Walking poles – an epiphany

As many of you might know from my blog posts last year, I used to hate walking poles.

I hated them with a passion.

I regarded them as spitting in the face of The Romantic Pilgrim.

Before I walked the Camino Frances, I had this preconceived and misguided notion of what a pilgrim was. And I thought that metallic technical walking poles were the antithesis of the true pilgrim.

I wasn’t a gourd / scallop shell hanging off the manufactured wooden pole kind of bloke – that was way too touristy for me. But I did believe in the sanctity of the wooden pilgrim’s staff. Like St. James would have done.

Anyone who’s read my book (was that just a plug?) will remember the lengths to which I went to find EXACTLY the right kind of staff in St. Jean Pied de Port. And then I got to Pamplona, with my knee the size of a ripening watermelon, and was talked into buying walking poles.

As the hospitalero said in the albergue in which I was staying: “You either use walking poles, or you give up on completing your Camino.”

So I bought the poles – my Hungarian mate Balazs advised me to get a pair of Leki poles, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can say without doubt that the hospitalero was correct – had I not bought those poles when I did, I wouldn’t have made it to Santiago.

Thing was, I never really knew how to use them.

I was completely uncoordinated with them. As anyone who’s read my book will know, (was that just another plug?) I developed this weird way of walking with them which looked very odd, but seemed to work.

I likened it to the kick of a long distance swimmer – so that I put my poles down every second step. It’s hard to explain, but it got me through.

I remember watching people who really knew how to use them, and they seemed to do so effortlessly. They were graceful. And every time I tried to emulate them, I ended up looking like a drunken sailor on the deck of a ship in a storm.

Most of the people who used them well came from the Scandinavian countries, where from a young age they’re taught to use ski-poles for walking in the snow. I studied them, but try as I might, I just couldn’t nail it.

I tried everything – coordinating my arm movements with my feet. That didn’t work. I’d get “out of sync” really quickly.Then I tried to just find a rhythm – that didn’t work either. I’d get out of rhythm really fast.

And then I had an epiphany climbing up Mt. Misery. (I’m sure many a person has had an epiphany climbing up Mt. Misery. It’s an epiphany kind of place. They should build an ambulance depot at the base.)

In the end, it was very simple. It wasn’t about coordinating my arms – it wasn’t about finding a rhythm. It was easy. It was about placing the pole on the ground in exact timing to the fall of your foot.

And then suddenly – I could do it perfectly! Like all those Swedes and Norwegians!

Let me explain –

At the moment that your left foot strikes the ground, you place your right pole on the ground opposite where your left heel falls. You don’t worry about your arms – your arms will by necessity find the right place to be at the right time.

The other thing I found epiphanious (if that’s correct English usage) is that you don’t worry about the left pole and the right foot. You just worry about one side. For me, that’s the left foot and the right pole. Do this, and your body will adopt its own synchronicity and the other side will automatically follow.

This to me was the biggest breakthrough. Suddenly it all became effortless. If I dyed my hair blonde and had salmon-breath, you could mistake me for a Swede…

I also found that angling the pole slightly backward, so that it was in line with the heel, helped with propulsion forward. You lose power if you angle the pole too far forward.

Now, most of you will probably at this point say: DOH BILL, THAT’S WHAT I’VE ALWAYS DONE, YOU MORON. 

And if you say that, then I will say to you in return that pilgrims shouldn’t talk to other pilgrims that way. Be nice.

But yes, it’s probably been something that most of you have done from the get-go and taken for granted, but it’s taken me all this time to discover it.

For those of you who’ve had trouble with walking poles, and you try this out and it works for you, then all I can say with due humility is that once again, this blog changes lives…

(Oh, and by the way, my book is available on Amazon – either Kindle or paperback.)

Bill’s fantastic book – you can buy it HERE

(Was that just a plug?)

Here below is a sequence which I got Jennifer to photograph. Some of you will remember that Jennifer pathologically gets shots of me out of focus, even when I set the aperture to f8 (heaps of depth of field) and pre-focused for her.

How she could get these shots out of focus defies belief. It’s almost technically impossible – but somehow she managed to do it…

(By the way, she takes great shots of flowers and fabric and always gets them in focus. It’s just ME she gets out of focus!)

The last two point-of-view shots, which are sharp and IN focus, were taken by me.
Of course…

walking 2 walking 3 walking 4 walking 5 walking 6 walking 7 walking pov1 walking pov2

11 thoughts on “Walking poles – an epiphany

  1. Bill,
    I had the same problem at first. I felt so stupid or uncoordinated. I watched the videos (who would think they should have videos on how to walk with poles) and practiced. We would go on our practice walks and I would have to tell Dale – don’t talk to me as I was talking to myself left, right, left, right, etc.I couldn’t do it. Lasted three steps and I was out of sync. However, one of the first things that happened on the Camino was I found my rhythym and all became syncronized. Wouldn’t have made it without poles. My husband felt to “macho” to use poles… until he tripped and hit a stone bench. Three stitches, goose egg swelling and half his face abraised he got a walking stick and loved it.
    Jen probably takes out of focus pics just so you’ll put your arms around her and show her how to hold and focus the camera. Hooly Dooly.


    • Hey Lynda, I’m pleased to hear you had problems too! I thought it was just me! Dreadful to hear that Dale had a crash though… and as for Jen and out of focus pics, well, she knows there are other ways to get a cuddle out of me. Taking soft photos isn’t one of them!


  2. Looking good Bill. I see you’ve got them set to the right height too.

    Great to see you’re a “convert”.




  3. Well, Bill, since Jennifer is such a wonderful, accomplished and interesting human being (and having met her, I’m totally sincere here!), you’d have nothing to complain about unless she deliberately does something like this to get your gander up – just goes to show how very clever she is and good for her to choose HER WAY to show you – so all I can suggest is to just get over yourself and your professional ideals! 🙂 – and as for the poles, it’s a no brainer and I got Leki too!


    • haha – britta, yes jennifer is all those things you claim, I mean, attest… 🙂 and she has a particular way of dealing with the world, which precludes getting photos of me in focus. she has other endearing attributes though… oops, I better duck… see something flying towards me…. looks like a…. arghhhh


  4. Yeah, it’s the same with a walking staff — you use it completely wrong for hundreds of K, til suddenly something just clicks, and it turns into an extra part of your body.

    Good news, glad to hear you’ve made that breakthrough !!


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