Six big reasons to train on a program in the off-season

Off-season or “winter” training is one of the most important elements in preparation for paddle sport racing, whether it’s SUP, surf ski, outrigger, or sprint canoe/kayak.  If you’re a recreational paddler with no intention of racing it is also surprisingly important in ensuring that you have an enjoyable, fulfilling and injury free summer on the water the following year.

The fact is, if you follow a well-planned and periodized program through the non-competitive season it better prepares you to successfully face the challenges of the competitive season.  I’ve seen it over and over again in both sprint canoe/kayak and SUP – those that do the best work in the off-season almost always are the best in the competitive season that follows. Here are a six specific reasons why off-season training works and should be a serious consideration for you.

1. You can’t develop the fitness good paddling requires without it

Paddling is a sport in which fitness plays an absolutely huge role.  This type of fitness takes time to develop. While it’s true that a novice paddler can improve their fitness relatively quickly as soon as they start training, it literally takes years to develop the level of fitness required to become an accomplished paddle athlete.  Even the top pros continue to look to fitness as a way to improve and devoted countless hours to it. 

If you’re on a well-organized training program during the competitive season your fitness will improve during the season, however if you stop training or cut your training back too much in the off-season the gains you made in the summer will be lost over the course of the winter.  You’ll essentially be starting all over again at building your fitness at the beginning of the new competitive season. When this is the case you never really get ahead and can get stuck at the same level, never really improving.  

Even if you just do enough in the off-season to maintain the fitness you developed in the competitive season, you’ll only start the new season where you finished off the last season.  While this at least allows you to improve from year to year, that improvement is slower than it would be if you actually used the off-season properly to improve rather than just maintain your fitness. 

The beauty of paddling is that no matter how good you get, you can always get better.  Engaging in an off-season program to improve all the elements of fitness and strength that you need in paddling is the easiest way to ensure that you improve from year-to-year as a racer.  

If you’re a recreational paddler participating strictly because it is a fun way to improve your health and fitness, you’ll see much greater development in your fitness level if you train through the off-season on a properly planned training program.

2. You can develop aerobic fitness and strength to a higher level when you don’t actually paddle

If you live in a part of the world where the off-season includes ice and snow and prevents you from getting on the water, take solace in the fact that you can actually develop strength and aerobic fitness to a higher level in land-based activities than you can while paddling.  When winter forces you off the water you can actually use that time to make meaningful improvements.

Strength is best developed on land in the gym and, if you’re not paddling dally you can do more quality work in the gym and recover better leading to better strength development.  In a few winter months off the water this usually leads to more dramatic strength gains that those that can be achieved while concurrently paddling. If your off-season training does include paddling, it should include it at a slightly lighter load that allows you to focus on, and your body to adapt to, a more rigorous approach to developing strength.

Similarly, aerobic fitness is best developed on land as well.  Though work done running, cross-country skiing, swimming etc. is not sport specific, the fact that these activities require the use of more muscle mass and greater engagement of larger muscle groups than paddling means they place greater demand on your cardiovascular system.  These greater demands provide the stimulus to develop your aerobic ability to a higher level than you can through paddling alone, so doing more land-based work in the off-season can help you start the new competitive season with a higher level of aerobic fitness. 

If you are lucky enough to be able to paddle through the winter the reduced paddling load typical of a good off-season program allows you a little more time to focus on land-based work and better adapt to the stimulus it provides.  

3. The off-season is a great time to perfect your technique

Paddling is a complex sport from both a physical and technical perspective.  The inventory of physical abilities you need is pretty wide and varied and these take time to develop.  As discussed above, off-season training allows for continuity in the development of the fitness you require for successful paddling and hastens your progress.  Similarly, paddling is incredibly complex from a technical perspective and it takes a long time to develop really effective paddling skills and technique.

What makes paddling technique so complex?  Start with the fact that you’re doing it on the water and therefore have to find connection against something that moves in order to pull yourself past the paddle.  This alone makes paddling much more difficult from a technical perspective than land-based sports like running and cycling. Unlike cycling and rowing, your movement patterns are not dictated by the equipment.  Instead your freedom of movement in paddle sports is unlimited, making it much more difficult to develop the ideal movement patterns.  

Unlike very technical sports like golf or tennis where you only play on one side, paddling (with the exception of sprint canoe) is a bilateral sport in which you need to be proficient on both sides.  Imagine trying to hit a golf ball with a perfect swing from both sides and you start to appreciate how hard paddling is from a technical perspective.  

Finally, in most paddle sports we need to be proficient not just in flat, sheltered, water but also in headwinds, tailwinds and side winds and waves coming from every direction.  Ocean paddling requires proficiency in waves ranging from one foot high to overhead, and then there is the difference between waves generated by swell and those generated by wind.  Reading the water is a skill that can take a lifetime to develop, and then once you can read the water you still have to be able to get your board or boat to go where you want it to go.  Lastly, if you’re doing technical racing you need to be comfortable and proficient in shore break with polished surfing skills. 

Malcolm Gladwell has said that to acquire expertise in something it requires 10,000 hours spent doing it.  While that number is somewhat random and depends on the complexity of the activity you’re trying to master, it is clear that true expertise takes a very long time to develop.  I paddle approximately 500 hours a year from January to December. At that rate it takes 20 years to hit 10,000 hours! If you don’t paddle in the off-season that could stretch out to thirty years or more!  It’s clear that to be a true expert it requires a lifetime of devotion to a sport. Even passable technical proficiency takes a great deal of time to develop which, in terms of years, can be reduced greatly by paddling through the off-season.  

From the perspective of correcting or changing technique, off-season paddling is advantageous as it allows you time to make more dramatic changes or adjustments that in-season training does.  With fewer and less important races in the winter, you can take the time required to overhaul your technique without the pressure of having to be sharp for an upcoming race.  

If you can’t paddle through the off-season due to the climate you find yourself in and lack of access to open water in your area there’s not much you can do about it except make up for the paddling you miss by spending the time developing your fitness to a really high level as discussed in points 1 and 2. 

4. If you train in the off-season when others don’t, you’ll get further ahead

If you are a competitive paddler you’ll be noting the logical result of points 1 though 3 above: if you train through the off-season you get ahead relative to those who don’t.  Of course, the opposite of that is true as well. If others train through the winter and you don’t, then you’ll fall behind. Over and over again in 45 years of paddling, I’ve seen those that train in the off-season catch up to and pass or pull away from those that don’t.  Like so much else in life, if you’re not moving forward you’re actually moving backward as a paddler. Training properly in the off-season keeps you moving forward all year round.

5. Training through the off-season minimizes the risk of injury during the paddling season

Whether you’re a racer or a recreational paddler, the load you’re putting on your body while paddling exposes you to injury, particularly if you paddle a lot.  While it is an extremely beneficial activity from the perspective of overall health and fitness, the repetitive nature of paddling exposes you to overuse injuries in areas like the elbows and shoulders in particular.  The first few months you’re on the water each year is most likely time you’ll develop such an injury. Paddling muscles and connective tissue that have been neglected all winter are suddenly faced with a dramatic increase in load in one activity – paddling – leaving them vulnerable to overuse.  The risk of these overuse injuries becomes greatly diminished if you train all year round as your body is not asked to suddenly and dramatically increase training load.

6. Training of any kind is always easier when you have some goals and a program to hold you accountable.

Training on a regular basis as defined in a training program shouldn’t make what you do seem like all work and no fun.  In fact, it should do the opposite. It should give you enough structure in what you’re doing to enhance your focus and commitment.  It should make you more accountable in your training and less likely to miss workouts and show up to train unsure of what to do. A good program encourages you to set goals and measure your day to day progress, which not only makes what you do more focused but also much more interesting and fun.

Your off-season program

A good off-season program needs to take your goals and objectives into account along with your lifestyle and time available to train and have a workload that matches these accordingly.  You don’t necessarily need to train at the same intensity or frequency as you do during the paddling season. It is possible to engage in a very effective off-season program doing shorter workouts and fewer structured sessions a week.  However, if your aspirations are higher you should do more work. Either way, the work you do should consist of structured sessions that are periodized in a coherent fashion according to a plan. This guarantees the most effective use of your training time and provides optimal results.

At Paddle Monster we’ve run off-season programs successfully for competitive racers for the last 3 off-seasons.  The Novice, Intermediate and Advanced programs we post are customizable to meet the individual needs of paddlers that work with our coaches in our app.  

This year, we plan to extend our offerings to include an off-season program for those who look simply to use paddling as a vehicle to improve their fitness more than to achieve competitive goals. Our coaches will work with these paddlers to integrate the various fitness activities they engage in into a coherent training plan designed to maximize their fitness through the off-season and leaving them optimally prepared for paddling in the Spring.

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