The Walker's Edge

For a pain-free hike or walk, give poles a try.

So you thought only over-the-hill types — or the overzealous –use walking poles for hiking and walking. Let’s face it: It does look kinda silly walking with what looks like a set of ski poles — especially on a sunny summer day!

Well, get over it. These poles, which have been used in European countries for years, may be just what you need for your long, hard hikes.

The great thing about walking, or trekking, poles is that although you don’t feel like you’re pushing as hard as you normally do, your heart rate is pumping up into your target zone more easily. You’re getting a great workout and you’re feeling relaxed from the comfortable pace you’re maintaining.

How they work

As you press the poles down and away behind you, you’ll feel your abdominal, back and arm muscles getting a workout too. Poles not only increase your calorie-burn and offer downhill stability, but they also significantly reduce the lower-body impact of hiking.

In fact, for every 6 miles you walk with poles, you can save about 1 mile’s worth of pressure on your legs, according to a study by the Steadman-Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin.

If your knees tend to hurt a little when you work out, you may notice that they feel better when you walk with poles. “Since my knee surgery 2 years ago, my poles have become natural third and fourth legs. I wouldn’t be able to hike without them,” says Jim Woughter.

What to buy

Look for walking poles in outdoor sporting goods stores. Here are some features to consider:

An antishock system. It will provide some spring in the poles to decrease the pressure on your arms.

Retractability. This feature allows you to pack them in a suitcase if you need to travel to where you’re hiking. Just make sure that the parts are securely locked together before you bear down on them.

Cost. Poles can get expensive ($70 to $100 for a pair). Make sure you can “try on” your poles before you purchase them.

Brand names. Poles are made by companies such as Leki, Nordic, Exerstrider and Masters. These companies are experts at manufacturing walking, hiking and skiing equipment.

Learn a little polarity

Learning how to use poles can be a bit tricky, but the key is practice. One thing that may surprise you is that it won’t take long before pole walking feels natural — and you’ll be hooked.

“I’m more surefooted and confident than ever before,” raves first-time user Linda Drumheller, another Switzerland trip attendee.

If you want to try the walking-pole experience, keep these tips in mind:

Use two. Two poles are better than one — you do have two knees to support.

Secure the strap. Straps can help you keep a grip on the poles. Move your hand into the strap loop from underneath, and then take the grip with the strap under the palm of your hand, with the strap wrapping over the wrist and around the heel of your hand. Once your hand is in place, pull the strap so it’s snug.

Get the grip. Don’t hold onto the poles too tightly. The proper technique is similar to milking a cow. Squeeze the grip gently as each pole meets the ground, then release on the backswing. Or as some experienced “polers” say, “place, load [balance some of your weight on to the poles], release.”

Practice often. If you only occasionally use the poles, you may not be able to get into the right rhythm.

Perfect technique. One of the best ways to use poles is downhill. Place the poles ahead of you and then “load” your weight straight down, rather than leaning forward against the poles.

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