Fit To Paddle - A Fitness Guide to Getting Back on the Water

Who wants to be on the water all day and then feel exhausted by the end of the day’s paddle? In a recent social media survey of sea kayakers planning a kayaking trip this Spring / Summer, around 30% of paddlers were over 45 years old and 12% were over 55. Some of these may have done some winter paddling or may have worked out in health clubs in the off season, and it struck me - as one of those in the over-60 age group - that it would be a great idea to get fit at the start of the Spring / Summer kayaking season by getting in shape on the water. In other words, take the workout out of the gym and into the fresh air! Use those same muscles and muscle movements needed for kayaking before setting out on that first paddling trip of the year.


Fig.1. Sea Kayaking: Basic Skills, Paddling Techniques, and Expedition Planning by Dan Henderson

Last year I reviewed Dan Henderson’s ‘Sea Kayaking: Basic Skills, Paddling Techniques, and Trip Planning’ in ACK magazine. Dan Henderson, a leading kayak racing trainer (he’s a Senior Worlds Team Leader at USA Canoe/Kayak) has a solid academic background in exercise physiology and has a passion for technical perfection in kayaking. The final chapter in his book is titled ‘Kayaking for Fitness’. The chapter is divided into four sections – ‘Fitness Concepts’, ‘Designing Your Fitness Plan’, ‘Planning Daily Exercise Sessions’, finishing up with ‘How You Can Expect to Feel’ during and after a series of workouts. 

Each summer I guide sea kayaking trips for 30 or so days, including several multi-day trips, and last year at the start of the season I put Dan’s program to the test. I selected Walker Pond in Brooksville, Maine as my training ground. Walker Pond, about three miles in length with little boat traffic, and a short distance from our home in Deer Isle has public access and a well-maintained town ramp with parking. It was the perfect spot. I knew from exercise bike routines at my health club that boredom can be a limiting factor in sticking to a personal exercise plan. But Walker Pond, at about half a mile across, surrounded by mixed woods and home to a large number of various bird species, is a delight to paddle, especially first thing in the morning. Just being out there mean’t that my training routines were not going to be boring.

I set aside two weeks in early June and mapped out eight training sessions followed by twice-weekly sessions for the following four weeks, the latter to run concurrently with my regular kayaking trips. The bottom line was that I found that Dan’s methods are just the thing for getting into the paddling season - for effectively reworking those muscle groups used in paddling, for increasing aerobic capacity and for building strength and stamina while maintaining good paddling technique.

First, a brief background in exercise physiology: The goal is to produce overload to increase fitness and there are four basic concepts that apply to all fitness training activities:

a) selection of the muscle groups to be exercised, especially the core muscles in our case,

b) progressive increase in the level of exercise to produce overload,

c) adaption to overload, and

d) improvement in performance. 

Exercise scientists have identified four parameters that produce overload in an exercise routine: frequency, duration, intensity and density. The first three are self-evident. The last one, density, describes the length of rest interval between exercise bouts. To improve performance, a good exercise regimen will incorporate an increase (or decrease) in each of these parameters over time – progressively building sequences which are more frequent, for longer times, with more intensity and with reduced rest times.

Dan describes a few aerobic endurance paddling workouts in his bookand suggests that folks use these as a guide to organize their own paddling exercise sessions. I focused on his workouts using interval training that I thought would work for me . First, warm up (5 minutes, light paddling) followed by 45 minutes of pyramid interval paddling (more about that later), cool down (5 minutes, light paddling) and, finally, stretching (10 minutes). Ideally the workout would be done wearing a heart rate monitor to track progress - I skippedthat piece, at least for this year. My primary objective was to find out whether training was effective at all, not necessarily by how much.

For interval paddling I needed to know my my fastest stroke rate and my comfortable cruising stroke rate. The dilemma is that when you paddle as fast as you can to determine your fastest cadence, yes, your speed increases initially but since you’re concentrating on increasing stroke rate, your technique suffers. It’s a fine balance but ideally you aim to first establish good paddling technique then increase paddling rate.Of course, paddling rates will be different for each individual paddler. By counting strokes I settled on a fast paddling rate of 35 double strokes per minute (dspm) and an easy cruising stroke rate of 25 dspm.

I used a pyramid interval paddling schedule of 3 minutes cruising rate and 1 minute fast rate, followed by 2-minute / 1-minute,then 1-minute / 1 minute. Then 1/2 and 1/3. I repeated this set twice. To do three sets on Day 1 was a push, but the beginning of the second week, the fifth session, I found that I could increase my fast rate and my stroke technique during fast paddling had improved significantly over the previous week.

Fitness training protocols for kayak racing have been established for many years using biofeedback with, for example, data generated from heart monitors, cadence sensors and more recently using smartphone apps. Based on my experience of those training weeks my sense is that fitness training for recreational kayakers is definitely something worth thinking about. For me, it was a great start for the kayaking season. If you’d like to learn more, you can follow Dan on Facebook (,or take a look at his book where you can find links to numerous training routines as well as other useful information on getting ‘fit to paddle’.