Guides, Kayak, Reviews, SUP, Training

Paddle Training through Winter…

As I start preparing for next year’s SUP 11 Cities, I face a winter of paddle fitness training.  This isn’t the first time I’ve trained through the coldest months for kayak and SUP endurance events, such as the Great Glen Paddle and Speight’s Coast to Coast, and I thought I’d share a few insights into how to dress and prepare for heading out for a paddle workout in chilly conditions… 

Winter is a challenging time to get out, whether you are paddling a kayak, canoe or SUP, but it can be really rewarding.  The specialist whitewater and ocean paddlers have their own methods for dealing with the elements, but in many ways those that simply paddle for fitness, working hard in cold conditions on often even chillier waterways, have the most difficult of jobs; dressing for a vigorous outdoor workout but with an ever present danger of full immersion.

Working hard through the snow and cold…

But before we get started…

Now let me be clear from the off, this advice does not apply to any situation where there is a reasonable probability of falling in.  Of course, it is always a possibility (see below) but you need to be competent on your chosen board or boat, so this is not the time to take out your most unstable race machine.  You should also stay very close to a shore where you can land safely and have access to a warm safe location; these are not open water or wilderness dressing strategies.  Okay, so now the scene is set…

Let’s be clear, these are not open water or wilderness dressing strategies…

Flexible layering…

When you realise that ice is forming on the outside of your clothing but you are still at a comfortable temperature then you know you have got your layering system right!   The actual garments worn vary massively between individuals but I find a couple of simple principles guide what I do.  The first is that you have to be warm to train effectively, and either too hot or too cold are detrimental to performance, so overdressing is as much of a problem as underdressing.  The second is to sort your priorities, which are warm first and foremost, then dry too if that is possible, then immersion resistant is the final, but often unachievable goal.  And it is this last point that confounds so many, as by dressing for immersion they are often compromising what should be their two key priorities…

So with this in mind, I dress in layers that will keep the parts of me working hardest at a comfortable temperature and breathing.  This can mean just a single or pair of thermal base layers on my upper body, even in frosty conditions, or a thermal base layer and breathable windproof when windchill is a factor.  I am a big fan of the zoned warmth provided by gilets and often use these as a second layer in moderate conditions.  I find for most paddling my legs require less mobility so tolerate a single thicker layer, such as neoprene based tights, and rarely need any additional wind proofing as a result.  I avoid anything that can’t breathe because I’ve experienced the dangers of being soaked with sweat then having to stop, which quickly becomes equivalent to the results of full immersion (see below).  So, if possible I would rather accept some dampness caused by paddle splash than don full waterproofs, relying on radiating body heat to keep damp base layers warm.  However, clearly there are occasions where a full waterproof outer is the only answer and in these instances I find maximising venting (so ideally no latex cuffs and collars) and, if necessary, moderating exertion, help keep things in balance.

Cold and dry, but still fully layered, topped off with a beanie…

Head, fingers and toes…

Keeping your extremities at a comfortable temperature is vital and a mistake here can make life painful and quickly bring an end to your paddle.  A simple beanie works well for the head, and is an easy layer to take on and off to modulate your temperature whilst paddling.  Equally, in super cold conditions you may want to pair that up with a buff to cover your neck and face, minimising exposed skin.  Feet suffer too, especially as they often aren’t moving much.  I have found waterproof socks superb for warmth, better than simple woolly socks but more comfortable than neoprene.  If you need extra toastiness, then you can use liner socks inside them.

When it comes to your hands other factors come into play such as dexterity, grip and feel.  I am not a fan of gloves but know others who are quite happy with watersports specific thin palmed neoprene backed gloves or similar designs.  Even some simple MTB gloves can do the job as they too are designed to protect from windchill but maintain feel.  Personally, when kayaking I prefer pogies to protect the hands but allow skin contact with the paddle, and for boarding prefer open palmed neoprene mits.

Stop stopping…

This is critical to a successful winter fitness paddle – keep resting time to a minimum and avoid interruptions to the workout.  For some that means keeping the sessions short; maximise your workout and minimise your exposure by completing short, sharp sessions such as intense intervals or tempo paddles.  But, you can do endurance work too, just make it a long, steady, measured effort without breaks or faff; cold conditions are not the time to keeping stopping to play with your GPS or experiment with paddle length.  When you stop working you start cooling down, and that is when you are vulnerable…

When you stop working you start cooling down, and that is when you are vulnerable…

Paddling through a winter wonderland…

Stay out of the water…

What if the worst happens?  That is the question you have to ask yourself and then have a plan.  This may be an unexpected immersion through a mistake, fatigue or equipment failure, or an injury which leaves you dead in the water and quickly cooling down.  The best and simplest solution is to never be more than a few minutes away from your ‘safe place’, whether that be your vehicle or a building, where  you should have a change of clothes and the ability to warm yourself up.  But that is not always possible, especially if you are on an endurance paddle.  In this scenario, always carry an emergency dry bag that should contain either a full change of clothes or as a minimum, some warm, windproof layers to go on over the top of your paddling clothes.  I usually have a synthetic down jacket, dry beanie and large storm cag in mine, and sometimes even pack an emergency shelter too, especially if I’m not paddling alone.  These are there to allow me to recover from an immersion or similar incident, and then stay warm enough to either paddle or walk back to my ‘safe place’. 

And relax, but not too soon…

So, you’ve had a fantastic winter workout, given your all on the water and return to your starting point without incident; well done.  But it isn’t over yet.  I have fallen into the trap of relaxing when the workout is finished, checking the GPS, faffing with gear, chatting with passers by, taking my time loading the roof rack, and then realising that my hands are now numb and I’m shivering…

Get loaded and sorted quickly, then relax and get warm…

As soon as you stop working hard you start cooling down and in that time after you get off the water you are still vulnerable to the conditions until you are either indoors or have layered up.  So, have a plan for what you are going to do, and either dump your gear, get changed and then sort it out, or quickly layer up, sort out your gear and then change properly.  Perhaps you could even have a hot flask waiting for you, after all, you’ve earned it.

Training in the cold and wet can still be fun!

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