Off-season Conditioning for Kayakers

Winter 2009

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.

To view a copy of the entire magazine online, click here: WINTER 2009 WAVELENGTH MAGAZINE

by Roy Stevenson

Kayaking offers a rare combination of physical and spiritual benefits that few other sports can match. Paddling through calm waters while observing aquatic wildlife and scenic coastline can refresh the soul of even the most burned-out city dweller. Repetitive paddling offers a physically tangible feeling, even when fatigued, of achievement and fitness.

Yet many kayakers don’t get full benefit from their paddling. Poor conditioning can lead to early fatigue and soreness that diminishes the full enjoyment. To fully appreciate kayaking, one needs to be as well conditioned as possible. It’s the best way to ensure that when you pull the kayak out of the water at the end of a pleasant day’s kayaking, you still have enough energy to stay awake to view that perfect sunset.

With winter upon us, you should now be contemplating your off-season conditioning program for the next few months to extract the most pleasure from next year’s kayak outings. Here’s one such program that will have you fitter than ever before, and thus better prepared for the rigors of the sport.

It helps to have a concrete series of goals for your workouts. Given that kayaking requires a unique meshing of several fitness factors for maximum performance, your conditioning goals should include developing the elements of fitness listed below.

Aerobic conditioning

For paddling for sustained periods of time, often in rough water, a high level of stamina is required. We call this cardiovascular or aerobic endurance. To develop this important aspect of kayak conditioning you can choose your favorite aerobic activities and spread them out through the week. Your goal is to do three to five cardiovascular workouts each week, varying in length from 30 to 60 minutes.

Aerobic activities that are good for improving a kayaker’s endurance range from jogging and running (outdoors or on a treadmill), to stair machines, elliptical machines, cycling (on the road or in the gym), cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and swimming. Swimming is particularly important for kayakers because it works the upper body while also training you for that day if ever when things go wrong and you find yourself swimming for safety.

Muscular Strength/Power

We no longer believe that paddling is in itself enough for adequate conditioning for kayaking. Propelling the weight of your body and kayak against water resistance is hard work. The essence of resistance training is to train your muscle groups to deliver more force, or power, with each stroke by overcoming the resistance more efficiently. The stronger your muscles, the larger the range (or reserve) will be between your cruising and maximal efforts. This translates into cruising at a lower percentage of your maximum effort for a longer time.

Exercise science and research now shows that it’s a more efficient use of your training time to do heavier weights and fewer repetitions versus low resistance and high numbers of repetitions. In other words, you’ll still develop your muscular endurance by using heavier weights and sets of eight to 12 repetitions, as long as they are done to muscular fatigue or failure.

It is difficult to perfectly simulate the paddling action through most weight training exercises, so stick to exercises that provide general conditioning to the appropriate muscle groups in the off-season, and do the cable, resistance band, medicine ball, dumbbell exercises and simulation drills closer to the kayaking season.

A common belief among kayakers is that the legs and hips are not important in the paddling action. Considering that they initiate each stroke and anchor your trunk to the boat, providing stability during the paddling action, this is simply not the case.

The following split workout strength training program allows for balance between muscle groups while focusing on the major muscles groups – the back, shoulders, arms, core and legs – used during paddling.

Development of Core Strength

Few sports activities place such a repetitive, rotational stress on the core musculature as kayaking. What is the core? The group of muscles around your hips, torso, pelvis and lower back that provide a platform for virtually all of the movement you perform when paddling.

The unique rotational trunk movement used when kayaking in a seated position creates a relentless shearing force along the spine. And as we know, 80% of people experience low back pain at some time in their lives, so the statistics would indicate that most kayakers might be susceptible to some form of low back pain, exacerbated by the paddling action. And indeed, sports medicine physicians note that most injuries or soreness in kayakers occur in the back (and shoulders and arms).


Recent research shows that flexibility may not be the panacea it is claimed to be in terms of injury prevention, reducing post exercise muscle soreness and improving sports performance. Many exercise scientists now believe that having a stronger, less flexible musculature enables you to develop more power in your movements versus over-flexible muscle groups that tend to be able to resist high force movements less efficiently, and are thus more prone to injury.

Nevertheless, this is not absolution to ignore basic stretching. You should indeed do a few flexibility exercises for your back, shoulders, hamstrings, hip flexors, buttocks and arms, especially when you finish your workouts. The goal is to prevent a further reduction in the range of motion about your joints that may come from strength training and aerobic activity. Work towards a reasonably lengthy range of motion to provide a reserve of movement for your kayaking muscles.