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What to do After your Paddle Workout

You’ve all heard that cooling down after a workout is important.  It helps ensure that muscles are looser between workouts, thus more prepared for the next one.  We also know that muscles are more pliable when they’re warm.  So, the best time to stretch to improve flexibility is after a training session when our muscles are most receptive to our efforts to stretch them.  Your cool down is the ideal time for this.

But beyond that, there’s important things that happen in a cool down at the level of the individual muscle fibers that influence the rate of muscle recovery and preparedness for the next training session. So, let’s take a look at how to cool down, specifically after a workout on the water.  

Work and its effect on your muscles

When you do any strenuous physical activity, it has an impact on your muscles.  There’re always small amounts of damage that occurs in muscle tissue during workouts, especially high intensity ones.  Muscles contract by different filaments sliding past each other making the muscle shorter.  There are little attachments on the thicker filaments, called “cross bridges” that pull the thinner filaments past them, thus shorting the individual contractile units of the muscle, called sarcomeres.  When the thousands of sarcomeres, arranged end on end, all shorten, the muscle contracts. 

When we use our muscles repeatedly for long periods, or for shorter periods at higher intensity, some of the sarcomeres are damaged, frequently when cross bridges are torn or compromised.  This damage is well within our body’s capacity to repair, but it needs both time and nutrients to do it.  

Additionally, when we work at higher intensity that is beyond the capacity of our ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, we end up working anaerobically.  Sustained anaerobic activity beyond 10 to 15 seconds results in the production of lactic acid as a by-product of the production of ATP, the energy currency in our body that is responsible for fueling muscle contraction.  

Lactic acid is a limiting factor in physical activity.  If we work anaerobically for too long, eventually lactate builds to a point where our muscles fail.  Lactic acid is removed from our muscles by the blood and is eventually carried to the liver where approximately 80% of it is recycled and stored as glycogen, which can be used to fuel future production of ATP.  However, this process takes time.

The goal of your cool down

The immediate goal of your cool down should be to help your muscles return to their normal rested state, ready for more activity as quickly as possible.  But, what can you do to help accomplish that?

It all comes down to your blood and the pump that pushes it through your body and, ultimately, to your muscles and liver.  Simply put, cooling down with ten to twenty minutes of very light work at a heart rate that’s low (low level 2 or below), but approximately double your resting HR, helps to clear lactic acid and deliver the needed nutrients to your muscles more quickly than would happen at rest, and this allows your muscles to recover and repair more quickly. 

Beyond that, doing some stretching focused on the muscles you used in your training session is a great opportunity to develop flexibility and reduce the likelihood of stiff, sore, muscles post-workout.  

Your post-water workout cool down

Most of us finish our work on the water a distance from where we launched.  It’s rare than we finish our work just as we hit the beach.  So, what should the paddling we do as we head to shore after completing our work look like?

Well, first and foremost, it should look as good as possible from the perspective of technique.  You want to make sure that the last strokes you take before dismounting your board are as technically excellent as possible.  You work very hard to paddle with awesome technique in the workout, knowing it helps you go faster and hoping that it consolidates a sound “technique blueprint” on your nervous system.  Why on earth would you then want to “write over” that by blueprint by paddling with inferior technique on your way back to shore?  It is extremely important that these post workout strokes be as perfect as possible so that you further consolidate good technique rather than confuse your nervous system with inferior strokes.  

The problem is, most people are tired after finishing their work and find it hard to paddle well.  They tend to forget about technique and just paddle with sloppy strokes in a way that is equivalent to “taking the path of least resistance” back to shore.  So, how can you paddle really well after the workout when you’re exhausted from completing the workout itself?

I’d suggest taking the following approach.  It’s one I have used for decades and it works really well for me.  

  • Complete your workout with optimal technique.  The better you paddle, the more you reinforce superior technique and, of course, the faster you go.
  • As soon as you’ve completed the work, rest.  Take the time you need to gather yourself and summon the strength to paddle well a little longer on your way back to shore.  Sit down on your board for a few minutes or, if the weather isn’t nice and it would be too cold to sit, paddle but make sure that you are paddling so poorly that your nervous system doesn’t equate it to real paddling because it is so different.  This will not confuse your nervous system.
  • Once you have rested, paddle at an easy level 2, or lower, back to shore with the most spectacularly perfect technique possible.  Really try to put it all together – motion, connection and rhythm.  Your nervous system will certainly recognize this as proper paddling and, since the motion is excellent, this will help consolidate superior technique in your motor memory.  

How long should you cool down for?

The length of your cool down is largely dependent on how hard you worked.  Understand that the harder you worked, the more lactate you’ll likely have accumulated.  There’ll be more lactic acid in your muscles and your blood stream that needs to be transported to your liver.  Keeping your HR elevated above resting level for five minutes isn’t going to do nearly as much to remove it as keeping it elevated for twenty minutes will.  

Similarly, the harder you worked, the more likely there is damage at the level of your muscle fibers that requires repair.  Repair requires nutrients and they’re in your blood stream.  Cooling off for twenty minutes will deliver more nutrients, more rapidly, than cooling off for five minutes will.  

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to cool down for longer than the ten minutes or so it might take for you to paddle back to shore from where you finished your workout.  So, should you just stay out on the water and cool down longer?

Cooling down on land

The problem with staying out on the water longer to extend your cool down is that you’re tired.  You’ve just finished a hard workout, remember?  It often requires that you summon all the concentration and energy you have left to paddle well back to shore.  Sometimes, unfortunately, you just can’t do it as well as you’d like to. You’re just that tired.  

The solution, and one that I highly recommend for most people, is to complete your cool down on land as soon as possible after completing your workout on the water.  Ten, fifteen to twenty minutes of low-level cardio done as soon as possible after getting off the water, ensures that your HR is elevated enough, for long enough, to facilitate delivery of nutrients and removal of lactate from your muscles.  Of course, just how long you do this “recovery cardio” work for will depend on how hard you paddled and how much cool down you need.  If you’ve done all out work to the point where you can feel the lactic acid in your muscles, I’d suggest you do closer to twenty minutes rather than ten.  

Doing your cool down on land allows you to get all the benefit that elevated HR offers in terms of accelerated recovery, without the risk of confusing your nervous system and its “technique blueprint” by taking inferior strokes.  

If you’ve done a relatively low-level, easy workout on the water, it’s entirely likely that the only cool down you’ll need is the one you get from paddling back to shore.  However, when your training program intensifies and you’re doing high-level aerobic and anaerobic work, your need for an extended cool down will increase.  

The forgotten component of the cool down – stretching

In all the years I’ve paddled I’ve met an awful lot of paddlers.  I’ve trained with many of them and watched others train.  I can tell you from watching them that post workout stretching is the most forgotten part of training.  I am as guilty of it as anyone.  We, as paddlers, too often tend to skip this part of the cool down.

I get it. You get off the water and you’re tired.  The last thing you feel like doing is more exercise.  It may be raining or cold.  Who feels like doing stretching outside as soon as you get off the water in weather like that?  There’s only so many hours in the day and since you’ve just spent over an hour on the water, you’re usually in a hurry to get somewhere else and get on with your busy day.  You don’t have time to stretch.  You can always do it later, right?   And, if you’ve got to cut corners, it’s better to skip stretching than part of the workout, right?  I mean, it’s the workout that is the important part, right?  There seems to be thousands of reasons you can use to rationalize not stretching.  The “I’ll do it later” one is my favourite.  But later isn’t as good a time to stretch as your muscles have already started to tighten up.  And there’s always something else that comes up later that seems more important.  Too often the stretching just doesn’t get done.  

The reality is, stretching is important.  It’s how we not only develop flexibility, but maintain what flexibility we have.  It’s flexibility that helps us use strength through a full range of motion in any sport movement, our paddling motion included.  It keeps our muscles loose and supple and loose, supple, muscles are more resistant to injury.  

The ideal time to stretch is when our muscles are warm with lots of blood flow, and there’s no time they’re likely to be as warm and ready for effective stretching as when we’ve just finished a workout.  It’s really important to try to take advantage of this opportunity to stretch.  

Unfortunately, all too often we get off the water, put our board on the car, hop in, and drive away.  Then we’re often sitting for much of the day.  Not only have we missed the ideal opportunity and most effective time to stretch, but we’ve allowed our muscles to tighten up as they undergo their post workout repair.   We’re more likely to feel stiff later in the day and stiff the next morning when we’re trying to warm up on the water.  This can actually make it harder to find connection, your best motion, and a good paddling rhythm.  

So, as soon as possible after getting off the water, it’s a really good idea to stretch.  Start with the muscles/muscle groups you used in your workout.  For stand-up paddling, that means we’re pretty much stretching from head to toe.  Spend a little extra time stretching areas where, relatively speaking, you lack flexibility.  Good quality stretches, held for thirty seconds, are what you are looking for.  One set should be fine for most areas except for those that feel really tight or where you need more flexibility.  In most cases, this can all be done in approximately ten minutes.  


Give some thought to your workout, beyond the actual work.  Think about what you’ve just done to your body, and think about your next training session.  What do you need to do to be optimally prepared for that?  It all starts with your cool down.  Try incorporating some of the ideas I’ve shared here.  I’m certain you’ll find they make a difference.  

Happy paddling!


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