It’s that time of the calendar year when New Year’s resolutions are at the forefront of people’s minds. As paddlers, we are often polarised between fair-weather paddling where our dreams of warm aquamarine waters with golden rays are in reality cold dank winter paddling days. However, with warm clothing, drysuits, and preparation these winter trips offer greater flow, epic white water, and perfect training time for races, events, and adventures.

Paddle Fit – our guide to getting fit for paddlesports

By Richard Harpham

Our Experience of Training and Events

Here at Canoe Trail, we have an adventurous and competitive DNA. Team members have competed in canoeing and kayak races including the infamous Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race (125 miles and 77 portages of pain time), the Muskoka River X race (80miles of Canadian lakes, rivers, and wilderness), and the Yukon River Quest aka “The YRQ” (444 miles and the world’s longest annual canoe and kayak race). 

Training for these serious endurance races is addictive, fun, and great for personal well-being. The Devizes to Westminster, for example, has 77 locks that require portaging and in some cases are so close together it is quicker to run some sections rather than get in or out. This equates to running a half marathon with a kayak or canoe on your shoulder. Fun times!

Set Yourself a Paddling Training Program

So getting fit for paddlesports like any fitness campaign is best served by some goalsmeasures, and milestones to help with motivation and progress. Our top tips for building Paddle fitness include putting some structure to the training as opposed to a ‘Lilly dip’ gentle paddle.

It is worth thinking about Paddle Fit in terms of different disciplines like:

  • Endurance and stamina
  • Strength and conditioning
  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Well-being / positive mental health
  • Tone
  • Aerobic fitness
  • Active Core
  • Goal focussed
  • Technique
  • Diet

You can make a plan to help you get in shape with the following methods. Some of the training plans and structures we have used:


This is a common training style with runners and is the Swedish word for ‘Speed play’, altering speeds. Typically this means working hard for a set period and then a slower pace and then repeating this. So it could be 2 mins on, 1 min slower pace, 2 mins on and then 1 min slower pace and so on. We often used this style of training in racing kayaks (K2’s and C2’s) training for the DW and also the YRQ.

Interval training

Similar to Fartlek this involves working hard and then stopping for complete rest so for example 5 mins at 80% of max, 2 mins rest, 5 mins at 80% of max, and then rest. This helps with fitness recovery times and training your body to cope with endurance and stamina.

Pyramid training

This is a stepped approach to training by increasing the intensity of training by building the length and or intensity of training so in this instance, it could be perhaps 1 min on 1 min off, 2 min on and 1 min off, 3 mins off and 1 off. We often used this for sprint training on the pitch for canoe polo doing sprints up and down the pitch. We also did this with increased reps of the pitch length at max output.

Resistance Training

This is a different style of training where the increase in resistance on the water such as a heavily laden craft, tennis balls on an elastic strap (on slalom kayaks to increase drag), a parachute to drag in the water. This increases the load. On some expeditions, it was a real shock to launch a heavily laden sea kayak for a long-distance paddle.

Aerobic fitness

The development of aerobic capacity through high-intensity training to build VO2 max, the ability to consume and utilise Oxygen. Of course beyond this the body switches from aerobic (100m / 200m sprints) to anaerobic after a certain distance duration e.g. 500m and above. You can test this with the ‘talk test’ whereby after exercise if you can talk lightly you are still in your aerobic conditioning zone.

Heart Rate

Raising your heart rate – There is much written about completing at least 30 mins of physical activity 3 times a week to reduce heart disease. This is the Sport England measure for physical activity. To add a little bit of citizen science to this you can use heart rate intensity to map out your training and make it more effective. Your resting heartbeat is a good measure of fitness and the recovery rate back to this also helps. Training at different intensities will help you achieve better results. Your maximum heart rate alters with age and you can link your training goals and gains to training in these bands.

Low Intensity 40-50% of max getting moving, low intensity, short sessions, good for beginners

Moderate Intensity 50 -70% cardio sessions, at least 50 mins total with 10 min sets

Very High Intensity 70 – 85% high-intensity sessions, burns more calories, improves VO2 Max

Maximum Effort 85% - 100% not sustainable for long periods, helps overall capacity to push the system.

For the DW we would aim for paddling sessions at high intensity pushing the pace operating between moderate intensity and very high intensity over distance. Whilst the race could be 20 hours of paddling we would flex training between 3-hour sessions up to full-day paddling.

Consider your needs and type of exercise for canoe and kayak training

We spend a lot of time each year training customers for races, adventures, trips, and charity events. As such, we coach people to make the training real and relevant. If your race or event involves open water paddling for 4 miles, make that part of the training in different conditions such as onshore. Equally, if you need to portage a canoe around 5 locks fully laden then train that way.

Work on Flexibility and Balance 

As we get older and or recover from injuries then we do find a loss of flexibility and balance. There is plenty written about maintaining flexibility through stretching, starting gently, and good warm-ups. Carve raises, squats and other fitness exercises daily can massively improve this fitness element and are a good prevention measure to injuries, slips, and falls. This element of course links to core strength and prevention is better than cure. Developing your skills from the outset in a craft can be a core objective in your training. For example, step back turns and pivot turns with good foot movement on your SUP will quickly improve balance and flexibility. Similarly practicing self-rescue in a sea kayak will also help coordination, skills, and balance. Top Tip: Good practice makes permanent.

Core Strength 

Since hitting the fair age of 50 (not out) I have been focused on improving flexibility and core strength. My friend Olly Jay who runs Active 4 Seasons challenged me to hit 75 press-ups by November 2020. That has culminated in over 30,000 press-ups. You can feel the difference. I interviewed Sir Ran Fiennes who shared he did squats each day and as a result, I have added 40 squats per day which despite creaky knees from years of rugby is helping. Of course, paddling is low impact and requires good use of core strength. It is the perfect way to improve core. Sitting a racing kayak is all about core but equally paddling a stand-up paddleboard requires good core strength and stability. Top tip: Build new habits with a simple personal workout to boost core strength.

Spend Time Outdoors to Build Positive Mental Health and Well-Being

There is much written about digital detox and fresh air miles and the boost to positive mental health. Goal setting and measures such as resting heartbeat, recovery times, body mass index, and weight all help ensure you can see the results of your endeavors. Setting and achieving targets and goals builds self-efficacy which is a core part of building well-being. 

Time outside, re-wilding and physical exercise releases different hormones boosting mood and well-being. Serotonin is increased through natural sunlight and is the perfect antidote to screen time which often raises anxiety. Dopamine is the brain’s neurotransmitter for motivation providing a sense of freedom and well-being sometimes known as a ‘runner high’ – substitute paddler for a runner! Completing at least 30 minutes of exercise provides a natural endorphin release. Top Tip: Manage your well-being, plan to spend more time outdoors, and boost your mood.

Consider Your Paddling Diet

Our good friend David Gordon, founder of Bamboo Clothing is a former internal pole vaulter and adventurer who refers to diet as the relationship between inputs (food consumed) and outputs (exercise completed). I have previously written about hydration and feeding the machine, keeping calories coming into the system during longer races but it is common sense to pick things that agree with your palette and metabolism. 

I prefer bananas, wraps, snickers, malt loaf to energy drinks and gels. As a general guide eating a balanced diet home-cooked for us is the winning formula. Eating free-range, seasonally, and locally sourced is our preferred diet and eating out we eat vegetarian unless we know the food provenance. Top Tip: Reduce red meat and eat a balanced diet.

Improving technique

A key part of paddling smarter rather than harder is to improve technique. As a coach and experienced racer, a key piece of advice is to try and isolate the technique element you are working on. For example, if you are trying to increase craft speed then consider power and cadence and find your optimum output. You might choose to paddle at a higher rate but with less power or vice versa with more power but slower cadence. You might look at your connectivity or rotation to increase power transfer. Whilst racing we often look at the ‘catch’ of the paddling stroke and look to extend the length of the forward paddling piece. Top Tip: Work on the catch and drive the power into the blade with the top hand driving downwards.

In Summary

So far most of what we are recommending doesn’t involve gym work or lifting weights it involves getting out and paddling using structured training. Building strength can be supplemented with weights but in general pushing or moving your body weight delivers a good overall fitness and tone. 

  • Find training buddies who have similar goals and objectives to you.
  • Join a club or paddling group or visit your local center.
  • Why not make paddling a family pastime.

I never remember a bad day on the water and training still provides a happy feeling that lifts my mood. Training for bigger races is a full-on commitment but it also brings a real sense of achievement to compete with like-minded individuals. Generally, these longer wilderness races are a major challenge, they take no prisoners and do not respect any previous form, you are racing against your targets, your fellow competitors, and most importantly the environment and conditions. So, set a training plan, stay safe and happy trails.