Gear Review: Black Diamond Distance Z Carbon Running Poles
European runners, perhaps encouraged by wider experience with skiing, have long been believers in running poles… but now more North American runners, especially at the longer distances, are coming to the party. With this, there has been more discussion about technique, access to a wider range of products, and a faster rate of development in the technology. Here, we go through a quick primer to poles – choosing the right length, and what’s on the market – before discussing my most recent purchase.
The conventional wisdom is that the ideal length for running poles is either your height multiplied by 0.68, or a length so that, standing in your running shoes with the poles held vertically on the ground, your elbows are at 90 degrees – both methods give about the same length of pole. The conventional wisdom is then that, if these methods give a length between lengths offered by a manufacturer, you should round up to the longer length. These methods mostly come from cross country skiing and related sports.
For steep climbs and descents, as well as fast running on flat, open terrain, the resulting pole length is pretty good for me. However, I have found this is often a bit too long in other circumstances, in particular, when running in a deeply incised path or on a narrow path with bushes on either side, or when moving at a slower pace – in other words, most conditions that western North American ultra runners find themselves in – I find such poles a bit too long. I would suggest trying both the “official length” poles, and poles 5-10cm shorter.
Another option is to get an adjustable-length pole. These usually offer 10-15cm of adjustability – frankly a lot. The trade-offs of these poles are cost, weight, and slower deployment.
The question of pole length aside, there are lots of options out on the market. There are four main construction styles for poles today: rigid/fixed, twist-lock, flick-lock/lever-lock, and speed-lock/Z-poles. Each have pros and cons, but my view is that the Z-pole structure is hands-down the best option for almost all runners. (A fifth type, slot-locks is occasionally used, but is only rarely used, perhaps due to how crude the adjustment is.)
The oldest type is the rigid pole – a single piece which cannot be adjusted or broken down. These are the only option for XC-skiing, where the rigidity and light weight are paramount and you are carrying long skis anyway – they are also cheaper, all other things being equal. Since there is no option to break them down for easier carrying or travelling, these are not popular with most distance runners, but some still do favour them.
Twist-locks were the oldest type of adjustable-length/collapsible poles. These poles were typically three- or four-part poles, with each section telescoping inside the larger one above. They would be fixed in place by twisting, so that a cone would be drawn into a sabot, forcing the sabot to expand, jamming into the upper section. This is a simple solution conceptually, but is relatively heavy and results in a relatively long collapsed length (compared to Z-poles in particular); also, I find that, as I place and remove the poles, they twist and loosen, and I have to tighten them every 15-20 minutes. They also tend to be heavier (this probably isn’t inherent in the mechanism, but rather that it isn’t worth the expense of bringing more advance materials and engineering to a mechanism with other drawn-backs.)
Flick-lock (the Black Diamond trade name), aka lever-lock, poles lock sections with a cantilever which pinches the outside section onto the inner section. This mechanism doesn’t suffer from the tendency to unlock as they are placed. However, they still suffer from the relatively long packed length and weight. Most adjustable length ski poles use this mechanism, as it is a strong and rigid mechanism with little sensitivity to icing.
Z-locks are rapidly becoming the standard in running (and more recently even ski) poles, after the mechanism having been pioneered in avalanche probes for the past decade. Here, there is a cable running through sections (typically three), which is pulled to seat and lock the sections until a slot-lock at the top engages to lock them together. This system provides better packed length, as well as weight, than the other mechanisms. This is both inherent to the mechanism, and also due to better engineering being brought to bear. However, there is more play (less rigidity) than flick-lock poles.
Another important consideration is the handles and wrist-straps of the poles. Well-contoured wrist-straps make for the most comfortable, efficient energy transfer from your hands to your poles; Leki poles offer a quick-release, where the straps remain on your hand, and can be removed from the pole…. Some love it, some hate it, but it’s a neat idea. If you have larger hands or plan to run with heavy gloves from time to time, you may have difficulty getting the Leki straps to fit, so test them first! (Black Diamond grips are sufficiently contoured that you can make do without wrist-straps if you prefer, while the straight-sided Leki grips would be difficult to grasp.
Usually, you will want to have your hand at the top of the pole, but sometimes you may want to move it down to reduce the effective length – this is when it is useful to have a longer padded hand grip, allowing your to grip easily; highly contoured grips help with this. Hard plastic grips become slippery and harder to hold when your hands become sweaty, and are not recommended. Cork grips are, according to conventional wisdom, the best for shock-absorption and grip when sweaty, but foam grips are probably at least as good these days. Whatever you choose, comfort is key given how long they will be in your hands!
REI, Komperdell, and a host of cut-price Chinese brands on Amazon all offer poles with twist-lock and flick-lock mechanisms. These can range from as little a $35 per pair to $150. However, Z-poles are the final word, due to weight, packed length, and deployment speed, with Black Diamond and Leki being the top brand in North America. There are some great fringe brands available in Europe, offering rigidity and light weight, though at a price and they are not generally available in North America.
Black Diamond is by far the most popular in North America. They are lighter than most Leki models available in North America and cheaper…. And more widely accessible. In contrast, the top Leki models available in Europe are lighter, and all Leki models offer greater rigidity due to tighter engineering and metal collars on the joints; people who have used both tell me that while you can feel “clicking” between the sections with the Black Diamond poles, the Leki poles feel like a single unit.
Leki poles generally have cork grips, while Black Diamond poles mostly have foam grips. Black Diamond has well-contoured, conventional wrist-straps with some play in how you grasp the pole, whereas Leki boasts wrist-straps which cinch firmly onto your hand locking you into a single, firm position on the pole. As mentioned before, make sure whichever you choose is comfortable in your hands, but don’t get caught up in material too much!
Due to weight, cost and availability, I purchased a pair of Black Diamond Distance Z Carbon poles. These weigh in at 295g and pack to 43cm for the 130cm length. You drop 5g and 3cm packed-length per 10cm reduction in usable length. You can also go with the non-carbon version for 75g penalty while saving about $60, across all lengths.
When you first get the poles, they come with rubber tips. While these work fine for urban side-walk walking, the carbide tips (included with the poles… look in a secret pocket in the Velcro strap which comes with poles) provide superior grip on a variety of surfaces. To change the tips, take a pair of pliers, grip the last half-inch of the tip, and twist counter clockwise.
I test-drove these first on Triconi Peak – a lovely alpine run north of Squamish – and then at the Moab 240 – a great new ultra in Utah, where I paced a couple runners for 112 mile of the 283.5 mile course. I really liked these poles…. And I noticed other runners did, too – the vast majority of the poles I saw on course were Black Diamond Distance Z Carbon poles. What I came to appreciate was, firstly the light weight… with other poles I’ve used in the past, the few ounces extra have led to my hand cramping after 50 or 60 miles… with the light carbon, my hands stays limber and easy – all the better to grasp yummy food at the aid stations! Although I kept the poles deployed for most of the time, there were times (especially on road and fast downhills) where I would stash them on my back. The rapid collapse and deployment was great… though it took some practice to separate the sections by the right amount so that all three could be aligned – another 1-2 centimeters of play in the cable would have gone a long way to improving this.
So, what is the summary? Firstly, poles can be a huge benefit to distance runners, but make sure you have your technique and polling-specific muscles honed. Secondly, there are quite a few options to fit all budgets… but the two really good options are the Leki poles and the Black Diamond Distance Z Carbon poles. The Black Diamond poles deserve their place as the most popular in North America – while not as rigid as the Leki poles (you will feel the flexing at the joints until you get used to it), they are lighter than most Leki models in North America, and cheaper.