Updated: Jan 26, 2022
The winter months provide a set of challenges for many of us, especially those that live in Northern climates that have to deal with the inclement weather that this time of year brings. Many of you are now experiencing your first significant snowfall of the year and you probably have either hung your boat up for the winter or will be here very soon. For the recreational paddler this might not be a big deal, but for the dedicated athletes out there that don't wish to lose all of their fitness gains this can definitely be a hard time of year. This article will serve those athletes in their quest for a faster 2022.
If you a dedicated paddle athlete this is the time of year that can be crucially important for your success in the upcoming season. Many of the top caliber athletes have already laid out the path to next years success and whether you like to believe it or not, it starts now. The reason for this is that building fitness takes time, and subsequent gains in fitness come from the building upon months of prior work, and rushing fitness games is a recipe for arriving to the start line either injured or fatigued.
Although an off-season is good idea as it provides much needed rest, recovery, and compensation from the year of training, too long of an off-season can stunt future performance peaks. This is mainly due to the loss of fitness that must be re-gained first before you ever think about reaching a new level. This is the main reason that if your thinking of waiting until March to start your training you will most likely be late to the party (at the finish line). If I have now convinced you to get off the couch and put the fork down you might be asking yourself, "what do I do now?"
There are many ways to attack the winter months in regards to training to prepare you for the next season, and some will be better than others, but the biggest thing in this part of the season is to remember that any activity will be better than no activity. With that being said, lets talk about some modes of exercise with their strengths and limitations. Strength Training - This is a great time of year to focus more time in the weight room, it will help you be a stronger athlete come spring and generally more resistant to injuries. Strength training however will not be very specific to endurance sports, and won't help you be prepared to handle the higher aerobic training loads that will be required in the preparation phases of your yearly plan. Running - I personally like to incorporate running year-round in my training, mainly so that I can be strong on portages, but as the season progresses, I run less often in favor of time on the water. This is a reason to incorporate a fair amount of running in the winter months, this is a great aerobic activity that can help prepare your aerobic system for the future training blocks. The downside of running is that it is lower body dominant, so it doesn't improve significantly to upper body endurance. Cross Country Skiing - This might be the best aerobic activity to prepare you for the upcoming season if you live in a snow filled area, it is one of the toughest aerobic activities because of the use of both lower and upper body, and because it uses upper body in a similar fashion to paddling, it has very good carryover to paddling. The only downside to cross-country skiing is that it is weather dependent. If there is no snow or consistent snow as it has been in the past couple of years, this can sideline your CC skiing plans. Erg - This is an indoor piece of equipment that is designed to replicate on water paddling. This activity is very specific to paddling so will obviously have very good carryover to on water paddling. The negatives to erg paddling are that they cannot replicate on-water paddling exactly, so you do have the possibility of creating habits that don't translate to moving the boat well in the water, and unless you modify an erg, they typically do not require any balance that is needed for paddling on water. As those are minor negatives, and with the emergence of new technologies, I think Erg training will become more popular over the next couple of years and that is the reason we are going to go over how you can use it to give you the best spring board for next season.
The recommendations that are laid out in this article are based on my own personal experience using the erg to prepare for the season to varying degrees, and these are not definitive rules that need to be followed as there are many ways to enter the paddling season in good form.
Keep it Engaging
The first and biggest suggestion to using the erg effectively is to keep work on the erg engaging. This can be done a multitude of ways to keep from just slogging away dreaded hours in your personal pain cave. One of the best ways I have found to keep my erg work from getting boring is simply to break it up into very short duration work efforts. For example, if I want to paddle an hour, I will not just sit on the machine for that entire time, I might do 9 mins on the machine with 1 min of stretching, or 4:30/:30 stretching. This gives you just enough time to press the reset button and refocus on using good technique because the last thing you want to do is let your form get bad on the machine from long intervals. These short rest times will also not be long enough to negatively effect the purpose of the workout either. Many people also like to watch videos of other paddling or your favorite show while you paddle but for me I never found that to keep my interest while on the erg. Another very new way to keep it fun and engaging is by using the Swelldone App. This is a new app that connects to your Bluetooth enabled erg to your smart device so that you can play an interactive paddling game with others around the world in a very similar form as the much more popular cycling platform Zwift. We will cover this a little more later in this article.
Watch Your Intensity
In my personal experience, I have found when I used the P-Erg (paddling erg) for "quality" or intense work I tended create some unfavorable technique habits that I would have to un-learn when I finally got back on the water. The main reason for this is that it is easy for you to look at the performance monitor and try to put out better and better times, but the erg is only measuring how much effort you are forcing into the machine, and cannot tell the difference between efficient and poor technique. Increasing your power output that will not make the boat move faster does not make you a faster racer. For this reason I believe its better to leave the hard effort work at this time of the year to other modalities such as cross country skiing if you are up north, or on the water if you are down south like myself and can get out on the water at least once per week. I believe that using the P-erg is best suited for doing easy/recovery and endurance building Zone 2 work in the off-season. The reason I suggest staying on the easier intensity range on the erg is quite simple, you have an easier time maintaining good technique, and this is also the time of year that we should be working on increasing aerobic conditioning, which is primarily done working below the first ventilatory threshold. This corresponds to Zone 2 or lower if using a 5 zone HR system. This intensity level creates a better aerobic engine and increases the body's ability to utilize fat as an energy source that is important for our long distance races.
Progression = Progress
When you enter the "erg" season, you are most likely in the worst shape of the year. Your fitness will not be where it was when you were in peak fitness before your biggest race of the year. For this reason you should ease into work during this time to help the body adapt and prevent injuries. If you go from being inactive in the off-season and jump right back into 10+ hours on the erg a week, that is a good recipe for burnout and injury. For this reason be progressive in your approach. Think about starting with a small amount of work and add more work over time. You do not need to be paddling 20 hours a week at this stage of the year, save your big hour weeks for the buildup to big A races.
Crosstrain and Strength Train
Just because you are a paddler doesn't mean that paddling should be the only activity that you participate in. If you have never strength trained before, this is a perfect time of year to begin. Now is a time that being sore from time to time is ok, as your weekly volume is still low and there will not be much intensity in your overall training. Strength training will pay dividends in the season if you build a base of strength now, to help you paddle faster and prevent injuries. Other forms of cross-training will also help your motivation and overall athletic performance. I personally like to run during this time of year, mainly because it is super easy to walk out the front door, and it will help you when it comes time to portage. Most of the runs I still keep easy though as the main focus of this time of year is to build aerobic adaptations which are best accomplished in the lower training zones.