Select Page

With an ever increasing number of workout fads, exercise classes, and overpriced gym memberships, it’s hard to know what’s really best for your body. It seems these days everyone is talking about their great new workout routine which promises to slam them into the best shape of their lives. Many of us in the outdoors and adventure sports fields have little interest in the latest exercise regimens, let alone the science behind which of them is best. Most of us are perfectly content with our “active lifestyle” mindset (‘I don’t need to work out because I spend so much time exercising outside already’). What does is it matter, anyway? Exercise is exercise, working out is working out, right? Not exactly.
There’s a principle in the world of exercise science called specificity of training. Because your body adapts to different types of training in different ways, the exercises you focus on should result in adaptations that benefit your specific sport the most. The principle of specificity of training is applicable in nearly every part of one’s workout habits. From type of exercise to the duration of each workout, even the time of day can play a role in altering adaptations. You can think of it this way: in order to perform as well as you possibly can, you need to exercise in a way that most closely mimics the actual sport performance. For instance, runners shouldn’t spend a bunch of time doing bench press and bicep curls because these exercises focus pretty exclusively on the upper body. Runners should workout in a way that incorporates their legs, since those are the muscles they’ll be using when they actually run. NOW, let’s make this about kayaking.

Whitewater kayaking is a fantastic sport from an exercise standpoint. That is, it forces us to work multiple muscle groups for extended periods of time. For the same reason, however, kayaking is a difficult sport to train for. With so many different parts of your body working so hard, how are you supposed to know what exercise is most beneficial? There’s no easy answer. Think about all the different muscles we as kayakers use on the river. Bare with me for a second: just doing forward strokes on flatwater, we use muscles in our upper and lower back, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, and core (for the most part). Put your boat on edge and the list grows. Throw a boof stroke into the mix and the list grows even more. It’s hard to imagine any one type of exercise covering all of our bases.
So, what type of training is best for kayakers? LOTS OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAINING. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can combine exercises and workout styles to create a more well-rounded regimen for the sports you’re involved in. When thinking about how to exercise, think about what type of kayaking you want to train for. Do you want to blast down all the race lines or take it slow? Nail every boof and whip into every eddy or keep it pointed downstream? How hard, and for how long, are you going to be working on the river? The exercise you do should closely mimic the intensity and duration of the kayaking you want to train for. If you’re gearing up for some sweet multi-days this summer, break out the rowing erg and build up your endurance, you’ll need it for the hours of paddling a loaded boat. If you’re getting ready for race season, it’s probably time to buckle down on your burpees and circuit training, the stuff that gets you working really hard for short periods of time. One question comes up pretty regularly when you talk to kayakers about training: why not just kayak a whole bunch and call it good?
Undoubtedly, the best way to get better at kayaking is to KAYAK, especially when you’re first starting out. Nothing prepares you to run harder whitewater like simply spending time in your boat. No amount of lifting weights or cross training could teach you about edge control, paddle technique, or the mental fortitude necessary to perform well in whitewater. However, as much as we all might want to, you can’t kayak all the time. Beyond that, training outside of just kayaking can help catapult you past a plateau in skills progression. Training can help build endurance, strength, and flexibility beyond what is required in kayaking, making the application of your training adaptations easier. Exercise can also be used to isolate specific weak points in one’s sport performance. If you struggle with keeping your boat on edge, exercises that work your oblique muscles will help you build the strength necessary to maintain that weird j-lean body position. If you want to be able to accelerate faster in your boat, exercises that force your shoulders and upper back to perform explosive movements will help you generate large forces faster on the water. As you push harder in any sport, physical fitness becomes more and more important.
One important thing to remember is that regardless of your skill level, to run harder whitewater, you have to have the strength to make bigger moves, the endurance to make it through longer rapids, and the ability to do it over and over again. Practicing in your boat will help, a lot. But to really be at the top of your game, it’s important to supplement your active lifestyle with regular exercise. Using exercise to target one’s own weak points in kayaking can help fine tune the skills and build the strength necessary to progress in the sport. Whether training for a trip, a race, or just everyday fitness, the best exercise for YOU depends on the type of kayaker you want to be.

About the author:
I recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. My coursework covered topics ranging from sports nutrition to injury mechanics. During my time at UPS I was fortunate enough to design and conduct my own biomechanical and physiological investigations involving whitewater kayakers. If you have questions feel free to contact me:

– J.T. Hartman