Last year I was backpacking across Jane Bald on the Appalachian Trail when I came upon a 74-year-old gentleman from Atlanta. We talked for a few minutes, mostly about his extensive hiking experience in the region. “Of course,” he said after sharing his 10th favorite trail, “I wouldn’t be hiking any of them without these.” At that, he tapped the two hiking poles he’d been leaning against. “Wish I’d started hiking with ‘em seven years sooner,” he added. “Would have spared my knees some pain.”
I was a recent convert to trekking poles and I gave him a hearty amen. I’d been backpacking a lot in the past year, and after every trip I’d return home with knees the size of honeydews with the consistency of past-their-prime tomatoes. Grudgingly, I headed Marcy’s suggestion-turned-insistence that I get trekking poles. The transformation was immediate — and magical. Normal size knees after a trip, 53-year-old legs that ached like you’d expect them to ache after a 50-mile backpack trip, not like they’d been condemned to eternity on a Stairmaster. I was hooked.
And for good reason, according to a recently released study out of Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. The study is the first to show what those of us on poles have known: trekking poles help maintain muscle function while reducing soreness in the days following a hike.
Study: 37 physically active men and women were split into two groups. One group was issued trekking poles, given basic instruction and sent on a hike up and down 3,560-foot Snowdon, the highest peak in England. The other group marched up and down Snowdon sans poles. Heart rates and personal perceived exertion ratings were taken during the hike.Then, at 24-, 48- and 72-hour intervals after the hike, muscle damage and function were assessed.
Results: The hikers who used trekking poles reported significantly less muscle soreness, their loss of strength was less and they recovered from the hike faster than their pole-less counterparts. While both groups reported some soreness 24 hours after the hike, the trekking pole users were complaining much less after 48 hours than were the poleless hikers. Also: There’s an enzyme called creatine kinase, which is indicative of muscle damage. The people without poles registered much higher levels of creatine kinase 24 hours after the hike.
“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,” said Dr. Glyn Howatson, who conducted the study. “These finding have particularly strong application for exercisers wishing to engage in consecutive days activity in mountainous terrain.”
If still dubious of trekking poles for vanity reasons, get over it. One other advantage to using them: Because they relieve the pressure on your muscles and joints and because they reduce the lingering negative effects of hiking, you can go faster and farther.
Look younger (mostly in your own mind) and suffer or go faster and farther with less lingering soreness. Your choice.
Read more on the study here.
Photo: Note the man in green leaning on the hiking poles? He’s the hike leader.