Row Row Row your Erg, Gently in the basement
The off season is one of the most under appreciated and under utilized times of the year that can be one of your biggest tools to improve your performance in the next race season, especially if you have neglected this important time in the past like many of our fair weather training counterparts. There are some important things to consider however when looking to structure your off season that I would like to touch on to help make your off season work for you and not against you.
Once your competition season has come to a close it is important to take some time and relax so you can be fresh for the coming training blocks and seasons as we look forward into the next year. With that being said there is a limit to this and it is probably not in your best interest to consider the 12oz curl to be your primary form of exercise for months at a time. If you become to inactive for too long you are only going to take longer to get back to your previous peak fitness and might struggle to surpass that level of fitness depending on how long of a hiatus you took from your fitness routine.
Another consideration you will want to take into account is that you want to be fired up to do all the paddling you can handle come spring time so the off season is a great time to curb the paddling specific activities to ensure your love for the water is as strong as ever once the ice breaks in the early spring months.
Now that we have established that we shouldn't be sedentary and its both impractical and probably better for us to find other modes of fitness than paddling during this time what is a promising racer to focus on in this time? I'm guessing that based on the title of this article you can probably guess what I am going to suggest but if you have had one to many brews and already forgot the title my answer would be rowing.
Why rowing you may ask? To answer this we should first discuss a little bit on some basic fundamentals of fitness in general. There is one principle in fitness that will give us a good starting point for this argument and that is the principle of specificity. This principle is pretty basic in logic and means that to get better at a given sport/activity, if you train in that sport/activity you should see improvements. Most of us know and would agree that to become a good paddler you must paddle a fair amount. That is because of this principle. This principle can also explain why some athletes although can be world class in their specific sport but would be very bad in others. An example of this might be Eliud Kipchoge, the world marathon record holder, who would probably not fair well in a crossfit competition or powerlifting meet or even a 100m sprint for that matter. This is because his training is specific for distance running and not these other fitness events.
This principle to specificity can also be used when determining good cross training modalities. The basic premise being that something that more closely replicates your specific targeted sport/activity will have more and better carryover than other forms of fitness that do not train the specific systems required for your intended sport. This is the main reason why I believe rowing is a great cross training activity for the canoe racer as opposed to some other modalities.
The first benefit that lines up with rowing to paddling is the aerobic nature of the sport. Yes you can do row as intensely as possible but to help us become better paddlers we will use rowing to help maintain/improve our aerobic capacity throughout the off season. You can improve aerobic capacity with any number of activities like running, biking, or swimming to name a few but the difference is that the stressed muscles in rowing more closely mimic paddling than other forms of aerobic activity. For example running is a great way to improve aerobic capacity but is lower body dominant. Paddling is upper body dominant so the carry over will not be as great when comparing running and rowing as rowing has more upper body involvement compared to running.
The second benefit to rowing is the fact that it is a posterior chain dominant whole body exercise. When you row you start the movement by engaging your lower body, transfer power through your core and finish with your upper body pulling the handle into the chest. In paddling you should be connecting from your feet through your core and upper body all the way to the paddle. Sounds a little familiar doesn't it? This is a reason why rowing will tend to have decent carryover to paddling as it more closely mimics the muscular involvement compared to other activities such as running and biking. With Rowing there is much more use of the lower body than in paddling but you can also modify your rowing technique to reduce the effort put out in the lower body, you just will not be rowing as fast.
The last reason that I like to row in the off season is that because the neuromuscular movement patterns of rowing activity are relatively close compared to paddling but not too close to affect your actual paddling technique. What I mean by this is that because it is a distinctly different activity than paddling will not run the risk of creating bad habits that will then carry over to the water. When paddling indoors on any type of machine there is a distinct difference compared to paddling on water. No matter how much you try to keep your technique the same on a machine there will inevitably be some differences. If you are not careful these could lead to big differences to technique on water once you get back out there. This is not a reason neglect indoor paddling but a cautionary note to make sure you are aware that this could happen if you are not diligent with your technique and acknowledge that this could happen.
I wanted to write this article because of my own personal experience in trying to improve my performances over the off season and what I have learned from taking different approaches. In 2015 I had pretty good year of racing and was super motivated to get better for the next season. So for the off season in preparation for the 2016 year I decided to do a lot of running in the off season to help build my aerobic engine. While I did work up to doing 20 mile long runs and certainly did improve my aerobic abilities I found once I got back in the boat I was having issues that my paddling specific fitness was lacking in comparison to my overall aerobic abilities. This meant that my paddling specific musculature could not support the activity that my heart could perform at. This took some time for my upper body to catch up and in the process I most likely lost some of my aerobic gains from running.
So the next off season I set out to do almost the exact opposite, I decided to do most of my indoor training on my P-ERG and paddle as much as I could throughout the entirety of the off season. In the early season of 2017 I did find that my paddling specific fitness was much higher than in the previous year but I also found that I had created some poor habits from paddling on the erg so much and also had a harder time with motivation to paddle throughout the season. So although this was an improvement from 2016 I felt that it still was not optimal and I could do better.
My off season prep for 2019 I tried to take the lessons learned from the previous 2 off seasons and come up with a strategy that would help get my season started better than ever. This off season I still ran and I still paddled but I also incorporated more rowing and airdyne biking. This seemed to do the trick as I had a very quick jump back to previous abilities once I got back in the boat in the spring and I didn't have the motivation issue previously mentioned.
For this year I plan on improving my off season even more by refining my strategy. This is why I now have a built in structure where I will strategically change my main aerobic focus becoming more specific to canoe racing the closer it gets spring thaw. Hopefully it pays off and I can add some extra progress in my results using this strategy.
If you want more details in regards to how I am structuring my off season or rowing specific workouts I do leave a comment below and maybe I will write another article detailing this information.