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Trekking poles do work

02 June 2010 Northumbria University

Study shows for the first time how trekking-poles help hikers maintain muscle function while significantly reducing soreness in the days following a hike

Hikers should use poles - first scientific evidence that trekking poles significantly reduce muscle damage during mountain walking

A study by academics at Northumbria University has shown for the first time that trekking-poles help hikers maintain muscle function while significantly reducing soreness in the days following a hike.

In the study, 37 physically active men and women were split into two groups of equal fitness and asked to hike up and down Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales.

One group was issued with and trained in the use of trekking poles while the other group made the climb unaided. Each group ate the same evening meal on the night before; they ate the same breakfast, carried similar weight in day packs and took the same scheduled rests during both the ascent and descent.

The participants’ heart rates and their personal perceived exertion ratings were recorded during the hike. Then, at the end of the hike, and at 24-, 48- and 72-hour intervals afterwards, muscle damage and function were assessed through a variety of tests.

The results showed that there was significantly less muscle soreness in the group using trekking poles. This group demonstrated a reduced loss of strength and a faster recovery immediately after the trek compared to the control group. Self-rated soreness peaked at 24-hours in both groups but was significantly lower in the trekking-pole group, both at this point and at the 48-hour point. In addition, levels of the enzyme creatine kinase (which indicates muscle damage) were much higher at the 24-hour point in the non-pole group, while the trekking-pole group’s levels were close to the pre-trekking levels. This shows that the muscle damage they were experiencing was negligible.

Pole manufacturers have suggested that trekking poles can reduce forces on lower-limb joints by as much as 25 %. However, the existing research has been restricted to the laboratory or to non-mountainous outdoor settings, such as running tracks, and has only focussed on biomechanical investigations into stress on the ankle, knee and hip. This is the first documented study into the effectiveness of trekking poles in the environments for which they were designed.

“The results present strong evidence that trekking poles reduce, almost to the point of complete disappearance, the extent of muscle damage during a day’s mountain trek,” says Dr Glyn Howatson, who conducted the study.

“Preventing muscle damage and soreness is likely to improve motivation and so keep people enjoying the benefits of exercise for longer. Perhaps even more advantageously, the combined benefits of using trekking poles in reducing load to the lower limbs, increasing stability and reducing muscle damage could also help avoid injury on subsequent days trekking. It is often the reduced reaction time and position sense, associated with damaged muscles that cause the falls and trips that can lead to further injury in mountainous or uneven terrain.

“These findings have particularly strong application for exercisers wishing to engage in consecutive days’ activity in mountainous terrain.”

Attached files

  • Credit: SIMON BOOTH / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY Caption: Hiker standing on the summit of Sergeant Man in the Lake District National Park, Cumbria, UK. Photographed in autumn. - © This image is for illustration only and subject to copyright and may not be used or copied in any way without prior permission from Science Photo Library

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