Rowing, canoeing and kayaking require upper body and core strength, along with some amount of endurance. With a little planning, preparing physically for your next watercraft outing, or deliberately maximizing the amount of exercise you get while on water-themed trips, can be achieved as well as be rewarding.
When in doubt, work with a personal trainer or canoe/kayak club coach to establish a customized training program.
Overall Prior Fitness:
Aerobic conditioning out of the water can help get you ready for being in the water. Personal trainer and Floridian athlete Paul Rogers recommends starting with muscle strength activities, such as lifting weights. Then he suggests adding power development actions, which ultimately should help your muscles be ready to move the heaviest boat loads in the shortest time. He encourages doing these activities year-round for two or three days a week, with at least a two-week break included.
Weight training exercises that Rogers indicates are generally considered useful for watercraft sports include:
- Barbell squat (placing metal bar held on shoulders and bending up and down with knees)
- Cable push pull (exerting a boxing, one-two punching action)
- Romanian deadlift (lifting barbell from floor to standing position)
- Seated cable row (using weighted horizontal cable machine with bench and foot plates for all-round compound exercise to develop middle back and arms)
- Dumbbell biceps or arm curl (coiling weights to work front upper arms and lower arms)
- Dumbbell bent-over row (working back and shoulders)
- Machine pushdown (strengthening triceps but watch for elbow overwork)
- Cable wood chop (swinging and working abdominals, obliques, shoulders, back and glutes)
- Lat pulldown (while sitting, working the back, arms and shoulders)
- Reverse crunch (using legs; becomes abdominal strengthener)
Training on Water or While Camping:
Instead of just sitting on a canoe seat, decide to tighten the gluteus maximus muscles for a repetition of five at a certain interval of time, such as once per hour. The same can be done for neck muscles by intentionally making a complete pivot of the head each time you see a bird or certain wildlife. Shoulder rolls also can be relaxing while simply floating.
While out of the watercraft, Illinois paddler John Chase, who also is a kayak instructor and fitness professional, recommends balance training with feet and tightening of the core body, as well as taking resistance bands along on water trips to further strengthen chests, shoulders and backs. He’s a big advocate of monitoring posture as it pertains to handling kayaks and canoes. He believes so much in exercise training, he wrote a book entitled Power to the Paddle: Exercises to Improve your Canoe and Kayak Paddling.
Jump ropes are an easy exercise tool to take on canoe or kayak jaunts.
Cardio exercise can be gained by jogging up and down small hills along streams or at camping sites. If you find stairs or steps from the water to land, you can also carefully run those. And tree limbs can become ways to do pull-ups.
Of course, short hikes or walking natural trails while camping for water trips, or simply dancing around campfires, adds to the amount of exercise these outings provide.
Exercise specialist and professional whitewater paddler Kim Russell recommends the following three core exercises to help improve paddling-related muscles and strength:
- Swiss Ball Crunches — Sit on standard exercise ball, then roll down so ball is supporting your hips at your lower back and pelvis. With your arms across your chest or behind your head, contract your abdominals and lift your chest upward off the ball. As you lift, keep your chin OFF your chest, coming up as high as you can, while maintaining a flat back. Slowly return to the starting position to finish one rep. Repeat to fatigue three times.
- Planks — Lie face down on a mat, resting on your forearms with palms flat on the floor. Push up off the floor and rise onto your hands and toes. Maintain a flat back and hold this position by contracting your glutes and abdominals. Avoid sagging at the abdominals or sticking your bottom up in the air. Hold until you cannot hold any longer or until proper form is lost, and repeat for three to five reps. She said if you feel this exercise in your shoulders, push back into your toes, and it will take some pressure off the shoulders. “If you are having lower back pain, you are likely sagging at your torso and need to rest.”
- Ball Pass — Lie down on your back with your legs straight. Place a Swiss ball between your feet and extend your arms overhead. Bring your legs upward as you complete a sit-up, and pass the ball from your feet to your hands. Slowly return to a supine position with ball in hand until your feet and arms are just off the ground. Then proceed to sit-up and pass the ball back to your feet for one full rep. Repeat to fatigue three times.
Be Careful of Injuries:
Shoulder and back injuries are commonly incurred by watercraft competitors and enthusiasts due to the repetitive nature of rowing and ranges of motion required. Weight training for the upper body can be useful, but avoid overusing these muscles so you don’t aggravate or initiate injuries. Fine-tuning your approach with strength training should help. Muscle fatigue can be normal, but consult with medical professionals at signs of pain in your joints, especially if aches are severe.
American Canoe Association certified paddling expert George Sayour swears by stretching before and after paddling to avoid damaging muscles and joints. He reminds that proper lifting, posture and paddling technique will reduce the occurrences of paddling-related soreness.