Thursday 5 September 2013

Training for SUP Part 5 – Specific Base Development Phase

You’ll recall the structure of a periodized year plan from the most recent post in the Training for SUP series. The largest division in the training year is the macrocycle, which focuses on specific physiological and technical aspects of training for up to 12 to 16 weeks before the focus of training shifts to other components in another macrocycle.

If you are from a cold climate, what I call the Specific Base Development Phase is basically the macrocycle consisting of your fall training from your major competition of the year until you are more or less frozen off the water. If you are from a climate that allows you to paddle all year round, this is the phase that you should enter immediately after the most important competition of the year.

When I was competing in sprint canoe this phase began immediately after the World Championships or Olympics. Now that I am racing SUP, this year it’ll start immediately after the Battle of the Paddle.

Since you’ve just completed an entire year of training and racing when you finish your last race at the year’s major competition it is probably a good idea to start this phase of training with a two to three week period away from the water. I’ve even seen athletes take much longer periods off the water after the Olympic Games when they’ve just completed a four year training cycle, however for most SUP paddlers two to three weeks is probably adequate. This period should be “active rest”, meaning you aren’t sitting on the couch doing nothing but instead should be doing active, healthy things that you might not normally do in your training. You should be doing these activities at a lower intensity, or at the very least just doing them as hard as you feel like. In no terms should you be doing prescribed high intensity training of any sort. The primary focus of this mesocycle should be regeneration and rest – both physical and psychological – from the rigors of a full season of training and racing. This recovery period is important. It leaves you refreshed, refocused and ready to approach another year of training with the focus and intensity necessary to support high-level performance.

In my career I’ve done a variety of activities which differ from the norm in this phase. I’d done some cycling. I’ve gone hiking. I’ve gone for a canoe trip. I’ve played some team sport games. I’ve woken up in the morning and not felt like doing anything so I’ve just taken the day off. I’ve made sure to put no pressure on myself to train, had no specific training objectives and attempted no high intensity workouts. It’s simply a time to take it easy.

There are a couple of dilemmas I can see that a SUP paddler might face in this mesocycle. One of them is one that I face. What do you do if there are optimal conditions for downwind paddling or surfing when you are supposed to be taking time away from the water? The answer is I probably go and do a great downwind run, but I am going because I want to and am excited to paddle in conditions we don’t get every day where I live. That’s an important distinction from doing the paddle because I feel like I have to for training.

The other dilemma a SUP paddler might face is having a race in this mesocycle. There are so many SUP races it is entirely possible that there may be an event you want to do (or may be committed to) a week or two after your major event of the season. How should you deal with that issue? For me the answer is that I would probably just pass on any events in that period after my big race, however in some instances you may find an event just too compelling to pass on or have a commitment to an event that you can’t renege on. In that case I would recommend doing the race but doing minimal on water training in preparation for it. Yes, it might affect your performance in that race, but as far as long-term performance is concerned it is probably a good move. Remember, you can’t be your fastest in every race and you need to make some sacrifices in some races in order to be your best in the races you really care about most. Those races are going to be the big races in your next training cycle, not some smaller race at the end of the season.

Once you’ve completed a suitable period of active rest you’re ready to start to train again. You’ll need to remind yourself that you’re not continuing the same training that you were doing a few short weeks ago leading into your major competition of the year, but instead are doing foundational work for the next SUP season. The training objectives for this macrocycle should be:
  • Development of a specific aerobic base (aerobic fitness developed on the water)
  • Correction of technical flaws and refinement of paddling technique
  • Introduction to dry-land fitness training with particular focus on dry-land aerobic work and development of basic strength

You should be structuring your program according to the principles of periodized training I discussed in Part 4 of this series of posts. Though the focus in this macrocycle should be on volume, you’ll want have the training load increase gradually from one week to the next within each mesocycle and from mesocycle to mesocycle within the 12 to 16 week macrocycle. If you’ve forgotten what these terms are or represent, I suggest you go back and read part 4 now.

You’ll also want to build in an easier week at the end of each mesocycle where training load is cut back slightly to allow for recovery and consolidation of training gains before pushing the load higher in the following mesocycle. You’ll also need to figure out how often you are planning to train each week. Clearly if you are training twice/day and doing 10 workouts or more per week your program will look a lot different that that of someone training once a day or just 4 to 5 times a week. I’ll try to provide guidelines that I think would be appropriate for each type of trainer in a bit.

Development of Specific Aerobic Base

This training occurs entirely on your board on the water. Workouts should be of the long slow distance variety with heart rate in the lower end of your training zone and well below your anaerobic threshold (point where you start to develop lactic acid in your muscles).

Just because you’re training at low intensity for longer periods of time doesn’t mean you have to have a steady menu of long, slow, continuous paddles in your training program. Some of my favorite workouts are very suitable for this training phase. Consider doing long intervals, fartlek training and long cooperative drafting paddles. You can also go downwind if conditions merit, however rather than paddling aggressively after bumps I’d probably slow things down a little to both stay within the prescribed training zone and really focus on reading the water and letting that waves do the work. Here are some examples of great on-water workouts that I like to do in this phase:

Interval Training
  • 1 x 20’, 5’, 15’, 5’, 10’, 5’, 1’ R
  • 5-6 x 10’, 1’ R
  • 10-15 x 5’, 1’ R
  • 7’, 5’, 3’, 5’, 7’, 5’, 3’, 5’, 7’, 1’ R
  • 10’, 8’, 6’, 4’, 2’, 3’, 5’, 7’, 9’, 1’ R

You get the idea. Work to rest ratio is high, in the order of 5:1 to 10:1 or higher. Total work ranges from 40 minutes at the low end to over 60 at the high end. Feel free to build up to even longer workouts if you want to late in the macrocycle. Although heart rate should be at the low end of the training zone for these workouts, the shorter pieces can be at slightly higher intensity (although still below anaerobic threshold).


Fartlek training was developed by Swedish runners in the 1940s and the term basically means “speed play”. The workout has a prescribed amount of total work but no formal structure to achieve it and it is therefore up to the athlete to determine how to structure the work intervals. This type of work is particularly effective for cross country running or skiing where the terrain can help determine when an athlete chooses to work hardest (for example going hard up the hills), but is also fun and effective in paddling, particularly when there are varying conditions within a course that you are paddling. In this macrocycle work for fartlek training should total anywhere from 40 to 70 minutes.

Cooperative Drafting

If you have a training partner or partners rather than just doing steady paddles you can do cooperative drafting workouts. In these workouts try to go anywhere from 40 to 70 minutes in total and divide the leads evenly into two to five minute intervals. The pace should be harder than normal steady paddling and during your lead your heart rate should be higher than it is in most of the other workouts in this macrocycle. When you are drafting it can be a little lower than it normally would be in the other workouts in this phase. These are great workouts for developing board skills as well as fitness, but because much of the paddling is easier due to being on the draft I’d only recommend doing this type of training once per week.

Steady Paddles

Long steady paddling is important in this training phase, but as it can get monotonous I recommend doing the other workout structures much of the time. Steady paddles should be 60 to 90 minutes or more in length and I recommend trying to do them over a set distance (either one way or out and back) to make it easier to paddle with appropriate intensity. It is a lot easier for me to have somewhere to get to as a goal rather than just trying to paddle and watch the clock.

Correction of Technical Flaws/Refinement of Paddling Technique

While it is prudent to always be working on improving your paddling technique it is not always convenient to correct relatively large technical flaws in the competitive season. Making technical corrections often requires slowing right down and relearning certain parts of the stroke. There just isn’t time for this in the competitive season when physiologically you are required to do high intensity work. Furthermore, once new motions in technique have been learned it takes many hours of submaximal paddling to consolidate those changes. Attempts to make relatively large technical adjustments in the competitive season are doomed to failure as there is not adequate time to consolidate them before racing. If anything, a paddler who attempts these changes in the competitive phase is likely to just end up technically confused and unable to paddle effectively with either their old technique or the one they are trying to adjust to.

Because the Specific Base Development Phase is far away from important races and consists of lower intensity paddling it is the ideal time to make technical adjustments and refine technique.
I would hope that paddlers would have a good appreciation of what adjustments they’d like to make in this phase before they’ve even entered it. It’s very valuable to do video analysis of technique during the competitive phase so that you can assess your racing technique and determine what changes or refinements you should try to make in the next specific base development period. If you’ve done this you should be entering this macrocycle with a good idea of what you need to do with your technique. If you haven’t I strongly suggest getting some video done as early as possible in this phase (perhaps even before taking active rest) so that you have a technique baseline from which to work. Then it is just a question of determining what you want to adjust and what drills you need to perform to help make those adjustments.

Clearly you’ll need to balance your paddling between technical, drill heavy paddling and aerobic base paddling. If needed I’d suggest dedicating a couple of workouts a week, well spaced out, to making technique corrections. The rest of the time you can do your drills in the warm up or cool down of your aerobic base workout. If you don’t have major technical adjustments to make and are just refining technique then you can probably pass on dedicated technical paddles and just do drills in warm ups and cool downs.

Paddling with resistance can help with technique in this phase. Resistance paddling is also great for developing specific strength, though that is not a goal in this phase. Use the resistance provided by a bungee (or bungee with tennis balls threaded on it) wrapped around your board to help you feel connection better and to better identify the sequencing of muscle contractions within your stroke. Use it for 10 – 15 minutes then remove it (or remove a tennis ball) and then try to have the same stroke awareness and connection without it. Another easy method of adding some resistance is dragging your leash. I’ll discuss the use of resistance when paddling in detail in a future blog post.

Introduction to Dry-land Fitness Work

The truth of the matter is if you’ve been on an intelligent program throughout the competitive season you will have been doing some dry-land fitness work all along. However dry-land cardiovascular work in the competitive season generally consists of lower level, recovery type runs rather than the longer workouts dedicated to developing a general aerobic base that you do in the base development and preparatory phases. Similarly strength training in the competitive season usually focuses on maintenance of power and power endurance in short workouts 2 to 3 times a week, rather than the type of training that you want to do in the Specific Base Development Phase.

The purpose of dry-land training in this macrocycle is to prepare for more intensive dry-land training in the next macrocycle. Cardiovascular workouts should mirror water workouts in terms of heart rate training zones. When I was training at the highest level I started with 30-minute runs three times/week and gradually upped the duration of each run over the course of the macrocycle. Certainly fartlek training and long intervals are suitable as well. The main objective of these runs isn’t just to develop general aerobic fitness, but rather to prepare muscles and connective tissue for the load they will need to endure when facing much greater workloads in the next macrocycle, the General Preparatory Phase.
Strength training in this phase should support a similar objective – to prepare the muscles and connective tissue for intense power development work in the coming months. Training should be basic strength, body building style weights focusing on all muscle groups and in the 3-4 sets, 15-repetition range. Mode of contraction should be moderate speed controlled repetitions. I don’t take excessive rest between sets like I might in max strength or max power work and I can usually finish 10 -12 exercises in 45 minutes to an hour.

Putting it all together

Knowing the type of training you should be doing in a particular macrocycle is one thing. Fitting it all together into some kind of coherent plan is another. Here are some guidelines that I use in fitting it all together:
  • Training load should build from week to week within each mesocycle and from mesocycle to mesocycle within the macrocycle
  • Training load should be reduced in the last week of a 4 week mesocycle or last half week in a 3 week mesocycle to allow for recovery and consolidation of gains made
  • Balance is important. I don’t do hard intervals in back-to-back workouts or on back-to-back days. If I do a hard interval on Monday afternoon for example, I might do a technical paddle or easier steady paddle the next day before attempting another hard interval on Wednesday. Similarly if I am doing strength training 3x/week I’ll do it on Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Saturday. I’ll do the dry-land cardiovascular work on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
  • If I am training 2x/day I definitely take one day a week off and usually take a half day off mid week
  • I try to get the total work time to the 90-minute range by the end of the cycle. When you are training in this zone for that duration there are changes that occur at the level of the muscle fiber which increase the muscle’s ability to utilize oxygen to produce energy that won’t occur to the same degree if training duration is much shorter
  • I make a real effort to paddle with perfect technique all the time, particularly at the end of long workouts when it is tempting to just float back to the beach or dock. I find that if I am disciplined with this I better maintain effective technique and don’t develop bad habits. It’s also easier to affect positive changes to technique if you are only taking good strokes instead of letting your guard down and taking some bad ones at the end of the workout.
  • I find time to stretch. Though flexibility has never been one of my strengths and I’ve still had a successful paddling career, I do my best to maintain what flexibility I have for obvious reasons. It is sometimes requires great discipline to spend an extra 15 minutes or so stretching after you’ve just finished a hard 90 minute paddle, but it is well worth it in the long run as a means to maintain flexibility and avoid injury.

If you build up training load systematically the risk of injury in this phase is small. In fact the main objective of the dry-land components of this phase are to prepare the body for the following training phases in order to reduce the risk of injury in them. It is more likely you will have a nagging injury carried over from the competitive season than develop one in this phase . It is imperative that you use the first mesocycle (active rest) of this phase to aggressively address such injuries. You can get a real leg up on rehab during that rest cycle which means you can train more freely and effectively for the rest of the training phase.

Suggested Training Load for Novice, Intermediate and Advanced Trainers

These are just guidelines. Remember it is up to each individual to determine how often they want to train. Such a decision should take into account your goals and life factors like family, career, etc.

In general, I think that a novice trainer should be able to paddle at least 4x/week during this phase. They should be able to run a couple of times a week and do their strength training a couple of times per week a well. That’s 8 training sessions if done separately which suddenly seems like a lot. I frequently doubled up training sessions in this phase, for example I would go for a paddle and then do weights or a run, or I’d do a dry-land combination of weights and run.

Intermediate trainers should probably be able to fit in another paddle or two per week and another of either a run or strength training session. Again I’d recommend doubling up a dry-land training component a couple of times per week.

Advanced trainers should be paddling more – up to 7 to 10 times per week and should do 3 full runs and strength training sessions per week. This pretty much represents what I was doing when I was a full time training athlete. Dry-land components can be done before or after paddles in double training sessions in order to avoid doing 16 separate training sessions a week which would necessitate training 3x/day on certain days.


While I believe testing is an important part of monitoring training and should be included in a periodized year plan, the Specific Base Development Phase should be relatively “test light”. I would start with some testing at the beginning of this macrocycle and then would not start testing again until mid way through the cycle with a timed paddle every couple of weeks. I’d do a 5km course on calm water every 2 to 3 weeks and track time. Starting in the middle of this phase you should be able to get three of these time controls completed. 

In terms of dry-land fitness I would not test again in this cycle after the initial tests as general fitness isn’t the main focus. However testing at the beginning of the phase allows you to see what your general fitness level was like in the competitive phase.  The reason I'd wait till the beginning of the Specific Base Development Phase to get get this data is that I'd rather not test late in the Competitive Phase and risk injury or stiff muscles before the season's biggest, most important race.   I would test again at the beginning of next macrccycle (the General Preparatory Phase) and test regularly from that point on to track fitness development over the rest of the year.                                               


Hopefully this series of blog posts on Training for SUP will help you develop your own peridiozed yearlong training plan, and this installment of the series will help you get your year plan off to a great start with a solid and effective Specific Base Development Phase of training. Good luck, train hard and have fun!