're technically relying on something to make things easier.

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It's highly unlikely that using poles will make anything worse. You still have to place your feet as carefully and in the same sort of position (training for technique/precision). Your legs still do most of the work of lifting you up on an ascent, which is when they work the hardest (training for strength). I descend more slowly with poles, and slow, controlled lowering of weights is good training.

You could even argue that if using poles protects you from hurting your knees or ankles on the way down, you'll be in better training through not having to take a recovery break.

As trekking poles can be collapsed you can choose when to strap them to your pack. Plenty of people use them mainly for descents and the sort of path where you can really get into a striding rhythm, then put them away for steep bits where they might want their hands.

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    The question is of the form "X is true, is that bad?," where X is false. Here X is the incorrect assumption that poles make you more efficient. This answer doesn't address the misconception. – Ben Crowell Dec 7 '16 at 20:00
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    @BenCrowell the question title is. When writing my answer on mobile I could see the question at the top of the last paragraph but not the title. Easy enough to fix – Chris H Dec 7 '16 at 20:03
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Also, overall strengthening of the body to build stamina, strength, and endurance since you're technically relying on something to make things easier.

You have this backwards. As described in the medical study referenced below, trekking poles make you less efficient, so they increase your exertion. That means that if you do the same hike at the same pace, it will be harder using poles. So if you want a harder workout, using poles is one the ways to do it. But you could also accomplish that simply by increasing your pace, or by putting rocks in your pack.

This: Saunders MJ ; Hipp GR ; Wenos DL ; Deaton ML, "Trekking poles increase physiological responses to hiking without increased perceived exertion," J Strength Cond Res 2008 Sep; 22(5): 1468-74

  • Could you explain "Trekking poles increase physiological responses to hiking without increased perceived exertion" in English? I am confused as to what that means. – Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '16 at 18:49
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    @CharlieBrumbaugh: If you click through to the abstract, the "physiological responses" they're talking about are measures of exertion, such as the amount of oxygen they breathe. In ordinary language, they simply found that trekking poles make you work harder and burn more calories. – Ben Crowell Dec 7 '16 at 19:55
  • But without realizing that they are working harder, correct? – Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '16 at 20:02
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    I only read the abstract, but as far as I understand it they only measured overall exertion. It isn't very surprising to me, that carrying more weight and doing more upper body movement means more overall energy expenditure. This does however not disprove a possibility, that the lower extremities are somewhat relieved by using poles, does it? – imsodin Dec 7 '16 at 22:26
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    I would suggest caution when interpreting papers like this. These are very small studies and not controlled for factors such as the skill and technique of the hiker. A dig around PubMed suggests that the issues are complex and the results are pretty contradictory. The most solid conclusions seem to be that perceived exertion does not increase, that lower limb fatigue is decreased, and that recovery is improved. Many love poles and some don't. But the majority of long distance hikers use them, particularly as they get older. For most, practical experience seems to show that they are helpful. – Tullochgorum Dec 9 '16 at 13:24
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If I'm understanding your question, you're asking if using trekking poles will result in poorer conditioning compared to walking without poles.

There is good research evidence that using poles will in fact improve your general conditioning. When used vigorously, the poles provide a cross-training effect by engaging more of your muscles, and there's a whole fitness movement known as Nordic Walking based on this premise.

The other factor to bear in mind is the Principle of Specificity in training, as explained here. So when you wonder whether you would be robbing yourself of training, you have to ask - training for what? If you find poles helpful and want to improve your capacity to walk with them, you should train with poles. If you want to improve your capacity to walk without them, leave the poles at home. If you want something in-between, use the poles for only some of the time. No need to overthink this: it's as simple as that.

  • I clicked through on the link to britishnordicwalking.org.uk, but didn't see anything specific that we should be looking at...? It's certainly true that using poles decreases efficiency (see the reference in my own answer), so it would make sense to me that they would increase general conditioning. That's why, e.g., sprinters train by dragging weights behind them: it makes them less efficient. – Ben Crowell Dec 9 '16 at 4:55
  • @BenCrowell - not sure what your problem is with my Nordic Walking link - all the references there deal with the impact of walking poles on health and conditioning. I didn't link to any specific paper because it's a large and complex literature, but the reference is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dig deeper. – Tullochgorum Dec 9 '16 at 13:17

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