Pole-vaulting is an incredible sport to watch. The vaulter's technique can be so fluid and graceful, the result of a highly studied technique designed to optimize energy conversion.

In this edition of How Stuff Works we will learn a little bit about the history of pole-vaulting, and then we will explore the physics of pole-vaulting.

History of Pole-Vaulting
The pole vault originated in Europe, where men used the pole to cross canals filled with water. The goal of this type of vaulting was distance rather than height.

In the late 1800s, colleges started competing in the pole vault. Originally the vaulters used bamboo poles with a sharp point at the bottom. They competed on grass, planting the point in the grass (because holes were not allowed back then), vaulting over a pole and landing back on the grass. In the 1896 Olympics, the record, set with a bamboo pole, was 10 ft 6 in (about 3.2 m).

As heights started to increase because of improvements in technique and materials, mats started to be used for landing. Now the modern pole vault takes place on an all-weather track surface, with a box for planting the pole in, and plenty of padding in the landing pit. Modern poles are made of advanced composite materials like carbon fiber. The world record today is over 20 feet!

Vaulting Pole
The vaulting pole is a very advanced piece of equipment. It is constructed from carbon fiber and fiberglass composite materials in several layers. The pole must be able to absorb all of the vaulter's energy while bending, and then return all of that energy as it straightens out. These advanced composite materials waste very little energy when they bend, and have a good strength-to-weight ratio.

A 200-lb (90.72 kg) pole-vaulter needs to put about twice as much energy into the vaulting pole as a 100-lb (45.35 kg) vaulter. But the vaulting pole has to bend about the same amount, this means that the heavier vaulter needs a stiffer vaulting pole than the lighter vaulter. So, the stiffness of the vaulting pole must be carefully tuned to match the weight of the vaulter.

Anything that helps the vaulter run faster on his approach will help him go higher. Reducing the weight of the vaulting pole is an obvious way to help the runner go faster. The carbon fiber poles used today are much lighter than the wood, bamboo or metal vaulting poles sometimes used in the past.