Question, Re: Kayaking for Fitness

Hello all,

I’m new to the sport, and have been watching videos and reading books about kayaking technique. One of the books I’m reading, recommended here, is titled “Kayaking for Fitness”. The author of the book suggests that you find different levels of exertion, with a simple gauge being your heartbeat, breathing, and ability to talk.

I’m struggling to get my heartbeat up, and feel like if I try to “sprint” – paddle faster – I end up sacrificing form and not exercising my torso/core as I otherwise would.

I’ll try to explain what I mean… but first let me be clear that at 5’8" and 200# I would not describe myself as “atlethic” – so the heartbeat problem is clearly not that I have a low heartbeat (I get winded walking up two flights of stairs). I’m hoping to use kayaking as a re-introduction to a better and more balanced lifestyle that includes regular exercise.

At my regular pace, I think I’m taking one stroke every two seconds. There is a deliberate pause between strokes. I feel like I’m using my stomach muscles to power the stroke, and I’m pushing with the on-side leg. I kept up this pace this weekend for 60 minutes and wasn’t winded – but was definitely tired. (I was shocked, actually, at how sore my hamstrings were yesterday). In the parlance of the book, I consider this my “Zone 1” or easy pace.

As I pick up the pace, I feel like I need to flex my stomach more (maybe that’s artificial) and my stroke shortens a bit. I push more aggressively with my legs. I was deliberately breathing harder and more rapidly (i.e., controlled my exhaling to be timed with the power of my stroke as I would if I were lifting weights) but I don’t think my heartrate increased all that significantly, and when I stopped paddling I wouldn’t say I was winded. I would maybe say that I’m able to reach Zone 2 or Zone 3 while maintaining what I think is decent form.

Which makes me think I need to push harder to reach the desired “Zone 4”. The problem is, I feel like the only way to increase the pace of my paddling at this point is to actually shorten my stroke, and in doing so, it feels like I’m rotating my torso less, and I revert into more of an “arm paddle”. Not to mention the splashing probably looks rediculous.

So – any advice out there (especially from those familiar with the book) on how to paddle aggressively while maintaining form, exercising the appropriate muscle groups, and reach this elusive “Zone 4”?


Why Zone 4?
Forgive me for having only an amateur’s familiarity with aerobic/anaerobic exercise (I am sure more educated folks on the topic will weigh in). But I have belonged to an excellent gym for 25 years and had pros help me with my own program so I’ve absorbed a little awareness. Which leads me to ask: why are you so anxious to move into Zone 4 training, especially since you admit you are not in shape? Paddling is an excellent aerobic endurance exercise and would be a good way for you to build a fitness base. The fact that you were tired after your workout proves that you got a good one.

I guess I am wondering what the purpose is for anaerobic training at this point, considering your goals. If it is justified, there are other sorts of exercise, like weight lifting or interval training on a treadmill or hill climbing, that would be more practical than kayaking if you intend to include anaerobic activity in your fitness plan.

Kayaking is best for Zone 2, long slow aerobic training, with Zone 3 thrown in once you have good technique. If you aren’t using a kayak and paddle designed for sprinting, I doubt even “perfecting” a stroke is going to make your paddling workouts the ideal vehicle for the anaerobic component of your program.

Have you consulted with a fitness trainer in designing your workout plan? It might be a good idea to do so if you have not. Anaerobic activity can do more harm than good if not properly understood and implemented.

maybe try smaller blade size
not sure how much this will help but it can help you move to a higher cadence and still have full strokes. I know I find it harder to get as high a heart rate as I do cycling. I often attribute this to cycling using more large muscles and the demand that makes of the heart.

I Second the Smaller Blade
I also question mashing on the footpegs very hard. If your butt isn’t moving much in your seat all that leg push is for nothing. If you want to work your legs go ride a bike or jog up and down a hill.

Good question…
I wouldn’t say that I’m anxious to get to higher zones, but rather that the exercise program in the book (it’s an eight-week program) has them mixed in – typically a portion of one day per week. For example, one day this week I’m supposed to work in sets made up of 5-minutes at Zone 1 and 5-minutes at Zone 3/4.

I have not consulted a personal trainer or anything like that. I’m simply trying to do what this book suggests I should do, and the book was “recommended” by this site.

Thanks for both comments. I probably won’t run out and buy a second paddle at this point (I just bought my first kayak and my wife will not appreciate me spending yet more money this season) – but I’ll definitely keep that in mind for next season.

I also appreciate you confirming that you have a harder time getting your own heartrate up – so it’s not just me.

Thanks, but…
Thanks Kudzu. I was wondering about whether or not I was pushing too hard with my legs – and actually worried that I was going to break the pegs over time. I’ll have to re-read but I thought some leg pushing was appropriate.

As for why I don’t run or ride a bike – I guess I do a bit, but being so out of shape (at least relative to when I used to run) I find that running is very though on my knees. While I can (and do) run for a couple of miles, I don’t feel like it’s the best exercise for me (and I pretty much hate running, i.e., have never enjoyed it). I also ride my bike, but am finding that I have developed tendonitis (probably from work/typing) and that my hands go numb on longer rides.

In any case – I am taking up kayaking both because I love being out on the water and because I believed it to be a potential low-impact, whole-body workout that suited my current physical condition and long-term goals. Plus I want to work up to being able to undertake some weekend paddling/camping trips.

pushing with the legs is appropriate but it’s generally pretty subtle even if pushing hard. It’s not nearly as much as cycling or running.

I’m not sure just how out of shape you say you are but the poorer your conditioning the more you’d benefit from more but less intense miles. Also you should get some impact type exercise – just not enough to cause damage. Impact strengthens bones and helps lower body joint muscles develop to avoid lots of the common problem people have as they age. I mostly paddle lately (was a big cyclist) but I’m glad my dogs get me out a lot for walks to give me that needed impact.

Target heart rate
I would either get one of those heart rate monitors that atach too you or measure your heart rate with a watch. See what you heart rate actually is. Then you can determine how hard you need to paddle.Sounds like you need a faster paddle rate hence the reason others have recommneded a smaller surface area paddle. If there is a kayak store near you maybe see if you can try some other paddles there with less surface area and see if that helps.

other exercise is more efficient!
Kayaking is my favorite thing to do and I love it. But my experience is that walking on a treadmill is a far more efficient way of developing fitness. To get in shape for kayaking, I regularly do pushups and crunches and walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes (on an incline once I was ready for it). The thing about kayaking is that you don’t use your leg muscles so unless you are using your trunk muscles as maximally as possible -which is going to take a lot of experience and good technique - it is not that easy or comfortable to maintain a hard-breathing pace for very long. At least for me, I find that my overall fitness responds a lot faster to spending an hour doing pushups and crunches and treadmill walking than 3-4 hours of kayaking. And the overall fitness greatly enhances my ability to do 8 hour day kayaking trips. Crunches or situps for 5-10 minutes a day are a really great way to quickly get your core in shape for paddling. So for me, its treadmilling for fitness and kayaking for fun. Just my experience.

keep trying - you’ll get there
Weight lifting can be a good way to look at it. You can do different repetitions to failure (until you can’t perform the lift any longer), and never feel like you’re breathing hard. I run and bike regularly. I can get to breathing harder paddling, but really only working quite hard at it.

A good thing to do, especially when you’re first starting and learning, is to specifically not use your arms. It will feel strange, but plant the blade with your arm straight, don’t bend your elbow, don’t roll your shoulder back in its socket, but twist your torso only. You most likely won’t get the sensation of paddling fast. More likely you will feel like the stroke is too short, and that you’re not able to do enough, because you just feel like you should feel more and do more in your arms and shoulders. But just relax, keep awkwardly doing it, and watch the shoreline - never the water along with the paddle moving through it to get a feel for speed - always the shoreline.

You should push with your legs. But you should only push with your legs to the extent that the little bit of pressure first holds you in place, and second to the extent that you can transfer that energy out to the paddle blade. Believe it or not, over the years, as I figured out how to better transfer that energy from my legs to the paddle, I’ve actually used less and less pressure with my legs, and my feet and legs became more and more comfortable. But I’ve been able to transfer more and more leg energy to the paddle. It’s very easy and common to get in a long lasting habit of never making the connection between legs and paddle, and causing a lot of discomfort in the process. Keep things relaxed and practical.

Take your sweet time with getting the motion without cranking your arms and shoulders. Plant the paddle, rotate your torso, all the way down to your butt rotating and your thighs moving. Raise the blade from the water with your arm still straight. Keep a loose grip on the paddle with both hands. There is no reason to have either hand with clasped fingers around the shaft during your normal cadence. Keep your wrists straight through all the changing angles of the paddle shaft.

It’s ok in the learning process to take a few seconds between strokes. When you raise one blade with your torso all cranked around from completing the stroke, don’t let your torso unwind at all prior to planting the blade on the other side. Both wrists stay straight through all motions. Don’t use arms or roll shoulder back in its socket, use only torso unwinding and twisting the other way, butt rotating the other way, one thigh moves back along with the hip a bit with the twist, the other forward. You don’t have to physically move your thighs forward and back. If you’re twisting your hips, they will have to move automatically along with your hips. My suggestion for appropriately involving your legs is to not even try to push with your legs until you experience and observe your hip twisting moving your thighs forward and back along with it. Then only apply some pressure to the extent that it feels useful, to the extent that it helps you extend and add some power to your hip twist. In this way, you understand, feel, and make a connection to the paddle, instead of just creating tension between your feet and hips and back.

So why all this forward stroke bs when you simply asked about breathing harder? Because this allows your body to do enough work to start breathing hard. Working your arms to failure won’t compare in that department. You’ll see the difference in work performed in speed. It just won’t seem like it at first because your arms and shoulders won’t feel so ragged.

Greenland paddle
I know you’re not in a rush to get another paddle, but with a Greenland paddle you can use higher cadence and get your heart rate up (though with less muscle effort). Switching off to one would add a variance in the exercise effort. They run $150 and up to buy but if you have basic woodworking skills there are a lot of free instructions for carving one from a 2 X 4 or a couple lengths of laminated cedar.

I mostly use a GP, but sometimes switch to a standard blade paddle to use different muscles and cadence.

Thanks CapeFear. I think I’m largely doing what you suggested, but I’m obviously still figuring out my exact paddle technique. One of the “drills” I did today was the straight-arm drill, where I kept my elbows locked through my strokes. I’ve also worked in “velcro forehead” drills during other sessions, both, obviously, to work on learning hip rotation.

While my shoulders and arms are getting some exercise, I know from how I feel that my stomach muscles are getting the brunt of it. I may be pushing too hard with my legs as you and others have suggested, but my gluts and hammies are getting a pretty good workout, too. (I don’t run much but I do cycle, but obviously my quads get the most exercise there).

Others (kind of) asked just how out of shape I am – I think my realistic/ideal weight is 170-175#. I’m 37 years old. I weighed 155 in high school and 145 in college when I was really exercising. I’ve weighed as much as 220# and currently weight about 200#. I’ve always had thick legs (25" at the thighs) and somewhat broad shoulders for someone my height. I don’t do a ton of regular exercise but I do ride my bike regularly, though only occassionaly do I ride more then 10 miles in an outing. I lift free weights occassionally and am trying to get back into that (I messed up my shoulder in bike wreck a couple months ago). As I said before, I generally hate running (for exercise) but I’m probably going to start running/training in the relative near future (promise/bet to my wife). I have young kids so we’re out-and-about regularly.

So… I used to be quite fit and have retained some (not most) of my strength, to the point that I think it’s fair to say I’m out of shape and overweight, as opposed to someone who is out of shape but has never been in-shape (I think there’s a difference). I’m hoping to finish this 8-week kayaking-for-fitness program before it gets too cold to kayak in my area, both to get in shape (as a good base for the other exercises I want to do over the winter) and to learn technique so that I can do some longer paddles later.

Thank willowleaf. I’ll look into that – I’m not afraid of woodworking so that might be a decent option.

Whole Body Exercise
ANY sport involves proper technique

GP and Cadence
A long, wide GP will give you a relatively slow cadence and a shorter and/or narrower GP will give you a faster cadence. I think the big advantage with the GP is… want a faster cadence? Get out the hacksaw and sandpaper and make it happen.

Want to get your heart rate up ?
Try kayak surfing in winter storm surf .

Leg Push

– Last Updated: Aug-22-12 1:32 PM EST –

Imagine that there were nothing to keep you on the seat (no friction between your butt and the seat), or nothing to keep the seat where it belongs (such as having the seat rest on ball bearings instead of being attached to the floor). You'd have to brace your feet against the foot pegs to keep from sliding forward in reaction to each power stroke. Well, that's how hard you need to push on the pegs - just enough to counteract your paddling force.

If you are pushing a lot harder than that, all you are doing is attempting to "stretch the boat" within the area that's between your two points of contact with the hull, the foot pegs and the seat. Imagine you have a loose, frictionless seat and that you must push on the pegs only hard enough to keep from sliding forward inside the boat during each power stroke, but not so much that you push yourself backward. You'll feel your legs working, but the amount of effort will be quite small.

I love the analogy, and think this will really help how I think about my paddling. Thank you!

going hard and maintaining form

– Last Updated: Aug-22-12 2:16 PM EST –

That combination is hard for everyone.
To go harder and faster without all the splash, concentrate on getting the paddle in the water as fast and smoothly as possible and don't start to pull till it's all the way in. If done right you will feel much more load on the blade in the beginning of the stroke. Start with just a 20-40 strokes at a time maintaining good form and going hard and build up.
Visualize trying to stab a fish next to your feet with the blade.
I also recommend Brent Reitz's or Greg Barton's Forward stroke video.