I have never run with poles. Now I won’t hike the trails without them.

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The first time I used poles for running was in 2008 during a vertical kilometer race in the Italian Dolomites. The incline was so steep I practically scratched my chin on the mossy grass growing on the way up. I already had experience with poles through years of Nordic skiing, mogul competitions, and even ski ballet, where I used oversized poles to help with tricks. But in Italy, I learned the value of using a tool to help propel me down excruciating slopes. Light and stiff poles allow me to use my arms in addition to my gassed legs to lighten the load, reduce my effort and make my ascent easier. And, I found they needed little skill or training to reap the benefits. I believe one of the reasons American trail runners and ultrarunners consistently lose races to their European counterparts is because their continental competition is constantly training and running with poles on their long, steep trails.

I’ve since learned that poles aren’t just handy for big climbs, but also useful when you’re well into a long run. When you’re tired and in new terrain, the poles give you a feel for the trail, especially at night or when your sight is compromised, and they make noises to alert animals to your presence in the backcountry. They are also handy for multi-day fastpacking efforts, when they can be used as tent poles for lightweight shelters and, in an emergency, as splints for damaged limbs.

RELATED: The Gear I Used for a Hut-to-Hut Trail Trip in Switzerland

On races and races of any distance, poles can also keep you upright when the foot becomes slippery. “Poles are a runner’s friend when it comes to running on slippery winter surfaces,” says Jeff Colt, a professional trail runner and ultrarunner with On Running and Ultimate Direction.

Any lightweight trekking pole can be used for racing, but just as advances in materials and design have refined poles for the Nordic, skimo, and touring markets, race-specific poles are more refined than ever. If you’re going to use them primarily for running, you’d do well to choose poles designed to meet the needs of the runner, from grip to portability. Here are three of the best running poles on the market.

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Race Poles ($170)

(Photo: Courtesy of Black Diamond)

Lester: 3.1 ounces per post

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These carbon poles are the stiffest and lightest on the market, thanks to the “fixed” design that won’t collapse or come loose. The downside: you have to wear them full length when not in use. Fortunately, the 47-inch poles (they come in lengths ranging from 39-51 inches) were light enough that I barely noticed them when I wasn’t using them to push myself forward, and Black Diamond even thought to add a label in the middle. tree to mark where to hold them to keep them balanced when carried.

I also liked the EVA foam grips, made from recycled materials, which are lightweight and don’t get sweaty. The poles even come with interchangeable rubber and metal tips, which can be swapped out depending on the surface you’re most likely to encounter while running. And, if they get in the way, you can remove the low-profile baskets.

Colt told me that he uses the carbon distance running poles for his training and faster efforts in the mountains and in short, steep vertical mile style races. “If I’m doing a hill workout with 5 reps on a 1,000 foot climb I’ll use these poles and not worry about collapsing them as they are quite light and I take descents easier as they are, ” he says.

Carbon distance running poles pose a problem when traveling long distances, especially by air, as they require special handling outside of normal baggage handling. They are no different from fixed length fly fishing rods in this way. An easy alternative is the brand’s Z-poles, which are slightly heavier and lose some of the efficiency of the three-pronged design. Colt says he uses the Carbon Z Poles ($190) for high mountain adventures and racing.

LEKI Ultratrail FX.One Superlite ($220)

LEKI Ultratrail FX.One Superlite Pole
(Photo: Courtesy of Leki)

Lester: 4.8 ounces per post

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LEKI has been pushing hard to dominate the ultradistance running scene and its poles were everywhere in Chamonix, France in late August during the UTMB and its related races. LEKI poles are distinguished from others by an integrated “Trail Shark” system, with dedicated gloves that snap into the poles. The comfortable gloves are designed to transfer power directly from each hand to the center of the pole. The hooks make it easy to snap the strap on, even on the go.

While the poles were effective at transferring arm power into the forward motion, I found a few downsides. Most importantly, the Trail Shark system forced me to use LEKI’s glove and prevented me from switching to a more comfortable or warmer glove when the weather changed during the race. It also discouraged me from eating chocolate at the aid stations for fear of getting food stains on the gloves.

On the plus side, the Ultratrail FX.One Superlite was easy to fold up and fold into three segments for easy transport or storage in a belt or vest. At only 4.8 ounces per pole, they are indeed super light. LEKI also offers an optional trail running basket and concave carbide tip to provide grip in all conditions.

MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon Backcountry Poles ($170)

MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon Backcountry Poles
(: Courtesy of MSR)

Lester: 1 pound, 2 ounces per post

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For those who prefer simple versatility, MSR’s DynaLock Ascent Carbon Backcountry poles are easily foldable and do not require the use of dedicated gloves. The EVA foam grips even provide a variety of holding options. Compared to the other poles in this review, the simplicity of DynaLocks is what makes them so appealing: they don’t require a user manual.

The Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber posts allow nearly eight inches of length adjustment on the fly, using the convenient tool-less aluminum DynaLock mechanism. They fold in three for easy storage and the poles come with removable winter baskets so they can be used in all four seasons. Unfortunately, at just over a pound each, they’re considerably heavier than the other poles in this review, but that weight also promises to make them more durable, as they’re anything but flimsy. These are probably the only pole sets you will own, given their usefulness for a variety of activities.

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