Coaching, Inspiration, Kayak, Lifestyle, SUP, Training

Paddling for Fitness

Some time ago on a beautiful, clear, crisp winter’s evening I found myself in my Speeder out training on the canal under the moonlight.  Gliding along, enjoying the rhythmic motion of paddling, the physical exertion and resultant speed, my mind wandered and asked the question ‘Why don’t I see more people out doing this?’

Most recreational paddlers don’t train in their boats.  Coming from a whitewater background I find even the keen, talented paddlers signing up for every trip mostly don’t go out and paddle for fitness.  However, competition paddlers have known for some time that the performance gains from a few simple training sessions can be enormous, improving everything from cardiovascular fitness to muscle memory and efficiency of stroke.  The fact I regularly went alone to the local canal and paddled purely as a physical training exercise was my secret weapon, the way in which the coach always had reserves of energy, could go that extra mile when needed.  It was time for me to share this now…

But how to get others involved?  I went about introducing the idea of Paddling Fitness to the club by offering to run sessions on a weekday evening through the winter where the darkness added an extra element of attraction.  All were welcome, this needed to be as inclusive as possible, so the only requirement was that you could paddle in a straight line.

Sprint intervals...
Training as a group can be a lot of fun…

Running a Group Session

I have no background in competition paddling but have trained for major endurance events, such as the Great Glen Paddle, before so felt comfortable using popular, well proven training principles to run the Paddling Fitness groups.  However, it is fairly straightforward to introduce this kind of session into your club calendar if you follow a few simple principles:

Paddle Together, Perform Individually – People are much more likely to attend if there is a social element to the sessions, but physical variations between paddlers can be huge and you must create an environment where each feels challenged but not intimidated.

Don’t be Parochial – Long boat, short boat, sit on top – if the sessions are well structured then all can and should be accommodated.  And all of these principles can apply to SUP as well, although mixing SUPs and kayaks could get interesting…

Why so Serious? – The sessions should be hard, or at least as hard as the individual wants them to be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun.  This can be anything from friendly banter and social exchange through to challenges and competitions.

Solid Foundations – The sessions must be effective and ideally allow rapid improvement, so should be based on solid, proven training principles.

Long boat, narrow canal, solo interval session…

Going Solo

Worth mentioning, in case you didn’t pick this up at the start, that you don’t actually need a group to do these drills.  The craft of your choice, a safe environment to paddle alone or with just bank support and a self discipline driven ability to push yourself is all you need to complete a paddling fitness session.

Training Principles

When reading Blogs like this I get frustrated if everything is generalized so I wanted to include some specific advice.  Firstly, I prefer to deliver a group session as a participant as I find being amongst the group is the best way to gauge the intensity of the session and judge what to do next.  However, having taken part in many sessions I now feel more comfortable in making that call from the bank too.  In terms of session content, here are a few sample activities I have used, some only work in groups but others work solo or en masse:

The Chain Gang (Groups Only) – Adapted from the world of cycling, paddlers form in a line astern travelling at a pace at which the slowest paddler is still comfortable.  The rear paddler breaks out of formation and sprints forwards to the front of the line.  As soon as the sprinter’s stern is ahead of the group, the lead paddler calls out and the sprinter slips into position as the new head of the line.  Simultaneously, the call from the front is the signal for the next rear marker to start their sprint to the front.  Tips – each line should be well matched in boat speed for this to work best (3 sea kayaks and a playboat in line won’t work!), lines of more than 6 become cumbersome, works best with longer boats, paddlers must slow after their sprint to prevent group pace slowly rising.

Grid Sprints (Solo & Groups) – Split the paddlers into two groups and identify a number of distance markers in the area you are paddling.  Each group then takes it in turn to sprint to the designated marker and back based on your instructions, with the effort period of Group 1 defining the rest period of Group 2 (if alone define your rest period using a timer).  Once a set of 3-4 hard efforts is complete both groups rest and the distance and number of efforts for the next set are detailed.  Tips – works best in boats that turn well, important to keep distances low enough to actually sprint (less than 40secs duration), good if you can create competition within groups by putting closely matched paddlers together, try and structure the session to steadily peak in intensity and then ease back down, if groups too large or in long boats that turn poorly then use 3 groups spread to allow one way sprints.

Counted Efforts (Solo & Groups) – One of the simplest yet most effective.  Set an out and back course for the group and ask them to control their own effort level by counting their strokes.  My favourite is to count out 20 steady strokes, then sprint for 10 strokes, 15 steady strokes, then sprint for 10 strokes, 10 steady strokes then a final sprint for 10 strokes before repeating the whole cycle.  If you advise the paddlers to turn around as soon as they see that one of the group has reached the end marker you even get the group back to the start at roughly the same time.  Tips – works with mixed boats and abilities, make sure there is a visible difference between an individual’s rest and sprint strokes.

Focused Efforts (Solo & Groups) – Sneaking some coaching in whilst also keeping up the fitness building tempo, this can take the form of either grid sprints or counted efforts but you ask for complete focus on one element of the stroke during the effort period; for example ‘throughout this sprint I want you to focus on…’.  This can be especially effective towards the end of a session when form is deteriorating through fatigue.  Tips – when people are working that hard they can generally only handle one focus point, try and structure this input in a manner that doesn’t reduce intensity (unless, of course, that is your objective)

A kayak isn’t the only craft you can complete these sessions in…

An end in itself?

A final thought on the subject is to ask ‘Could we not consider Paddling for Fitness an end in itself?’  People run the streets, sweat in gyms, jump on bikes and travel to swimming pools often not even for the enjoyment of the activity but simply because it keeps them fit; a means to an end.  For some understandable but other less obvious reasons paddlesport has missed this market despite the fact it has so much to offer.  The introduction of sessions such as those outlined above alongside accessibility of boats and basic coaching at a waterside location and there is scope to introduce a whole different type of paddler to the sport.

Paddling with wings…
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6 thoughts on “Paddling for Fitness”

  1. A very helpful article. Our club has introduced 10 mile and 20 mile paddles on the same day, the less experienced turning back half way. Most paddlers happily chat away but forget that forward paddling is the major stroke for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely John, so often both the benefits of a better, stronger forward stroke and the value of paddling stamina and fitness are overlooked. It also seems a common belief that only when paddling a racing K1 is fitness paddling possible but in any boat it can be fun, even when the boat isn’t suited to the distances you speak of above, but getting the short boats involved in fitness paddling requires different sessions. Keep up the good work!


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