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.
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!