Get Out and Paddle: Paddling for Fitness–Let the Games Begin

kayaking for fitness
USA! USA! The Australian and the Germans are falling behind! USA! USA! PHOTO CREDIT: Maria Hallowich.

By Olympic Kayaking Legend (in his own mind) Jack Roberts.

I’m in better physical condition for kayaking right now than I have been in years, and I have NBC Sports, the racers of the Tour de France, and all the athletes of the XXXth Olympiad to thank for it. Maybe I should also give some credit to my own capacity for indulgence in juvenile fantasy.

You see, for the past six weeks I have immersed myself each day in the coverage of Le Tour, the Olympic trials and the Olympic games themselves, and, especially, the “canoeing” events (it looks like kayaking to me). I have endeavored, in a Walter Mittyish kind of way, to tap into the energy and passion of the athletes and to divert some tiny bit of their fervor into my own kayaking and cycling workouts. At this I have been surprisingly successful. I have out-pedaled Bradley Wiggins and Team Skye over the mountains of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, and I have out- paddled the Swedes and the Bulgarians, beating them to the end of Peck Lake by many boat lengths. More realistically, my kayaking and biking personal best workout times have each come down by many seconds.

And so you ask yourself,” What is this guy talking about, kayaking and cycling workouts? Aren’t kayaking and riding a bicycle things you do for fun?” I never cease to be amazed at how few of us use the combination of paddling (upper body, core, and cardio) and pedaling (lower body and cardio) as a very enjoyable form of cross training. I know a great number of people who spend long hours each week in fetid gyms, sweating on treadmills and stationary bikes and following tedious routines with dumbbells and on machines. They want to be fi t and healthy. They want to live longer. They think they have to endure misery to achieve their goals. They don’t. They should do what I do because they would have more fun and get better results

Here’s what I do. I follow this simple three day program.

DAY ONE. is is the paddling day. In addition to basic paddling gear I carry only water and a stopwatch. (If you are a GPS kind of person that’s OK, but don’t let it become a distraction. Total time is the only datum that counts.) I start each workout at exactly the same spot. I paddle the same timed distance, regardless of wind and tidal flow. I know the splits along the way and where the turn-around point is. I paddle at my best maintainable speed and I do not stop to rest. I drink quickly, at the same spots each workout. A drink is five gulps (just kidding). On the return leg I usually throw in some short sprint intervals; 25 hard strokes, 10 easy. If I’m paddling into a strong wind I will probably leave out the intervals to avoid muscle strain. When I cross the finish line, I stop the clock and hope that my time is a fast one after I have factored in wind and current. And that’s it. It’s a low impact workout and a lot more fun than it sounds. One mile is a good distance to start with, but you will be surprised at how quickly you will want to increase the length of your course. And before you do any of this, get on YouTube and check out “Beginning Kayaking: Proper Paddling Technique”. A lovely lady there will help you develop a good stroke.

DAY TWO. is is the cycling day. The routine is very similar to the kayaking workout; set timed course, best maintainable speed, no rest stops, limited drink stops. I’m no cycling expert, but five to ten miles would seem like a good beginner’s distance. You will add biking distance more quickly than kayaking distance.

DAY THREE. Rest day. And then, of course, back to day one. I hope you will give this routine a try. It will, at the very least, get you out of that nasty gym, and if you stay with it for a while your level of paddling strength and endurance will improve greatly. Let me know how you do, and maybe I’ll see you in Rio.

To reach Jack Roberts, email