Saturday, 6 October 2012

Training for SUP Part 1 - Introduction

It’s starting to get colder here in Toronto and with that comes the realization that there are only another 6 to 8 weeks of paddling left for all but the very hard core.  Yet in warmer climates paddlers are happily oblivious to the changing seasons and carrying on as they have all summer.  How can cold climate paddlers ever hope to compete with those from warmer climates that can paddle all year round?

From my experience in sprint canoe, being frozen off the water hasn’t been the disadvantage one might think.  It actually forces paddlers to place greater focus on fitness, and develop that fitness to a higher level than they would if they were paddling all year round. 

A sport like sprint canoe has a very large technical component to it.   Being able to pull yourself by your paddle efficiently and effectively is a skill that takes time to acquire, and some paddlers never master it.  Stand up paddling is even more technical.  Not only do SUP paddlers need paddling skills similar to those of a sprint canoe paddler, but they also need a variety of ocean skills that could take a lifetime to truly master.  Clearly the place to master these skills is on the water and so the value of being able to spend time on the water year round is obvious.

However both sprint canoe and SUP require a high level of fitness that can only be developed to a point on the water.  Dryland fitness training, focusing on both energy systems and strength, is essential to develop fitness to its fullest.  True it is possible; in fact even likely, that a highly skilled SUP paddler will beat a less skilled but fitter paddler in a race.  However if you take two paddlers of similar skill level the stronger, fitter one will almost always beat the less fit one.  Fitness does make a difference to performance, and anyone who truly desires to be the best they can possibly be should approach fitness training professionally, whether it be general conditioning on land or specific fitness developed on the water.

Interestingly, the most successful sprint canoe athletes are from colder climate countries and spend anywhere from 1 to 3 months off the water each year.    In this time they do intense training for aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and develop the various types of strength required for paddling at the highest level.  They train this dryland fitness a minimum of 10x/week through the winter.  In the spring, when they return to the water, they then enter a maintenance phase of fitness training designed to help them hold the enormous fitness gains they made over the winter, while they develop their paddling skills and various aspects of specific fitness through different phases of training during the paddling season.  

In contrast, the paddlers from warmer climates are often tempted to do too much paddling through the winter, and not only miss opportunities to take their fitness to the highest level but often burn out or get stale on the water.   Those that were frozen off the water enter the competitive season a little behind on their paddling but way ahead on fitness as well as hungry and excited about returning to the water.   If their program is properly designed they can carry that hunger and fitness through the entire paddling season, and in a few months are usually well ahead of those that were on the water all winter.

Obviously the optimal scenario would be having the climate to paddle all year round but training on a program that only requires you to paddle 2 or 3x/week maximum for 2 to 3 months.  The training focus can then still be on achieving high levels of fitness with the paddles providing an opportunity to refine technical skills and maintain a good feeling on the water through this general conditioning phase.

All of this suggests that dividing the year into training cycles or phases, each with its own distinct objectives is the optimal approach to training.  Various fitness and skill abilities can be the focus of training at certain points in the year and developed to their fullest.  These abilities can then be maintained while focus shifts to developing others.  This division of the year into distinct training cycles is known as periodization of training.  It is widely accepted as the optimal way to train for high-level sport.   Every canoe-kayak athlete at the Olympic Games trains on a periodized program.  Some structure their year differently than others and the way in which the year is optimally broken down is, to a degree, open for debate. 

I strongly believe that SUP paddlers should train on a periodized program as well.  I take the “no stone left unturned” approach to preparation.  I want my board skills developed to a maximum, but I know the only way to get my fitness to a maximum is to do the required fitness work on a program that addresses in an intelligent and sequential manner all of the skills and abilities needed to be successful.

In a series of upcoming posts I’ll share my ideas on how to structure a training plan for SUP.   I’ll take a look at how to choose what races to do, what races to peak for and which ones to train through.  I’ll do an inventory of all of the fitness abilities and skills needed in SUP and suggest how to structure a periodized program that maximizes their development so they are optimal for your most important races.  I’ll try to give you concrete training suggestions for each phase of training.  Throughout this series of posts I’ll try to answer any questions you have.  All you have to do is leave them as comments after each post and I’ll return to try to answer them.  Stay tuned!