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No substitute for being in shape




Each winter most kayakers don’t have as much access to paddling, if any, and the season always sneaks up on us in the Spring.   Gear gets stored for the winter, we spend more time indoors to stay out of the cold, and we are at risk of being unprepared physically, mentally, and with our equipment for the season.


In this article I am going to offer a program and checklist for assuring you stay as ready as you can, for that spring runoff, as well as how to get ready now, while you can.

The four areas we’ll discuss are  Physical, Mental, Equipment, and Techniques.



Physical Preparation: The downside of winter is that all of the materialistic creature comforts become very attractive.   Sitting inside around a fire, or TV, parties, and inside games are super fun and often are substituted in place of outside active recreation that you do in the warmer months.     Kayaking is a very active sport and your confidence level and performance on the water is either enhanced or reduced depending on what you did in the off season.    Here are some basics to help you either develop or keep a fit and ready body that is injury free and ready to rock AND roll!

General Fitness Plan…

Strong stable key joints and muscles.   Keeping your shoulders, torso, neck, back, arms, and even legs ready for action is not too difficult and is very rewarding on and off the water.

Weights:   I suggest this simple, quick, but effective weight routine that will make you stronger, as well as help prevent paddling related injuries.

1.  Warm up- use light dumbbells (I use 10-12 pound).  Do the following exercises back to back, no rest.

  • straight arm- lift dumbbells from side up to shoulder height out to the side x 10.
  • Straight arm- lift dumbbells from your side up to shoulder height in front of you x 10.
  • straight arm- lift dumbbells from your side to overhead- as if you are drawing a sword x 10
  • Straight arm- bend over at the waist and start with your arms hanging down, lift them up straight to the sides (reverse flies)
  • Stand up and do 10 X overhead press.

That warm up will get your blood pumping into each part of your arms and shoulders, getting them ready for the heavier weights.  It is also the same exercises that a PT would have you do to help you recover from a shoulder injury.  (why wait until you are injured when you can prevent the injury instead!)

2. Bench/pull-ups (or lat pull downs if you aren’t strong enough for pull ups)  (three sets)   These are good for paddling strength, and for shoulder stability/injury prevention.

Set 1

  • Bench- lift a weight that you can do 20 times, but only do it 10 times. (I use 135 pounds)  rest for 30 seconds.
  • Pull-ups-  do 1/2 of the maximum number you can do at one time.   If you are not strong enough to do pull ups- use a lat pull down machine.

Set 2

  • Bench- add 20 pounds to it and do it 10 times- rest for 30 seconds
  • Pull-ups- switch your grip from pull up to chin up (reverse your hands) 10 times.

Set 3

  • Bench- add 10 pounds and attempt to do it 10 reps again- get a spot if needed.   rest 30 seconds.
  • Wide Grip pull ups- 10 times

3.  Dips and Rows (good for paddling strength and endurance as well as shoulder stability)

  • Dips- go down just past your arms reaching a 90 degree angle- and up to a completely straight arm-   do 50% as many as you can do at one time. rest 30 seconds
  • Rows- put your elbow and knee on a bench with a dumbbell on the ground (I use a 75 pound one as this is THE best kayaker exercise for the forward stroke) and do 20 reps.   I suggest using a weight that you can use 20 reps to improve endurance as well as strength.

Repeat the dips and rows three times- always resting 30 seconds between sets to keep heart rate up and improve endurance, not just build body mass.


4. Curls/overhead press and Abs (three sets)

  • Curls- dumbells- I use 30 or 35 pounds- 10 times on each arm- rest 30 seconds (should not be too hard on first set)  Don’t put the dumbbells down- go straight to overhead press.
  • Overhead press- using the same dumbbells as the curls- go from almost touching your shoulders while standing up to a full extension overhead. 10 times.
  • Abs- This is a routine Nick Troutman taught me and is easy to duplicate and easy to push yourself.-   Do them back to back no rest or stopping.    core strength wrapped up in a neat little routine!
    • 10 straight on crunches
    • 10 crunches with your legs off to the right
    • 10 crunches with legs off to the left
    • 10 butt lifts- lift your legs over your head until they fall behind you
    • 10 touch your toes crunches with straight legs (see top photo)
    • 10 swinging legs side to side without them touching the floor.
    • 10 leg lifts from heels almost touching floor to vertical.
    • 10 crunches where you lift your legs and body up until your knees touch your chest and down.
    • 50 bicycle pumps fast until the burning in your abs makes you stop!

Stretch out…  Some easy hamstring stretches- a nice shower and you have successfully pushed yourself in a good direction.   If you are doing this for the first time… please do 50% of what is suggested above and take Advil (4 of them) afterwards to keep inflammation down.   You should build up to 3 sets of 10 over two weeks.   Do the routine three times each week.

Cardio/Legs-  For a kayaker the legs are still super critical as they get you to the put-in take out, and are needed for safe and successful portages, etc..   I suggest using your legs the way they were meant to be used.    Here are some suggested leg exercises.

  1. Running-put in some miles on a trail or anywhere off road (run on the side of the road, but not on it) to get your legs, knees, ankles used to rough ground.   Keep the runs short- 20 minutes, but push yourself some to get the heart rate up and legs burning a little.
  2. Games- My running consists mostly of Disc Golf in my backyard.    We play by throwing and running.  We jump over logs, run up the hills, leap over the fences, and race each other in the fields.   18 holes are about 1.1 miles.   We average about 36 holes/day in the winter.   When doing it as a workout I have done 18 holes in just over 10 minutes.    When doing it in a group our best is around 15 minutes.     You don’t know you are working out this way, super fun!
  3. Skiing/skating- both awesome winter exercise!  Legs need to be strong, as well as lower back- these are both great ways to get strong without having to “work out”.

Mental Preparation

I suggest the following to be ready for the season mentally and not waste the first few outings just to “see if I can still roll.” for example.

  1. Watch instructional videos that break down the skills you want to learn or re-enforce.   Rolling and Bracing, Strokes and Concepts, Playboating, or River Running.  Hearing it, seeing it, and imagining yourself doing it is almost as good as doing it, and 10 times better than doing nothing and then coming back to it in a few months.
  2. Get into a Pool- do some rolls, learn a new roll, practice bracing and strokes-  There is nothing like knowing you are actually better at your basics than you were during the season for your mental game!
  3. Watch videos of your favorite runs or the runs you want to do this year.   GoPro footage of a run you want to be confident on is so helpful for remembering the lines, and getting more comfortable by seeing the POV and seeing the lines get run well.   It is like doing some more runs  yourself!


Equipment Preparation

Having your gear ready, boats outfitting properly, and everything clean and packed and ready is key.    Don’t show up missing your spray skirt, etc..    I like having my gear in bags, by the type of boating I am going to do.

1.  Creeking- make sure you have all of your paddling gear together- the dry suit, fleece, full face helmet, elbow pads, creaking shoes, Rescue vest, throw bag with pin kit or beener, first aid kit, overnight dry bag packed and ready.      Try to keep it in a separate bag from your play boating or basic river running kit.

2. Playboating- Same as above- but make sure your Happy Seat/Happy Thruster are in good shape, your dry deck if you have one, Glacier Gloves and scull cap for springtime, and play boating booties.

Kayak preparation

  1. If you have a new boat-make sure you have the hip pads tight enough, seat in the right position, and have played around with the outfitting and know it well.   if you are in a play boat, are you sitting on Sweet Cheeks 150 or 200?  should you be?  Better to sort that out during the offseason than after you already went on the water.
  2. If you have an existing boat from last year- check it for any maintenance opportunities.   Replace any worn parts, tighten any screws, look for cracks, make sure it is ready for another season.

Vehicle preparation

  1. I usually get excited when I get some new racks, or make something that makes loading, and carrying my kayaking gear easier.   I just got some new Thule racks for my RV, and my Mini.    Doing this usually assures that you look at your tires, change the oil, and get your  vehicle ready for weekend getaways, too.   Nothing wrecks the weekend more than a breakdown during the trip to the river, or on shuttle!

Planning your trips pro-actively now- instead of waiting to be invited. Nothing is more challenging than not having any trips all winter, and then being invited on a river over your head for the first outing of the year!    You need to be proactive about planning your first few trips of the season to be confidence boosters, and to have the paddlers in it you want to be there.    I suggest the following order of trips:

  1. Trip 1- Easy Water play boating or river run- Try to keep it local and something you have done before.   Test out your skills- run  your normal lines, try your normal things, practice a few rolls, and paddle with people you are comfortable with.
  2. Trip 2- Medium Water- up the class from 2 to 3, or 3 to 3+ or 4 if you had a good first day.     Again- stay on familiar water which helps by eliminating variables, like getting bad beta from a friend at the top of a rapid that you don’t know.   Push your skills a little by catching harder eddies, doing harder ferries, and testing out your skills as well as physical condition a little.
  3. Trip 3- end of season-  set some goals for new runs to do, new places to see, new people to paddle with, and new boats to try.   Make it your best season ever.   if you are in a drought area- plan a trip to where there is water.  If you are in a high water area, try to get on some runs that are normally dry.


Have Fun!  I hope this helps you get ready for the season!!

EJ, Clay, and Stephen ready, while Dane buys snacks with Emily and Nick.