The most important thing to do to experience a successful spring is train hard in the off-season

I feel incredibly old saying this, but I’m nearing the end of my 45th paddling season.  That means I’ve seen 44 “off-seasons”, where the focus isn’t on racing but instead on training for the season ahead. I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve seen it demonstrated time and time again in others: the off-season is absolutely critical to success in the next competitive season. 

Growing up in a part of the world with cold winters and doing a paddle sport that could only be done on flat water which usually freezes in December, I lived in an environment where many dialed down their training once it got cold and they could no longer paddle.  When I was a kid just setting out in pursuit of my dream to one day stand atop the Olympic podium even members of the National Team frequently backed off from training to a large degree.  At an early age I realized that if I did more work than they did in the off-season I could catch up to them and maybe pass them.   I’m convinced that is a big part of the reason that I was able to go from 3rd in Canada in under-16 C1 500m at a 15-year-old in 1978 to the fastest in all of Canada at 17 years old, beating everyone on the National Team in both C1 500m and 1000m by the end of the 1980 season. 

Logging as much quality distance on the water from the end of the racing season in August till freeze up in early December was critical.  Following that up with a tremendously intense winter of land-based work in the gym doing strength, on the road and trails running, in the pool swimming and occasionally cross-country skiing left me in absolutely phenomenal shape each March when I got back on the water.  I did more work, and specifically more quality work, in that 7-month period from September to March than anyone else in the country at the time.  I’d return to the water far ahead of where I had been at the end of the last competitive season and I’d find myself faster in the spring than those that were faster than me at the end of the previous summer.

A cynic might point out that I was doing this between the ages of 15 and 17 and that the dramatic improvement I experienced in those 7 months is entirely explainable by the physical growth going on at that age. 

Well, consider if you will, 1986.  I was already a double Junior World Champion, an Olympic Champion, a finalist at every world championship I’d ever competed in, a winner of numerous world cup races, and an adult at 23 years of age.  My 1986 world championships were a disaster.  I came 7th and was well off the pace in C1 1000m, finishing with a time in a strong tailwind of 4:10 to the winner’s 3:55.   

This performance left me devasted, but I got home from the worlds, regrouped and realized I had to step things up a level if I was going to perform the way I wanted to the following season.  I stepped up my fall training on the water, logging more quality distance than ever, and did more and better winter training than I ever thought imaginable.  I arrived in Florida at the training camp in March and the transformation was amazing.  I was far ahead of where I had ever been that early in the season.  I had an excellent spring training on the water, doing work I wouldn’t have been capable of without such a thorough fall and winter of hard work, and in mid-May found myself in Moscow on the start line of a world cup event in C1 1000m.  In conditions quite similar to those at the 1986 World Championships I had a great race, leading from the first stroke to the second to last, losing to the Soviet paddler by just a foot on the boat shoot.    My time was 3:56. In less than 9 full months I had improved by 14 seconds and beaten all but one of the athletes that had beaten me the previous August.  This would never have happened without the strong, thorough, fall and winter effort I’d made. 

I’ve seen it happen time and time again with other athletes in canoe-kayak.  An athlete simply comes to the realization that they have to do more, and do it cleverly, through the off-season if they want to get where they’d like to be in the next competitive season.  Almost without fail they are rewarded with dramatically improved performance, and though that may not result in them standing atop the podium at the highest level, it does result in considerably improved competitive results.  To a person they will tell you that all the hard, off-season, work is well worth the effort. 

If you’re a sports fan you’ve seen it many times before.  A professional athlete comes off a poor season or an injury, puts in an incredible amount of work in the off-season and comes back the next year as a force to be reckoned with, totally revitalized and often dominant.  Whether it is canoe-kayak, SUP or any other sport the correlation between a really solid off-season of training and performance the following season is clear.  Success doesn’t happen by accident.  It’s the result of a lot of hard work. 

So, what do these athletes all have in common?  What do they all do that makes such a difference?

  • They decide they want to be better at what they do. 
  • They understand that improvement isn’t accidental; it’s the result of hard work
  • They recognize the off-season as an opportunity to put the work in to catch up to and pass their rivals and that the long months without meaningful events in the off-season gives them time to dramatically improve their level of performance
  • They make a commitment to do the work necessary to achieve the desired level of improvement
  • They make a training plan, usually in coordination with a knowledgeable coach and properly periodized, that allows them to optimize the time and effort they put into their work
  • They make a commitment to quality in everything they do and take a “no stones left unturned” approach to their training, exploring with their coach all the little things they can do that add up to big differences in performance
  • They work relentlessly, realizing that consistency is key

So where does that leave you?

The commitment required in off-season training is relative to your goals.  Most of us aren’t training to be the best in the world, yet we still have some lofty goals for the next competitive season.  Foremost in achieving those goals is the understanding that you’ll most likely need to step it to get there.  However, that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to become a professional or put everything else in life aside so that you can train. 

Larry Cain

The key is matching the work required to the goal and finding a way to do that work within the restrictions imposed upon you by real life.  That is where a good coach comes in who can work with you to set you a program which is more than you may have done before, but is entirely realistic and challenging, yet enjoyable and satisfying for you to complete.  If you’re someone who always trains hard, your  coach might address some specific needs you may have by changing up the program and some of the work you’re doing. 

It’s important to realize that if you want to do better next spring and summer, it’s not going to happen if you go into hibernation over the winter.  Dialing things back and waiting for spring to start training again won’t work.  There are enough people out there who will be motivated to train all winter that you’ll find yourself at the back of the pack behind them in the spring.  Paddlers you’re faster than now, who train hard through the fall and winter when you decide to back off, are going to come out ahead of you in the spring.  It’s just the way it works. 

So, if you’re looking ahead to races next year and want to move up the ranks in the races you’ll do, or if you want to cover a specific distance faster next year than you did this year the time to do something about it is now.  This is your chance to put the work in while others may not. It’s your chance to build the foundation that superior performances next spring can be built on.   If you don’t act now you’ll miss your chance and spring will be here before you know it.

The coaches at Paddle Monster are here to help.  They get it and, in fact, they live it every single off-season.  They’re ready to help you make the most of your off-season so that you can get the most out of your next spring and summer.

Training works!


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