Updated: Jan 17
Between 2008 - 2013 I led the New Zealand national kayak team's the strength and conditioning (S&C) programme as well as more recently working with Team GB's top female paddler. This article is about my work in the sport and some thoughts on training.
My start in kayak was somewhat opportunistic when back in 2008 in New Zealand I put my hand up to coach a group of young kayakers who were receiving limited support at the time. This group included a number of talented 18 year olds; most notably Lisa Carrington who during the time we worked together won an Olympic gold medal at London 2012 along with world championship gold medals in 2011 and 2013 before going on to even more success.
Other significant successes during that time included Teneale Hatton winning a world championship gold medal in the K1-5000m in 2013 and she was also one of 5 team members selected for the 2012 Olympics in London. Since moving back to the UK in 2013 I have kept some involvement with the sport supporting 3x Olympian Jess Walker in a year where she recorded her fastest ever time in the K1-200m.
Focusing back to my time in NZ, what stands out to me as much as any individual success was the training system and culture, particularly in the women's programme. Strength training was linked to clear objectives on the water and underpinned by regular strength and power testing pretty much every six weeks over a four year period.
Strength and power testing was timed to sync with time trials and measures of physiology and we started to build up a really strong picture of each athlete that strongly informed our training direction. I tried to combine this new understanding with what I knew from my background in athletics, which at the time was my main reference point, and many of the strength training concepts transferred well.
Perhaps of all speed and endurance sports, sprint kayak offers the greatest opportunity for the strength programme to influence performance. This is mainly because of:
High stroke rates that require various power qualities
Sufficiently long contact times with the water each stroke that allow the athlete time to use their strength (compared to running and cycling for example where there is a shorter time-window available to apply force).
High peripheral fatigue that requires strength endurance
The stroke being a complex co-ordination task that requires the enhancement of neuromuscular co-ordination and various muscular co-activation qualities
High training volumes, high intensities and a number of mechanical risk factors that require robust athletes.
With these factors in mind my training approach is based around 5 key areas for race performance and I will briefly explain the approach to each below.
1. The start:
At the start of the race the boat must be accelerated rapidly from a position of inertia. This requires the highest force application compared to any other point in the race. Athletes with high maximal strength relative to their body-mass have an advantage here.
However it is not just about being strong; but rather being strong AND fast. Within your strength training you can emphasise bar speed that includes heavy sets stopping short of failure to ensure the bar doesn't slow down too much. For example you may train 3 reps at a 5 rep max with short recoveries.
To help this process, you can measure bar speed with various devices and select speeds that you think will be useful for starting-strength for each athlete. This is called velocity based training. We did a lot of this is NZ between 2008-2013 before it became more widespread and I continue to use today. If you don't have this technology you can still detect bar speed with good feel and a trained eye.
2. Maximal Speed:
There is a close relationship between stroke rate and boat speed. Rating is obviously underpinned by speed and power qualities and athletes should aim to develop these at a range of sub-maximal loads.
In terms of training, you can profile your athletes and figure out which relative loads each athlete responds to best. For example I had some athletes who responded much better to very light loads such medicine ball work whereas others needed to train with a bit more load to feel powerful.
Maximal speed is also about rhythm and from a muscular perspective the athlete must learn to contract and relax between strokes in rapid succession. Working with lighter loads gives the athlete an opportunity to practice this skill. Useful exercises here are medicine ball work against a wall and plyometrics especially as both these modalities have a moment between each rep where the body is unloaded prior to applying force, much like on the water.
The other thing to consider is that as your rating goes up, there is less time available to apply force; so if you want to rate faster you need to learn to apply force at faster speeds which is another reason why explosive strength training is so important.
3. Finishing Speed:
There is a significant amount of peripheral fatigue that happens in sprint kayak. This negatively effects stroke rate, technique and power output which ultimately kill speed. High rep strength endurance training is not that fashionable in many sports, however I found real benefit to this type of work. There are however rules you need to follow such as not sacrificing technique and range of motion for more reps as well as choosing the correct loads to train with.
With this type of training I found athletes make significant adaptation very quickly, much faster than maximal strength work, and therefore you only need to do this work for relatively short phases. These sessions also double up really well with particular sessions on the water whereas they can kill other sessions such as speed work.
Furthermore strength endurance work does not always have to use high reps. You can run sessions with low reps or power sets off short recoveries. For example 10 x 3 reps at a 3-5RM on 45-60seconds is a good session. The challenge is to maintain strength and power output across each set.
Kayak has a complex technical action that is expressed at high speeds, with high forces and with high levels of fatigue. Often technical deficiencies are due to deficiencies in strength and restrictions in ranges of motion as well as the order in which athletes recruit different muscles within a particular movement pattern. As a S&C coach you can have a significant influence on performance here, for example by integrating various exercises into the warm up prior to paddling but also in the the main strength sessions.
A basic example of this might be as follows. Let’s say you have an athlete who’s trunk does not rotate enough each stroke and as well as this being a learnt movement pattern part of this is due to a restriction through their thoracic spine into rotation. Prior to padding your could look to do some mobility work through the spine followed by some rotational strength work potentially in a similar pattern to how the athlete rotates in the boat, such as some seated or half kneeling band / cable work.
When in the gym I found real benefit in selecting exercises that draw out specific technical movement qualities. For example by integrating a rotational component or the requirement to stabilise through the lower body during various push / pull exercises as this is what happens in the boat. Many S&C coaches don't like to replicate sport movements in the gym but there are a few novel exercises that I found develop a number of technical elements that are highly worthwhile. An example of this would be using the Kayak machine shown below.
5. Injury Reduction:
Kayakers across all events experience relatively high training loads and there is a unique requirement to develop high levels of fitness across multiple training areas (e.g strength, power, speed and endurance). There is also a particular set of challenges that come with the seated position as well as the rotational component of the sport.
One of the best tasks I did early on in NZ was to work closely with the physio and medical team to identify what the top ten injury risks were in the sport and put together a really solid plan to mitigate each risk factor. In particular, training to protect the shoulders, ribs, and lower back were present in most sessions. That said I believe a lot of the injury risks can be mitigated by developing good muscle architecture around key joints, encouraging efficient movement patterns and good postural behaviours on and off the water as opposed to having a long list of "injury prevention" exercises to complete at each session.
I loved my time working in kayak. Much like working in athletics or other endurance sports you find out what the human body is really capable of and also out what training REALLY works (and what does not!).
All the athletes I have worked with are amongst the hardest workers Iv come across in any sport. The best athletes had an ability to adapt in multiple training areas and were exceptionally well rounded for speed, power, strength and endurance. Also off the water they could all run, cycle, swim, lift, and move well. I think in any conversation about who are the greatest athletes of all time the worlds best kayakers should be part of that conversation.
For those involved in kayak I hope you have found this article interesting. If you are new to kayak I would encourage you to check out some races on youtube and at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
If you are an athlete, kayak coach or fellow S&C coach working in kayak feel free to get in contact and it would be great to connect. Please do also share this article on social media and with your networks.
Happy training all.