"Struggle Moors is one of the UK's hardest sportives..."
What on earth, when I read that sentence, made me want to sign up for it? If I'm being completely honest, I can't put it into words. All I know is that, when I read that, and looked at the route, something in me went 'Yes. I really want to do that. I don't know if I can, but I know I'm prepared to give it a really good go'.
The event is in 12 weeks time, and I want to share my journey with you. I'll share how I put together my plan for training, and then some of the highs and lows as the weeks progress. And then finally, whether I can do it... or not!
The video shows the route of the longer event (180km, 3100m climbing); the one I'll be doing is ever so slightly shorter at 150km, with 2500m of ascent including 4 major (and majorly steep!) climbs, Yorkshire style.
I grew up just a few miles from the route of this event, in Middlesbrough. The industrial town couldn't be more different from the beautiful National Park it is overlooked by, and the contrasts (both geographical and social) of the area are one of its most striking features, in my eyes. I spent much of my childhood and teenage years learning to sail and racing sailing dinghies at Scaling Dam Sailing Club on the windy plateau of the North York Moors, and the roads around there are still seared into my memory 30 years later.
I've been riding a bike for various different purposes for around 13 years, after buying one on the Cycle to Work scheme. I've never been fast or particularly strong, but I've always enjoyed it. I've had lots of adventures by bike, but this will be one like no other. I also love hills... and hate them, and love them... Walking up them, running up them, riding up them. I've never been light, so they've never been my forté but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy them. And it does mean I can enjoy getting better at them.
So what's the plan? How will I prepare for it?
I'll plan my training and preparation in the same way as I would with any Fitness & Nutrition Coaching client. First of all, work out where I am now; then where I need to get to (well, we know that!); and then what I will need to do to get me there.
So where am I now?
I'm feeling in reasonable shape at the moment- for me, that is. We all have to start from where we are. I've been riding on Zwift (an online cycling platform in the form of a computer game, with other real riders on their indoor trainers) regularly for a couple of months, and I'm gradually keeping up on faster group rides. I've ridden some reasonably big hills on there too. Outdoors, I've recently ridden 80km with about 500m of climbing. I'm certain I could do more outside right now, but the weather's been particularly cold, so indoors has the win for the moment.
What don't I know at the moment?
I don't know what gradient of hill I can manage as a maximum at present, either indoors or out. So I need to test that to find out. The Struggle Moors route has gradients of around 20% in several places, and one (Rosedale Chimney) stretch of 30%!
Where do I need to get to?
The route itself is 150km long, and has 2500m of climbing. There are 4 major climbs, but they only add up to 720m of that, so the rest of the ascent is spread along the route. I need to get comfortable with riding up (and down!) hills.
The event is in July, so it's likely to be reasonably warm; but then, this is the North York Moors: it could be cold, it could be windy, it could be raining. Or we could have a heat wave. Or possibly all of those in a single day.
In order to maximise the time I have to complete the event, I will need to start at 6.30am.
The feed stations provide Veloforte bars, bananas, pork pies and water; they also provide electrolyte tablets and sports drink, but I intend to take my own.
So how will I get there?
Firstly, and most obviously, I need to cycle. A lot. But not just any kind of cycling: I need to be as specific as I can to the event. That word 'specific' is going to come up a lot in the next few paragraphs. The hills in this event are mostly relatively short but very steep. So there's very little point in me spending all my time riding long, gently graded hills or flat roads. I need to get the '100 cycling climbs' and 'Hill climbs for cyclists' books out and find the steepest roads I can in my area, the Scottish Highlands. And then, I need to go out and test the gradient of hill I can ride up right now. Once I know that, I can progressively work my way up to riding steeper gradients. Doing this outdoors has specific challenges, in weather, road surface, and most critically, staying on my bike! There comes a level of steepness when riding hills where, if you put a foot down, there is absolutely no chance of starting again: you are stuck with walking the rest of the hill.
Training plan item: Complete one 'hill training' ride of at least an hour per week, including one or (preferably) more challenging gradients. To be specific, this should be outdoors by preference.
Next, I need to ride long. I will be on my bike for 9 hours or more on the day, covering 95 miles. The longest ride I've completed recently has been around 3-4 hours, so I will need to gradually increase the length of time I can comfortably spend on my bike.
Training plan item: Complete one 'long' ride per week, gradually increasing in distance, and including a progressively increasing amount of ascent. If possible, it should also include some steep gradients. This ride must be outdoors...
I need to get stronger. Riding up steep hills is about strength and power endurance. About the ability to climb either seated or standing in the pedals and just keep pushing until you reach the top. Not just 'single effort' strength, but repeated again, and again, and again. I'll be working on this in the gym, and again on my bike. In the gym, the training needs - again - to be specific. It must mimic the actions of riding up a hill. Squats do this, and split squats do it even better. Adding load to that progressively, along with increasing repetitions over time will gradually build strength and endurance. Hip hinge movements such as the deadlift and kettlebell swing will help to build glute strength and power, which is particularly important for climbing. And not to be forgotten, the ability to just hold yourself up on a bike for that length of time takes work, and a strong core.
Training plan item: At least two gym sessions per week, programmed for full body strength with an emphasis on cycling specific movement.
I need to be able to ride at 6.30am!
Anyone who knows me will know that I am not, nor have I ever been, a morning person. I've always struggled to get up early, let alone exercise early in the day. But if I am to give myself the best chance of completing this ride, I will need to start early on the day. If that's not going to feel horrendous, and make me hate it on the day itself, I'll need to practice riding at the right time of day. This comes with a caveat for the spring, however: although the weather on the North York Moors can be wild, we're unlikely to get ice on the roads in July. If it's below 4 degrees C at 6.30am on a day when I should be riding early, I can do this indoors.
Training plan item: Every Sunday until the event, I will be on my bike by 6.30am, even if it's only for half an hour.
Psychologically, I may spend a significant portion of the event riding alone. I'm likely to be near the back of the pack, and long hours alone on a bike or in a boat can feel much harder than in company, if you're not used to it. If you're struggling, there's no-one there to pick you up. I know this all too well after I spent over a month of a long expedition paddling round Scotland in 2015 as an unplanned solo effort after my paddling buddy bailed out. That was one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I'd had virtually no preparation for it. For this event, I want to be prepared for the psychological peaks and troughs: I know there will be many!
Training plan item: Complete at least 50% of my 'long rides' solo, including the final and hardest long training ride.
Nutrition. There's no getting away from it: climbing hills is easier if you weigh less. Or at least, it is as long as you are well fuelled and can produce the required amount of power. For me, trying to lose weight has been an overriding feature of my life, sometimes to the detriment of performance and of my mental health. For this training period, I will focus on gaining power, increasing skill and confidence, and developing the tools I need to get me through the day. If I get lighter as a result of the training that will be an added bonus - but I won't be focussing on it directly. What I will be focussing on is eating well and healthily, fuelling my body well to do what it needs to do and developing a healthy relationship with food.
On the day, getting the right food and fluid into me will be critical to success or failure. So knowing what will be available at feed stops in advance (and the fact I already like those items!) means I can practice both my nutrition & hydration on my training rides.
Training plan item: copy 'on the day' food & fluid timings and items as closely as possible on long rides.
Cross training. I'm also a paddler of course, and a runner. I enjoy walking up hills, too. So through all of this I will be continuing with those sports where either work demands, or where I just want to do them. All of it helps to improve general all-round fitness, mobility and flexibility - and they will also help me recover from the cycling and keep my mojo in tact.
Training plan item: sports & activities other than riding my bike!
Mileage. It's going to be important to just spend as much time on my bike as I can. I've been riding on Zwift with a group called 'The Pack' and my power and speed have improved as a result, so I'll be continuing to use those rides to help me push myself.
Training plan item: 'Pack' rides on Zwift to help build speed, mileage and enjoyment.
Scheduling. Over recent years I have developed the ability to 'train as I feel' rather than stick to a very specific schedule. It's not always the fastest way of achieving a goal, but for me it works better, as I can take into account how I feel mentally & physically, what the weather is doing, and the other demands on my body & mind. Rather than strictly schedule my training, I will have a list to work through each week, and adapt as life demands. For some people this might mean that they don't complete their training; for me, as I'm reasonably practiced at it now, it means I can adapt and avoid Overtraining.
And finally... it needs to be fun!
Being lucky enough to live in the Scottish Highlands means I have a huge amount of fantastic road biking routes available to me within an hour or two travel time. I'll be making the best use I can of those opportunities in order that I enjoy this process as much as I possibly can (within Covid restrictions, obviously).
Can I do it?
I have no idea... I think I can, but I don't know for certain. But it's not an adventure if the outcome is certain. I'll give it my very best shot, and try my best to document the journey. Watch this space to find out more...
Have an event you want to train for, or want to get fitter and improve your nutrition? Take a look at www.zoenewsamcoaching.co.uk or Contact Me.
Things are beginning to open up... Here in Scotland, our 'Stay at Home' order gets lifted in a couple of days time, and in England & Wales, people can already travel a little more than they could just a short while ago.
I for one will be getting on the water this weekend, for the first time in what feels like an age. When we went through this process the first time around, I was decidedly nervous: would I be able to recover from the skill fade of months off the water...? The answer, for me, was yes: I could. And it didn't take as long, or feel as difficult as I feared it would.
So I now have a process to follow, learned from last year's experiences, and I intend to follow it, roughly speaking, again over the coming weeks. I thought I'd share that process with you, along with some tips for getting yourself, and your friends or club members, back on the water safely and happily.
Check your kit
Before you throw the boat on the roof and kit in the car, and dash off for that first paddle... Does it all still work? Go through your kit: is it mildew free, and in tact? How's the joint on your split paddles? Are you hatch covers still in good condition, VHF not showing any signs of corrosion? There are many things that may have just degraded a little in storage: take your first aid kit & tow line out of their bags, unpack your PFD pockets if you haven't already... Make sure everything still works.
If, like me, it's been a few weeks or months since you were on the water last, start small, and start easy. Begin with a gentle paddle somewhere that's well within your comfort zone. You're likely to feel excited but just a little less confident than you might have done after a consistent period on the water. Don't put pressure on yourself to feel like you need to head out for a big or adventurous paddle at the start. It might take you a while to work up to doing the same kind of paddling you've been used to: that's ok, we're all in the same place.
Lower your expectations
Expect to fail, to begin with. Try going out with a 'give it a go' mindset, but without consequences. Practice moves on easy water, practice rolling, rescuing, self rescuing... all in places where it doesn't matter at all if it doesn't work. Go out with the intention of failing, of trying to make yourself fail to roll, or fail to make a move. Play. Have fun. But don't expect that you'll paddle at the same standard you do when you're in a consistent period on the water. Have a look at this blog post of mine from last summer.
Be kind to yourself
We've all had a thoroughly weird year. It's affected everyone in different ways, and some more than others, but Covid has had an impact on all of us in some way. You may feel reticent to travel around, to meet with other people, to do things you think you would normally do. That's ok. Give yourself time to readjust to whatever normal is going to look like for a while for you.
Pack a sense of humour
Paddling is fun. If it doesn't feel like that today, maybe it's a day to do something else. Go out, enjoy it, go easy, and play.
Do it with friends
Surrounding yourself with (within the local guidelines) a group of people who you trust, and who trust you, will make the process of returning to the water so much easier. Talk about how you feel about being back; about what you're struggling with, and about what you want to work on today, to get yourself back into the swing of things. It's always better with friends.
Build up gradually
Give yourself and those around you time to build up: think like an athlete training for a marathon. You've had some time away, so don't expect you'll jump from your first few paddles up to a mega-day out. Build up slowly, and enjoy the process of doing so. Your body will take time to adjust back into what were familiar movement patterns. What can you learn or improve on along the way?
Appreciate every moment...
And finally: if you've missed being on the water as much as I have, you'll know how much it means to you to be back. Savour those moments, and store them away. Precious moments, every one.
Many of us have put on weight during lockdown. Some of us may have started lockdown heavier than we’d like to be. But is changing the number on the bathroom scales really what you're looking to achieve?
These days we're told constantly that we live in an obese world. During the Covid-19 pandemic we've been continually told that obesity or being overweight are correlated with worse health outcomes. The health & fitness industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry mainly founded on trying to get people to lose weight.
But here's the thing: repeated dieting is actually an indicator for predicting weight gain instead of weight loss. Yup, there it is: that million dollar industry is, fairly regularly, selling people diets that get them to gain weight in the long term. In the short term of course, they often work. Restricting your calorie intake (which is what all diets do, in one way or another) means you lose weight initially. But in the long term, they're unsustainable: you put the weight back on, and a little bit more. You do it again, and the same happens longer term... and so the cycle continues.
And just because two things have a correlation doesn't necessarily indicate causation. Being overweight is not necessarily connected with poor health outcomes. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Now, don't get me wrong: there are some very, very good reasons why you might want to reduce the number on the scales. But often we assume that will solve lots of problems for us, whereas that may not always be the case.
So let me ask you a question: if you're reading this, the chances are (as you've clicked on the title) you'd like to lose a little weight. But why? What is it you'd really like to do? Perhaps you'd like to run faster, or you'd like to be able to paddle or cycle with greater ease: be more mobile in your boat, or ride up hills faster. Maybe you'd like to fit into those favourite jeans that feel just a little too tight? Or perhaps you just want to feel a little more confident about your body?
Will the number on the scales change any of those things?
What we're really talking about here is the amount of body fat you have, or the ability of your body to achieve the things you want it to. One of the main things that determines the amount of body fat you have is how many calories you eat. But your body's ability to do the thing you want it to do? At the end of the day, that comes down to health, physical fitness and strength. In the modern world, many of us simply eat more calories than our bodies need, and move less - and in less varied ways- than our bodies need us to. But how can we change that without dieting, without restricting our food intake and feeling hungry all the time? That's where food quality comes in.
Eat Balanced Meals
A balanced meal consists of, very roughly speaking, half a plate of vegetables, a quarter of a plate of protein, and a quarter of a plate of carbohydrates. In the western world, most of us skew the balance of our meals much more towards carbohydrates... but the thing that fills you up the fastest, and keeps you full for longest, is protein, and fibre from veggies. How balanced is the meal on your plate?
If you're eating balanced meals, you're eating to be healthy. You're eating to provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to get through the day. Many people find that simply by keeping an eagle eye on how balanced their meals are, they begin to lose a little body fat.
Ask yourself a question... Are you hungry?
When did you last stop before you ate something, and ask yourself if you're truly hungry? Or whether you're eating for a different reason entirely: maybe you're putting off a job you really don't want to do (hoovering, anyone?), maybe you're having a rough day (Hello, Coronacoaster!), or perhaps you're just a bit bored. We all eat for reasons other than hunger sometimes. And sometimes, those are good reasons: celebrating a birthday with loved ones, or going for coffee with a friend you haven't caught up with in ages. It's when it becomes a daily habit that it begins to cause us problems.
Create healthy habits
So how can you break that cycle? Many people try to rely on willpower or motivation. But if we really think about it, we all know that neither of those things actually cuts the mustard. Willpower runs out after a while, and none of us have enough of it to really make long term changes. And motivation comes and goes, it ebbs and flows in cycles depending on what's going on in our lives. What we really need to change, the thing that will stick around long term, are our daily habits. If we can make changes to those, and commit to doing so for the long term by doing things or eating things we enjoy (and I don't mean a week or two, I mean months or years...) then we're onto a winner. Genuine, long term lifestyle change.
Move your body... But not just for weight loss.
'If I do loads of exercise, I'll lose weight'... right? Well, not necessarily. That may be the case in the short to medium term, but in the long term, for most people, two things will happen. First, your body will figure out its daily energy expenditure, including all that exercise, and adapt to it. It will then stop burning as many calories, and your weight on the scales will stabilise. Second, many people find that doing hours of exercise over the long term just isn't sustainable, and their appetite will also increase: our bodies look for equilbrium, and so weight change doesn't happen.
Exercise should be fun! Moving your body keeps it strong and supple, gives your muscles, joints and tendons the chance to move around, build and maintain the strength & stability they need to keep you alive and keep you well. If the activity or movement you're doing feels like punishment for something you ate, try a different activity, and find something that makes you feel alive. The most effective form of exercise is the one you're most likely to do.
Get good sleep
Many of us get less sleep than we actually need, and being tired is a common cause of weight gain. Think about it: when you're tired, do you crave carbohydrates or sugar? You're not actually hungry, but your brain is telling you it needs something to keep it awake. So you eat excess calories when your body doesn't actually need them. People who are trying to lose weight and get enough sleep have been shown to lose significantly more weight than those whose sleep is inadequate.
Commit for the long term
"You are probably overestimating the number of changes you need to make, but underestimating the time you need to make them for". Simply making a few dietary changes - but making them for life - can significantly improve your health... and as a result, you may very well see the number on the scale come down.
Health is not about a number
At the end of the day, that number on the bathroom scale is a combination of many things: body fat, and lean mass being two of them. But it will also fluctuate for a number of reasons, not necessarily connected with what you ate recently. If you are losing body fat but gaining muscle from exercise, you may well see your weight increase. Scale weight is often not the best indicator of health: it's just as possible to be thin and unhealthy as it is to be 'overweight' and healthy. In modern life many of us have come to believe that that little number tells us all we need to know: it doesn't.
This is not a skinny person telling you you don't need to worry about losing weight. Those who know me, know that I have battled with my weight for my entire adult life, ever since being an overweight teenager. I'm still heavier than I'd like to be, but I'm healthy, fit, and strong, and in the last few years I've learned to develop a healthy relationship with food, and with my body. And there's the thing: I can achieve many of the things I'd like to be able to, and I'm always working on getting better... because it's fun, and I enjoy it. Wanting to lose a little more body fat is ok; just as wanting to run faster, be more mobile in your kayak, cycle up hills easier or lift heavier weights are ok. My challenge is this: is weight loss your actual goal, or is your goal really about something else?
If you'd like to explore any of the subjects above in more depth, or would like to improve your health & nutrition, and perhaps lose a little body fat along the way, check out some of my coaching programmes. The following include Nutrition coaching:
Nutrition Jump Start, commencing the first Monday in May, July and September
AdventureFit Coaching Programme
Individual Fitness & Nutrition Coaching
And if you have any questions or would like to discuss coaching with me, send me an email.
Further reading & listening:
The Dr John Berardi Show
Emma Storey-Gordon Fitness
Harvard School of Public Health: the Nutrition Source
Lean and Strong by Josh Hillis, published by On Target Publications, April 2020
Understanding Your Eating by Julia Buckroyd, published by Open University Press
Covid has changed the world. But for many of us, not only has it changed the world, it’s also changed our world. There have been many changes in my world since that day last year when we first heard the words “You must stay at home”, and I wanted to tell you, my clients, a little about those changes, what I’ve learned from them, and how they are going to change they way Zoe Newsam Coaching works.
It seems incredible somehow that it's almost a year since, having realised that providing sea kayak coaching was untenable for the foreseeable future, I walked into my nearest Tesco store and asked for a job. I'd sworn after leaving NATS in 2013 that I wouldn't work for a large company again; but needs must. I had no other means of paying the bills. I picked up a job as a delivery driver, and have been grateful for that one little piece of foresight ever since.
Lockdown was tough, as I grappled with the feeling of having the rug pulled from under me: identity and my sense of purpose pulled with it. But it, and the many other not-so-restricted stages of 2020 brought other benefits too: my life began to follow something of a routine for the first time in years, and I enjoyed spending time at home. We live in a beautiful place, and like many of us I spent time exploring every inch of footpaths, tracks & roads close to home. Unlike a lot of people though, we have a vast area of wild land on our doorstep, and again I'm incredibly grateful for that gift: for the ability to get outdoors, escape the stress and trauma of Covid, and enjoy moving through the environment around me, on foot or by bike, and when we were allowed, by sea kayak. We were unable to paddle during the UK's first lockdown, and that played on my mind... how would I cope with returning to the water? As it turned out, I needn't have worried.
But 2020 turned into 2021, and another Lockdown, with cases on the rise even here in the Highlands. The experience made me reflect on what is important to me, and why I work; how much I need to earn to get by, why I coach, why I run a business, and why, now, I deliver people's shopping. Most potently possibly, it made me consider what I can do to help people live healthier lives.
I coach because I love making a real difference to people. One of my own greatest loves is mastery, getting better at things; I also love the feeling of moving well, of feeling healthy and as though my body is able to do stuff, and take me places that give me that feeling. Seeing other people achieve that, and helping them to get there - whether that's through getting better at a particular skill in a boat, understanding the environment better on the sea, improving strength & power so that you can run, ride, or chase your kids more easily, or to lose a wee bit of weight so you feel better about yourself- that's what makes me feel good.
The outdoor industry can be a peculiar place, and I've long had a feeling that, somehow, I just didn't quite fit in. Since I started working in the outdoors in 2013, I've felt like an outsider: the wrong gender, the wrong shape & size, the wrong background. I've spent plenty of time trying to fit in... but as a friend recently put it (very perceptively, as always) to me: I'm fed up with trying to fit in. The last year has shown me that trying to fit in doesn't pay the bills. It also probably doesn't deliver the best service I can, to my clients. I'm not in this job for the other people in the same job: I'm in it for you guys, my clients, and to live the kind of life I love. So I'm going to stop trying to fit in, stop trying to deliver the courses we're 'supposed' to, and just do what works, and what I love.
It can also be incredibly hard to make a decent living in the outdoor industry: the last year has brought that into stark relief.
So reflecting on all of that made me realise that I needed to make some changes. I want to make a real difference, and one way I can do that is to help people get fitter, get healthier, and get out doing the stuff they enjoy. I can help people do that in a boat, or in the gym. I can also make a real difference to my own life, help myself to do all of that, by being at home more.
How will all of that look, in practice?
You'll see a greater emphasis on Fitness & Nutrition Coaching: mostly delivered online, but still with the personal touch that (I hope) you would expect from me as a coach. That will be focussed on helping people who enjoy the outdoors to achieve their goals: people who I connect with and understand. You'll also see a select number of Sea Kayak Coaching courses, sometimes delivered alongside other coaches with whom I have a close working relationship; and you'll see bespoke sea kayak coaching opportunities, to help you achieve what you really want. If you have a particular thing you'd like to work on, then please do get in touch.
What you won't see is 'identikit' sea kayak qualification or syllabus-based courses, or 'bog standard' personal training. Everything I do will be tailored to delivering the best quality coaching I'm capable of, to my clients, while allowing me the time and space to live the life that keeps me mentally & physically healthy.
And alongside that, I will keep delivering shopping. It's become an essential service up here, I've found it rewarding, and there's a lot to be said for having a small, steady income each month.
Who knows where we will all be in a few months, or a year or so's time? Covid has been an enormous rollercoaster ride, but I hope the lessons I've learned will help me to come out of it stronger, better at my job, and more able to live a healthy, happy life, whatever it might throw at us all.
I hope to catch up with you all on the water, on the hill, or in the gym in the coming months, and if you'd like to talk about coaching, please do get in touch.
One foot in front of the other... That analogy could be used for so many things right now (getting through life in a pandemic?), but it's what I've been doing a lot of lately: running & walking. And in paddlesports, when life is a little more normal, we just put one paddle stroke in front of the other. And yet so many of us know that to be just a little more complex than that.
So, when I went for a long walk in the snow the other day, up a few little lumps & bumps (maybe just big enough to be called hills!) I donned walking boots for the first time in ages. I've worn trail running shoes a lot this year, but with fairly deep snow and a good dose of mud around, I figured the boots would help me out.
If you're reading this as a paddler and wondering where the relevance to you is, bear with me a while, I promise I'll get there...
Now, I've been doing a lot of trail running this year. I wear Salomon Speedcross shoes: for those who aren't into trail running, they're basically running shoes with big grippy lugs on the bottom, that give really good grip on rough or slippy ground. They're also shoes.
I have a few physiological quirks (as we all do), one of which is hyper mobile joints, including ankles, so I'd struggle with 'going over' on my ankles, and always assumed that as a result of innumerable sprains & strains, and one or two dislocations, that I wasn't steady enough on my feet to deal with running on really lumpy-bumpy-scottish-bog-type rough ground. A year on though, having worked on changing my gait to combat injury and run solely on trails, I'm able to run in places I never dreamed would be possible. I'm not a fast runner, but for me that's not the point: I feel like I can move freely, and my feet & legs know what to do to deal with the terrain. They can compensate for the rough stuff, and keep me upright.
So, back to my recent walk in boots. I've been walking up hills most of my life, and owned at least one pair of walking boots as long as I can remember. Most of that time I've owned two pairs: one for summer, one for winter. They have high tops for 'ankle support', and rigid soles. So, walking a route that I've now run lots of times, I thought boots would be a good choice given the conditions. Was I right?
A little while into our walk I started to become aware that my feet & ankles didn't feel like they were responding to the terrain very well. On a very short but slightly steep downhill section the old worry that I would 'go over' on my ankles returned. How could that be? I thought I'd come so far from that? I began to realise that the supposed features of my boots that should be helping me were actually hindering the ability of my body to do what it needed to do: to feel the ground, to correct for the terrain, and to keep me upright. The boots were taking over, dulling the ability of my body to perform.
I began to wonder: does a lot of the kit we use really help us? Or has the outdoor gear industry actually produced a lot of ways to prevent us from developing the proprioception and skills to deal with the challenges of our environment?
Now, I'm a big fan of good kit, and I love a good gadget. Modern kit keeps us warm & dry, gives us lightweight footwear, boats, paddles, and all sorts of other innovations that mean we can go further, faster and harder than those before us.
But how often do you question the kit you use, why you use it, and whether there's a better solution? Have you ever opted for developing a skill in slow-time, rather than buy a bit of kit that might get you so far, but not actually help in the long term?
So, how might this be relevant to paddlers? Just a few examples... Do you wear a PFD? What do you keep in the pockets? Does it allow you to move freely? Do you need all that kit?
Do you wear a helmet? How about a neoprene cap underneath it? Do you need it? How about that drysuit? Does it allow you to move well, to get full use of your bodies' capabilities?
Now I hope it's fairly obvious that the answers to these questions will be different on different days: just as my 'should I wear running shoes or boots' will be different on different days. For example, if I was off to tackle a graded winter climb, there would be no doubt in my mind that for me, a pair of running shoes wouldn't cut it, no matter how grippy they were. I'd want the stiffness of the boot soles beneath my feet. In the same way, on a January day on the water in Scotland you wouldn't separate me from my drysuit, no matter how persuasive you were feeling. But on a different day, I might choose neoprene shorts, a lightweight cag and a slimline pfd with no pockets, depending on my intention for the day.
So my challenge to you is this: do you need the kit you wear & carry, does it help or hinder you? I know my answer to the 'Shoes or boots?' question will be different next time I head out.
I'm going to post a series of articles over the coming year about fitness training for paddling. It feels right to start these in January, the time of year when many of us turn our thoughts to the year ahead, set goals, and feel the need to work off some of the Christmas excess. Of course January 2021 is rather different to the Januarys that have gone before: most of us are in lockdown- certainly in the UK, with restrictions on our lives that we may not have imagined until less than a year ago. So use these articles as you will: for motivation, for entertainment, for education, or just for a moment of escapism. I hope you get out of them what serves you best, and if you have questions or thoughts you'd like to share on the subject, then please feel free to get in touch with me.
To begin with, I thought I'd take a look at the concept of Power. This might feel a little like jumping in at the deep end, but as a much-misunderstood idea, and one that is talked about a lot in paddlesports, it feels like a good place to start.
How many times have you heard a coach or another paddler talk about ‘power’ in paddling, or perhaps you’ve thought about it yourself? ‘I need more power’ or ‘I don’t have enough power to do that’, or perhaps ‘use lots of power here’.
But what exactly is it? Power is one of the most misunderstood concepts in fitness training, and in paddlesports, so this article will discuss what exactly power is, how it applies to paddling – in any discipline- and how you can begin to build it.
What is power?
The textbook definition of power as applied to fitness goes like this: “Power is defined as the rate of performing work and is a product of force and displacement.” (NSCA, 2017)
What does that mean? Well, if you and I stand next to each other, each holding a ball which weighs the same, and we throw that ball, it means that the one who can throw the ball so it travels the fastest, produces the most power. Alternatively, if we both weigh the same, and one of us can jump higher than the other, the person who can jump highest against the force of gravity is producing the most power. They are displacing a certain mass with a greater amount of force.
How is Power different to Strength?
The term ‘Strength’ is often confused with power. In fitness training, Strength is ‘the extent to which muscles can exert force by contracting against resistance (e.g. holding or restraining an object or person)’. So if you and I stand next to each other with a heavy weight in front of us, and you can lift that weight but I can’t, we could say that you were stronger than me for that particular movement.
If, however, we could both lift that weight slowly, but when we tried to move it faster, you could move it faster than me, we could then say that you had more power.
Strength = the ability to move a weight.
Power = the ability to move a weight with speed. Or, Power = Strength x Speed.
What does that mean in paddling terms?
The more power you can produce, and the more efficiently you can transfer that power between shoulders & hips (the two 'engines' of human movement), the more speed and acceleration you can produce. How does that apply specifically to paddling? We use speed and acceleration in all sorts of ways: to provide stability in bumpy conditions; to cross a challenging eddy line; to accelerate to catch up to a group; to catch a wave; to cross a flow. Simply put, we use speed (whether we know it or not) in every aspect of paddling, and the more you can produce, control and vary it, the more skilful a paddler you are able to become.
So how can you train for Power?
Let’s start with the basics. Consider this statement… You can’t produce power without good posture. How good is yours?
These days we all spend a lot of time slouched on a sofa or bent over a mobile phone or laptop. Lockdown hasn’t made this any easier: how about those of you working from home, with a laptop on a kitchen table?
In a book I read recently about running, the author used the phrase ‘How you make a cup of tea is how you will run’. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But in essence, what he means is that the way we stand when we’re not concentrating on our posture controls the way we move. And if we stand a certain way, the likelihood is that we will also sit that way in a kayak, which in turn will control the way we paddle.
If you routinely stand with more weight on one leg, that will instil a difference in strength and power between your hips, which in turn will influence the way you paddle.
If you routinely stand or sit with hunched shoulders or a slouched lower back, or leaning back, that will be the position you revert to in your kayak.
There’s no such thing as ‘ideal’ posture, despite what many people might tell you. We all have physiological differences and quirks. However, as a general rule of thumb, the ability to stand and sit as tall as possible will feel good to most people and will allow you to use your body in the way it’s intended.
How can you train posture?
That is a very simple, and yet very complex question at the same time. Our posture is the one thing we train constantly, in all our waking moments. Just think about all the time you’ve spent training your body to sit in a slouched posture at a computer screen, or in a laid-back posture whilst watching TV, or driving? That’s some serious training time! No wonder your body has become so good at it.
So how to change that? It’s not going to happen overnight, and it will take time & effort. The good news is it doesn’t involve weights, or even breaking a sweat. It simply involves standing and sitting in a position that is as close as you can get to your ‘ideal’. Stand tall, and sit tall, head up and looking forwards rather than down. While making a cuppa; while sitting at your laptop (move your back away from the chair back and sit tall); while walking; as much time as you can manage. Build it into your daily life, and slowly but surely your posture will improve. Check in with yourself as often as possible, perhaps setting an alarm for certain times of day, or saying you’ll check in when you sit down for dinner, sit down at your desk, stand at the kettle.
Strengthen your core
Nope, that doesn’t involve doing a million sit-ups a day. Your core muscles are all of those in the middle of your body, from chest down to pelvis. And the biggest muscles are those known as the ‘postural’ muscles. And guess what? If you practice good posture – not just occasionally, but ALL of the time – you will develop strong postural muscles. The primary role of the postural muscles is to hold your body upright, pelvis in a strong position, spine stable and shoulders above your hips. This primary role is what then allows your body to transfer power between your hips & shoulders, the body’s two primary engines. A very, very effective place to start working on a strong core with minimal time or equipment is by simply building good posture using the techniques above.
What exercises can you use to train Power?
Let’s go back to the equation from earlier to answer this question:
Power = Strength x Speed.
First, we need to build a little strength. Most good strength and conditioning programmes will begin with a period where your body is given time to learn the movements you will be using throughout the programme. Using light weights, or simply your own bodyweight, your body will adjust to what is ahead, and your brain will build the understanding (or neural pathways) it needs to take that training further. If you’ve never completed any resistance training, I would strongly advise you to go to a Personal Trainer for some coaching, to learn the movements and help your body adapt, to prevent injury and ensure you will be getting the benefit you intend from all your hard work. In these Covid times that doesn’t have to be face-to-face, there are plenty of PTs who will work remotely.
Once you’ve done a little strength training, you can begin to add in movements that train Power. As the equation above suggests, once we have strength, we need to add speed to that strength. This is where the branch of fitness training called ‘Plyometrics’ comes in; the fitness industry has come up with a long word for ‘adding spring’. Traditionally in strength and conditioning the ‘Olympic lifts’ have been used to build power: the Clean, Snatch, and Jerk. However, they are complex movements that require a lot of practice to master. Great if you have access to a gym and lots of time to practice, but not practical for most people, particularly if you're training at home.
Are there simpler or easier movements that add spring, or speed? Did you do star jumps in PE at school? They’re plyometric. Ever done a Burpee? Plyometric. Jumped on and off a step, or a box? Plyometric. Thrown a ball, or a stick? You guessed it… Plyometric!
I've included two sample workouts below: one tailored for strength, and one for power. As you can see if you look carefully, the second is a progression of the first. You can find demo videos for each of the movements online, or if you would like more like this, PaddleFit Membership gets you a workout complete with warm up, cool down, demo videos and coaching points, straight to your inbox each week.
Before performing either of these workouts, you must ensure you’re properly warmed up: to prevent injury and prepare your body for what is to come, to raise your heart rate and temperature, and to prepare your muscles and joints for the movements you will be asking them to perform.
Both of these workouts use the ‘Tabata’ timing, or 8 rounds of 20 seconds work, followed by 10 seconds rest. There are plenty of apps available that will do this for you.
Building power doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated, but it does take work. If you’d like to know more, take a look at some of the links below, and enjoy exploring & learning. If you’d like a workout delivered straight to your inbox each week, specifically for paddlers, take a look at PaddleFit Membership
References & Further Reading:
Benzie, S., with Major, T., 2020, The Lost Art of Running, Bloomsbury, London
Joyce, D., & Lewindon, D., 2014, High Performance Training for Sports, Human Kinetics, Leeds
NSCA, 2017, Developing Power, Human Kinetics, Leeds.
Rolling has been on my mind a bit more than normal this year.
The Lockdown we experienced in the UK in the spring & summer of 2020 represented my longest break from paddling in almost 20 years, and in common with many paddlers I headed back to the water feeling both excited and a little anxious. How would my skills have suffered? What would it take to get back to feeling good in my boat? Could I still roll when it mattered? Could I still roll at all?
Of course, within a few days of getting back on the water, I began to feel more 'normal' again. But one little niggle remained: my roll. Somehow, I just didn't have the faith in it that I had before Lockdown, and it made me reflect on the role of my roll in that elusive feeling of confidence.
When my roll is working well, I feel good: I'm braver when I'm challenged, and more prepared to try things or push my boundaries a little. But also, when I'm feeling brave and prepared to challenge myself, my roll is more likely to work well, and my brain doesn't dive in to make me doubt it. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario. So, in those days of returning to the water, how could I (and by extension, how can others, perhaps) develop my faith in that oh-so-psychological but fundamentally physical skill? I spent some time looking around me, at what others in a similar position of returning to the water were doing, and reflecting on how it could help me, and I wanted to share those experiences in the hope that it might help anyone struggling with their own confidence in rolling, but equally in other skills.
Whilst working alongside another coach who I hold in very high esteem, I watched them do something I hadn't seen many (any?) other coaches do. During a series of tide race surfing sessions, they paddled into each of the races and deliberately rolled, in front of clients.
That one little act blew my tiny mind.
Why? Well, it struck me that that roll served many purposes: it said 'I need to practice too', and gave permission for the rest of the group to do the same. It made rolling in that environment just part of the game. Equally, it served to say 'practicing is good, and if it doesn't work and you swim, that's fine too'. It also meant that the coach in question did just that - rolled in a challenging environment, and practiced on a regular basis. From a psychological perspective, for me at least, rolling in front of clients is perhaps one of the most challenging barriers to hurdle: that nagging little doubt in your mind can escalate into 'what happens if I get it wrong, will they think I'm a bit rubbish'?
So I resolved to work my way towards the psychological position where I could do that too. And it changed everything.
During my next playday - at the Falls of Lora, as it turned out - I got on the water with the specific intention of just practicing rolling, deliberately, in as many difficult places as possible. I'd set myself up for success of course, and was there on a sunny day, with close friends who were happy to support my little challenge, and equally happy to join in.
Later, on a different play day with different friends in equally challenging conditions, a couple of them took swims and we chatted about the psychology of rolling or swimming. Why do we all find it challenging? How does the psychology of the group, and our own mindset impact how we feel about whether we swim, and by extension how prepared we are to challenge ourselves? Interestingly, we all had very different takes on that subject, and those perspectives reflected our differing personalities. We had one thing in common though: we tailored our paddling friendship groups to allow us to feel supported, and so that we trusted our companions with our physical & mental wellbeing.
I also reflected a little on when I practice rolling, and how I start each day. Many of us just get on the water & paddle away. And we often practice rolling at the end of the day. But surely, if my roll is fundamental to my confidence, I should be starting the day by practicing it? Why wasn't I doing that? So, I resolved to change that practice, and began adding a roll on flat water to my little warm-up routine. And what happened? It changed my mindset for the rest of the day. Suddenly, I felt happy to get stuck in and practice rolling in challenging places, in amongst the rest of my own paddling play & practice. As a result, my own psychological state became more confident, I felt good, and paddled well.
Why hadn't I done that before? Traditionally we've often practiced 'wet stuff' at the end of days, to keep dry & warm. But in these days of great thermals & Gore-Tex drysuits, is that necessarily the best time for it? When do you practice, and what impact does it have? I began to realise that practice at the end of the day when I'm tired is not only not helping me, but is actively hindering me.
So, have I tested it with clients yet? Yes, I have. It doesn't really matter when, or with whom. But did it change things? Yes, it did. For the better.
This process won't work for everyone of course: we're all different. But there is a stigma attached to swimming in the paddling community. I've heard of clubs who make their members 'write a trip report' if they take a swim. Why? To me, practicing rolling, practicing rescues, and taking a swim sometimes is an important part of the learning process. In order to learn we have to be able to fail. If we're punished for failing (by being laughed at, or made to do something like write a trip report) we never try anything that risks failing, and we never learn. We never get any better.
My dance with confidence and my roll will continue, probably for the entirety of my paddling life whether I'm working on the water or not. How's your own dance coming on?
We’ve been in Lockdown in the UK now for 50 days, and like everyone, I’m missing many things, and many people. Life has changed beyond measure, and we're all doing our best to adapt.
As most people reading this will know, sea kayaking is both my passion and my livelihood. But it’s more than either of those things suggest; over the last few weeks I’ve found a hole in my life, that I’ve struggled to fill. I’ve found some work as a supermarket delivery driver, to pay the bills; I’ve been getting plenty of exercise: running, using our home gym, lifting weights and rowing or indoor biking within that gym. So what is it? What has left a hole, that just doesn’t seem to be adequately filled by any other activity?
One thing I have done plenty of during Lockdown is trail running. We’re lucky enough to live very close to some lovely woodland with a network of paths, not marked on any maps but worn by dog walkers & animals. We also have a young, and very energetic Border Collie who needs plenty of exercise, so trail running is the perfect combination.
I’ve been a runner for around 10 years, on & off, and have run mainly on roads in that time. But a year ago I suffered an injury that I struggled to recover from, and during the process of rehabilitation I decided to focus simply on running & training for fun, to train consistently for a year without pushing myself to any specific performance goals. And so a new-found love of the trails was born. As a result of spending more and more time running on rough ground, up & down hills, I can feel myself getting better at it...
And then yesterday, I felt it... That same feeling I get from sea kayak play, surfing a wave or catching a wave in a tide race.
Complete, 100% focus. I didn’t realise it at the time, only when I surfaced, mentally... running down a rooty technical trail my mind switched off, body took over, and BOOM: there it is!
So what is it I get from the kind of paddling that I love most? It’s complete escape, more powerful than any drug. The ability to turn off the world, turn off the inside of my own head, and just let my body do its thing. It involves a 'just right' level of challenge, both physical and mental, inextricably interwoven with one another, so that one cannot exist without the other. In those few seconds or moments, my mind can reset, recharge, find some peace.
It’s going to be a while until we can go back to the type of paddling that gives me that feeling: the opportunity to match challenge to ability and truly focus on the present. The ultimate act of mindfulness, in many ways. But in the meantime, that little stretch of woodland trail, and in time when we can move around a little more, others like it, might just go a small way to filling that gap.
...to the sound of the sea. To the sea in all its moods, from the flat-calm-sunny-warmth of a glassy day, gliding through calm water with life meandering on below... to the alive and rhythmic, sound-charged energy of a surf filled day.
I allow my mind to wander... to the connection between friends, a day in a tide race and the deepest bond… in that glance that says ‘I know what you’re thinking and I feel it too’... The smile of elation at success, at flow, at the joy of movement.
I miss that glance. I miss the noise, the feel of the water on my skin, the smell of the air. I miss the sea, and I miss the friends with whom I share it. I miss it so much that I feel the pain in both body and mind.
I don’t take from the sea in the way a fisherman might... I take energy, strength and understanding. Feelings of connection, a deep awareness of how the sea moves and breathes, of how its energy appears on the surface, and of how it allows me to dance with it, responding to its rise and fall, matching the energy of my response to the energy of its movement.
I miss the thin sliver of fibreglass that, between the sea and my body, tells me what the water wants me to do. It tells me how to move, how to perform, the tiny adjustments to make with body and blade, conscious brain seemingly absent from the process.
The sea will still be there when this is over. In weeks, months, or more… It’s not essential, I’m told. Until then, I must survive on imagery and memory alone, on the remembering of those connections, physical and metaphorical. For the good of all, for the lives, and livelihoods, of us all.
And so I wait.
Before you groan, no this is not a post on some awful 'management speak' phrase...
It's about speed. Actually, it's all about speed: paddling, that is. Don't believe me? Well, let's dive in...
Do you remember when you first learned to ride a bike? Perhaps you had stabilisers, or your dad's hand holding you upright. Or if you're younger, perhaps you even had a balance bike?
Think back... but either way, you probably started off with some serious wobbles. You went slowly, wobbled about a bit, watched the ground in front of your wheels, and maybe fell off a few times. But you picked yourself up, got back on the shiny new bike, and had another go. And with time (some more than others!) you gained confidence, and above all, you gained speed. The stabilisers came off, your dad's hand came off the back of the saddle, or the feet came off the floor, and all of a sudden you're riding! With speed, you stayed upright, and began to go places. You quickly learned that moving forwards on your bike meant you didn't fall off. Unless you're Danny Macaskill of course (although next time you watch one of his videos, check out how he uses forward momentum to make tricks work).
So why, in a sea kayak, should it be any different?
Let's think about the environment that most of us, as sea kayakers, spend most of our time in: wind & waves. You're paddling steadily along chatting to a friend, enjoying your day out. The sea is a little bit jabbly, and a wave side-swipes you, perhaps even breaking slightly over your deck. Do you....
Option 3? Well, that would involve pre-empting the challenge, and skilfully using speed to overcome it.
How about moving water? What causes us the 'wobble' there?
Well, let's think about the environment:
Boat in eddy: Stable
Boat crossing eddy line, half in flow, half in eddy: Wobbly!
Boat fully in flow: Stable (phew...)
So, if the wobbly bit is the eddy line, we want to get across it as quickly as possible, right? "But..." I hear you say "I've been taught to paddle up to the eddy line and lean on a low brace. Doesn't that slow me down?" Well, quite honestly, yes it does.
You paddle up to the eddy line, then as the front of the boat hits the line, you lean powerfully onto a low brace, edging downstream... What happens next? The boat turns, you might be across the eddy line, or if it's a wide, boily eddy line, such as those at the Falls of Lora or a multitude of other moving-water venues, you might be whirling your way down through those boils, having ceded control to the eddy line monsters. You finish facing downstream or thereabouts, with little control over your destination.
How about this alternative: You paddle up to the eddy line, and as it approaches you crank up the power in the last couple of metres, and drive that boat over the eddy line. Quick as a flash, you're over the line, your whole boat on a single piece of flow, with a choice as to what happens next...
Which do you prefer?
Ok then, so what about surf? Surely kayakers in surf use low brace/ low brace rudder/ negative strokes all the time?
Well, yes they absolutely do. However, lets think about the mechanics at work here...
As you catch a wave, the back of your boat lifts, and... all of a sudden you're propelled forward faster than you can paddle. The wave provides the speed, allowing you the option of giving up a little speed in order to steer, or turn, or maybe even deliberately slow yourself down in order to stay on the wave...
So how can you work on speed, and using it where it matters? There are no short-cuts here: practice. But first, you need to understand how to generate speed. Next time you're on the water, try changing gears. Do you have more than one?
Let's go back to our child cyclist analogy. When you got your first 'proper' bike, did it have gears? If you wanted to go fast, you changed gear, right? If you wanted to go up a hill, you'd make it easier for yourself and maybe spin those little legs as fast as you could.
Experiment with something similar in your kayak: try a few sprints, and then try slowing your cadence, the speed you turn that blade over, right down. Can you do that and keep your speed the same? Then try the same thing in some water with wind & waves... Can you feel the energy in the water? Can you match your cadence to that energy, changing gears as the water does?
Skilful paddling isn't about having one solution to a problem: it's about having many solutions, and choosing the best one. So go out and find some solutions, experiment with speed, and get creative!
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!