PoleCats Can Turn You Into A Quadruped

David Georgi, PoleCats Leader

The Santa Lucian, December/January, 2008/9




“PoleCats” is a Santa Lucia Sierra Club group dedicated to demonstrating the benefits of trekking poles on easy day hikes. Trekking poles are similar to ski poles, only are specially adapted for hiking. In recent years, trekking poles have gone high tech. Shafts are made of strong, lightweight alloys or carbon fiber. Carbide tips securely grip the most slippery surfaces. Handles are made of strong, cushioned materials and ergonomically offset. Adjustable straps are designed to carry the body weight and eliminate harmful impact on hands and wrists. Shock absorbers reduce impact on hands, wrists and arms. Length adjustors allow quick and secure pole length adjustments to meet differing terrain requirements.

Four legs are better than two for hiking. Humans are not born knowing how to walk on two legs and take many months to develop the necessary muscles and coordination. Learning to walk on four legs also takes time and determination. The following anecdote explains why the PoleCats group is needed.

Last year while visiting Kauai, my friend Greg and I decided to hike the Alakai Swamp. I knew it was in the ancient volcanic crater at an elevation of about 4000 feet. The map showed that the only trail then open started at the rim and descended into the crater. In planning the hike, I said to Greg, “I don’t know about the trail conditions. I’m going to use my trekking poles. Would you like to use my extra set?”

Greg and I have been friends for many years, yet he is wary of some of my interests. He eyed me suspiciously with knowledge of some of my more whimsical activities, “Don’t you feel a bit foolish with those? You look like an Edmond Hillary wannabe.”

I saw that Greg was resistant to the idea that poles could help his hiking and responded, “I just know that poles give me more stability and endurance and I don’t know what sort of conditions to expect on this trail.”

Greg relented, “OK, bring them along and I may use them.”

At the trailhead, I offered to demonstrate some ways to use the poles.

He replied, “Look, I’m going to carry them and I may even use them, but you have to promise not to pester me about technique. They’re just poles and what sort of training could you need?”

As we walked down a gentle stretch of trail, Greg’s attitude wasn’t helped when we approached a group of locals heading up the trail.

One shouted out in a good natured ribbing, “Where you gonna find snow, brada?”

Another followed up with “Hey, did you lose your skis or something?”

They all laughed and continued up the trail.

I could feel Greg cringe.

We continued until the trail became steep and muddy. I said, “Poles are really helpful on slippery downhill trails like this. It’s best to extend the poles to their maximum length and keep them planted in front of you.”

He replied, “I’ll just use them at their regular length. I don’t want to keep readjusting them.”

I extended mine and took a series of short steps with the poles firmly giving me support and confidence. Greg awkwardly attempted planting his poles and was able to save several slips.

The trails of Alakai Swamp meander through dense jungle and marshy swampland, connected by many steep and uneven stairs. We came to the first of many downhill steps built of wood, some steps as high as 18 inches. It was a breeze to plant both poles on the next step down and then gracefully hop down, with the biceps serving as shock absorbers. After a while, I looked back and saw Greg following my technique.

When we encountered our first uphill stairs, I confidently planted both poles at the base of the next step and used my triceps to push my body to the next level. It felt great to be using both upper and lower muscle groups to ascend the series of steps that would have quickly exhausted unassisted leg muscles. I noticed that Greg was using the same technique.

We came to a stream with algae covered stepping stones. I planted both poles alongside the first stone and felt the carbide tips securely grab the slippery bottom. I supported a large part of my body weight and stepped to the next stone, repositioning my poles and repeating the process across the stream. Greg followed and when he made it across, he said, “OK, I’m starting to see how these things can be useful. They really helped going up and down the stairs and this stream would have been scary without them.”

We finally reached our objective, an overlook above the Na Pali coast. Clouds at first obscured the view, but soon began opening and offering brief glimpses of the jewel-like ocean and verdant valleys below. We took in the beauty around us while enjoying some trail mix and a long drink of water.

On the way back, we ascended and descended the flights of stairs in reverse order. Seeing that Greg’s attitude toward poles was improving, I sought opportunities to elicit positive perceptions from his personal experience as a strong skier. On one strenuous uphill stretch, I asked if he could apply any techniques from using ski poles. He sarcastically responded between exhausted breaths, “I don’t often ski uphill.” I decided not to pursue the issue.

By the time we neared the trailhead, Greg said, “You know, I don’t think I could have made it without these poles.” He didn’t ask for any pointers, however. Weeks later, he told me he purchased a set of his own. And, yes, Greg and I are still friends.

Greg’s response to trekking poles is common. Most people assume you can use them intuitively. I have found that to use poles optimally, training is needed to develop appropriate muscle memory. Then you can realize such benefits as:

Using all muscle groups for more endurance, strength, stability and efficiency

Getting a full body workout and cardiac conditioning

Reducing injuries and impact on hips and knees

Increasing fat burning

October 2008 Prevention magazine has an interesting article about how hiking reduces belly (visceral) fat. If you exercise enough to lose 10% of your body fat, you lose 30% visceral fat. It says increasing the MET (metabolic equivalent hours) and using on-again off-again bursts of energy gives the most time-efficient calorie burning workout possible. Add poles and you have a near perfect way to keep fit.

The recent technical advancements make poles high tech hardware. To optimize these advances, the appropriate software is needed. Mobility consultant Jayah Faye Paley has developed a training program that includes a number of skill sets to develop muscle memory that allows optimal pole usage.

When I first bought some poles, I assumed anyone could use them instinctively. One day, I forgot them at the trailhead after a hike and decided to replace them. Looking through a recreational equipment catalog, I noticed Paley’s training DVD for poles. On a whim I ordered it and upon watching it immediately saw that I was doing everything wrong, including potentially harmful practices. I began practicing using individual skill sets on my hikes and found that my muscles could develop proper memory after applying the training principles for several miles of hiking. It took me about six months to get the entire set of skills down pat. I attended some seminars given by Paley, who verified that I was coming along learning her technique.

I started PoleCats to share this revolutionary technique. All PoleCats hikes are easy and include uphill and downhill sections and brushed over areas. I demonstrate basic techniques of using poles for uphill by planting the poles a little ahead of my feet, and as I walk past them, fully extend my triceps to give forward momentum. My legs love the assistance. By concentrating, I can incorporate other muscle groups. As the trail becomes steeper, I take shorter steps and increase how often I plant the poles (from alternating steps to every step). For the steepest and longest trail segments, I combine use of poles with the rest step, where I lock my knee for an instant each step giving my leg muscles an instant to rest (much like the heart between beats). This lets me continue, however slowly, for hours, adjusting my pace to my heartbeat.

For downhill sections, I adjust the poles to their maximum length and use them to reduce impact on hips and knees. Pole manufacturer Leki estimates that this technique can reduce 250 tons of impact on an eight hour hike. Optimal pole usage exercises biceps, triceps and other muscle groups. Think about it: if Tyrannosaurus rex had used poles, he would not have evolved those puny little arms. (Or better, don’t think about it.)

Paley observed, “You cannot change the terrain, but you can change your response to it. Hence the (need for) frequent adjustments of length and body awareness of core muscles.”

When encountering brushy trails, I use the cruising mode, in which I point my thumb and index fingers straight down and lift the poles off the ground with my ring finger and pinky. Holding the tips of the poles together behind me lets me walk through brushed over trails easily.

The benefits of using trekking poles extend to those with mobility issues. Poles give strength, confidence and stability to those who may be frail or uncoordinated. When former Sierra Club president Ed Wayburn was in his nineties, his physical condition forced him to give up hiking. Paley showed him how to use poles and he was able to continue outings for several years. They allow family members with less hiking stamina to be able to keep up with the stronger ones. Anyone afflicted with one or more of the insidious O’s: Old, Overweight, Out of Shape, and Optimistic can benefit from poles. I represent each and find the most insidious one is Optimistic, in which I convince myself to attempt tasks that are above my ability level.

For me, the best part of hiking with poles is using all my muscle groups to glide through the landscape as a quadruped. And, as far as hiking is concerned, quadrupeds definitely have more fun. Join me on a PoleCats hike and become an honorary PoleCat. Bipeds are always welcome.

Pole Cats Handout
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