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Training for a High-Priority Event Early in the Season Without a Lot of Time to Prepare 

This is a tough time of year for those in colder, northern climates who have had sporadic access to open water through the winter and are preparing to race in a major event (like the Carolina Cup, for example) in late April.  There really isn’t the time required to do all the work necessary to perform at the highest level like there is for events later in the year, yet these races are important and you want to do well.  The good news is, you can do well in these races even with preparation that isn’t ideal.  You have to cut a few corners and go a bit short on your specific base work, but that shouldn’t be a big deal if you’ve done your homework through the entirety of the off-season and are prepared to revisit base work after you’ve done your early season race.  Let’s take a look at what you can do to in the six weeks or so from mid-March to the end of April.

It helps if you’ve done your homework

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to cram for races like it was for some of us for exams in school.  If you know in the fall that you are going to be racing a high priority event early in the season, it should motivate you to make sure you do all your base work in the winter.  

First and foremost, you’ll want to develop your aerobic base.  Non-specific base work is done on land and you should aim to do at least 4 quality sessions lasting at least 45 min each week.  Better still would be a minimum of 5 sessions lasting at least 1 hour, as adaptations at the level of the individual muscle fibers which result in enhanced aerobic performance depend more on the duration of the activity rather than the intensity.  Really serious trainers are going to want to do even more, if possible.  

You’ll also want to use your off-season to do your homework in the gym, sequentially building basic strength, sub-max strength, max strength, power and power endurance.  If possible, you should be doing at least one circuit a week, in which you can address both power endurance and aerobic fitness.  

Of course, if you’re able to paddle a couple of times a week, it helps.  Spending time on the water in the winter helps you maintain your connection, paddling rhythm and technique, as well as maintain a level of specific aerobic fitness.  Any paddling you’re able to do in the winter is likely to make transitioning back to full on-water training in the spring a little easier, however it’s possible to perform at a high level in early season races even if you’ve been completely frozen off the water.  The key is your land-based work.

If you hit the water in the spring with a really sound aerobic base and a high level of power endurance, it not only makes paddling easier right from the start, it also gives you a little leeway to skimp on base work on the water and move more quickly to the higher intensity work necessary for a high-level early-season race performance.  

Spend at least a few weeks on specific base work

Specific aerobic base is sport specific, in this case specific to paddling.  In contrast non-specific or general aerobic base is built through any number of other aerobic training activities typical of off-season training.  

Assuming you’ve built a high level of non-specific aerobic base from all the land-based off-season work you’ve done, you’re still going to need a little time to transfer some of that aerobic ability to the specific task of paddling and build some paddling specific aerobic base.  This is extremely important because this is the foundation upon which your entire paddling season, from March until November (or later) is going to be based.  The problem is, base building work is generally slower and confined to level 2 or low level 3 and, if you’re preparing for an early season race you’ll need to start doing some higher intensity work in advance of your race when, in an ideal world, you should really still be accumulating specific aerobic base.  

You didn’t create the race schedule.  If you did, it’s a near certainty that you’d have given yourself a bit more time to prepare.  Instead, you’re responding to a schedule that somebody else set and are trying to do the best you can to be as well prepared for an early season race (or races) as possible.  Spending two to three weeks on specific aerobic base is necessary, not only for your paddling endurance, but also to prevent injury.  It’s highly advisable, from an injury prevention perspective, to do at least few weeks of lower intensity paddling before starting to pull harder.

Although in an ideal world you’d be able to spend up to 9 weeks on specific aerobic base development, you don’t have the time.  Getting two to three weeks in, on top of a solid foundation of non-specific aerobic base developed in off-season land-based work is going to have to suffice for now.  This should be enough to then build some speed on top of before your early season race.  As long as you return to a more extended cycle of specific base work after your early season race, the remainder of your season and preparation for important races later in the year shouldn’t be compromised.  

Specific aerobic base work is developed through long, steady work at level 2 or low level 3, or long intervals with a high work to rest ratio like, for example, 5 x 10 min with 1 min rest or 3 x 20 min with 1 to 2 min rest.  

Intensify your work 3 to 6 weeks before your race

Once you’ve spent a few weeks working on specific aerobic base, you’ll want to start to intensify your work.  How many weeks you’re going to be able to spend on higher intensity work is going to depend on how much time you have on the water before your race and the nature of the race itself.  

If you’re limited to 6 weeks in total on the water before your race, you’re probably going to only be able to intensify your work for 3 weeks.  If, however, you have a bit more time on the water you can gain a lot by doing up to 6 weeks of higher intensity work.  

The type of higher intensity work is going to depend both on the amount of time you have and the type of race you’re preparing for.  If you’re preparing for a shorter race (5 km or shorter) or a sprint, you’re going to want to do some pretty high intensity work in the limited period of time you have.  The shorter the race, the more top end speed is essential.  So, ideally, you’ll want to fit in at least a few sessions where you’re going all out for 70 seconds or less and taking lots of rest.  This work helps you develop both the neuromuscular abilities you need to sprint and some tolerance to buildup of lactic acid.  If you’re not preparing to race in a very short sprint race, given the compressed time frame you’re dealing with, I’d probably forego any work that is less than 60 to 70 seconds in duration even though this should be part of your preparation for longer races in an ideal world where you have more time.  

If, on the other hand, you’re preparing for a very short sprint, you’re going to want to do a few sessions of intervals lasting 30 seconds or less.  These should be done as close to all out as possible but, since the work is neuromuscular in nature, the rest should be much greater.  I would suggest somewhere in the range or 5 to 10 times the work time.  So, a typical session might look like 8 to 10 times 30 to 70 seconds, starting every 6 minutes.  

It’s important to develop some of this top end speed even if you are racing a long-distance event.  The nature of SUP is such that if you fall behind early in a race, there’s virtually no way you’re going to catch up to someone who is your own speed.  You’ve got to be fast enough to get out on the start with your peers and then fall into a draft train if you want to be competitive.  

Of course, once you’ve established position with your peers off the start, you’re going to want to stay there.  This means you’re going to need the ability to pull hard for extended periods of time of at least 10 min.  Even if you’re in the draft train, you’re going to need to be prepared to lead from time to time, and this requires the ability to do some extended hard pulling repeatedly.  To address the ability to do this, you’re going to have to do some longer high intensity work focused on development of anaerobic threshold and aerobic power.  

So, to compliment your once a week sprint session lasting 70 seconds or less, I’d suggest one workout that involves 2 km or 11 to 15 min repeats and another that involves intervals lasting 2 to 4 minutes in duration.  

Your 2km session should involve three to four repeats.  I’d suggest two be done as fast as you can cover the distance.  This is going to help you build your anaerobic threshold and aerobic power, provide you with a sense of pacing, and help you develop the ability to travel for a sustained period of higher intensity after the start.  You’ll notice that the pace in races in always most aggressive for the opening 10 to 15 minutes, before things start to settle down a bit.  This aggressive pace allows the leaders to gain some separation from the rest of the field that will be extremely hard for the group behind to make up.  Once that comfortable separation has been gained, things generally settle down a bit and things get a little cagey with paddlers getting more tactical by drafting, leading slow, etc.  You’ll want to establish position with a group of your peers, if possible, so the ability to pull hard for 10 to 15 minutes is important. 

Doing four all out 2 km pieces is hard at the best of times, let alone early in the season with a minimal amount of time on the water.  So, I would recommend that 2 of the sessions be at level 3, with the focus on pacing as evenly as possible.  I’d suggest that the rest after the harder pieces be 8 minutes and after the level 3 pieces be 3 to 4 minutes.  This amount of rest should allow the high intensity pieces to be done really aggressively, yet help you prepare to recover quickly so, in a race you can go hard for 10 to 15 minutes, rest on a wash for 5 to 10 minutes and then be prepared to go hard again.  In doing these extended pieces, you’ll be traveling at the maximal pace that you can do aerobically, which is the pace we call our anaerobic threshold pace.  Over time, this type of work increases your anaerobic threshold, allowing you to go harder and faster for extended periods and still paddle aerobically.   

Your shorter session of pieces lasting 2 to 4 minutes in duration should be done at a higher intensity.  Rest should be incomplete, so there is going to be a little lactate buildup, but the real training effect here should be on something we can aerobic power or VO2 max.  This work helps you build the ability to paddle extremely hard for extended periods of time and, if done regularly, will help you paddle at a more aggressive pace in the 2 km workout described above.  You’ll be going basically at max pace for the prescribed interval, hitting and sustaining max heart rate.  This work helps your body develop the ability to maximize its use of oxygen in production of the energy that drives muscle contraction.  At the same time, you’ll be producing a good deal of lactic acid as, if you’re paddling at your aerobic maximum, you’ll likely be working at least a little anaerobically as well.  So, as an added benefit you’ll be developing the ability to work with a high blood lactate.  All of this provides you with the ability to lay down extremely aggressive stretches in a race for extended periods of 2 to 4 minutes without crashing.  Furthermore, if, over time, you can develop the ability to paddle these pieces faster, it will also result in your aerobic traveling pace being faster as well.  

I’d suggest a workout that looks something like this:  2 x 4 min, 2 x 3 min, 2 x 2 min, all at level 5 and all with 2 min rest.  You’ll want to pace this workout a little so you can get through it, but don’t be too conservative.  The idea is to be really aggressive in this type of work.  One of the most important things about returning to the water in the spring is developing sound movement patterns that will be the basis of your technique for the coming season.  With your race rapidly approaching, you’ll understandably want to be focused on the work that we’ve described above, but it is imperative that you don’t lose focus on technique as you do it.  

The easiest way to establish sound movement patterns is to think about your technique on land, both through land drills and visualization.  I’ve written extensively about land drills, their value, and drills you can do for each part of the stroke.  Doing these land drills regularly makes it a lot easier to correct stroke positions on the water, and the earlier in the season and more consistently you can do that, the sooner you’ll be able to consolidate sound technique that will carry you through the season.  

Visualizing what you want to achieve from the perspective of technique before each session makes it more likely that you’ll be able to paddle the way you want to right from the beginning of each session, rather than searching for the stroke you want for a good part of the workout.  

It should be relatively easy to establish good movement patterns when you’re working at lower intensity on specific aerobic base.  If you feel like your technique is starting to unravel during longer intervals or steady paddles, just stop briefly for 15 to 20 seconds and refocus, then start again.  You’ll find that brief rest and refocus really helps you re-establish effective movement and, because the “rest” you’re taking is so brief and the work is relatively low intensity, you’ll find your heart rate really doesn’t drop too much.  These brief stops, if needed, don’t compromise your development of specific aerobic base yet are essential for maintaining optimal technique.  As you get a little more time on the water under your belt, you’ll likely find the need to stop periodically become a rarer event.  

The tricky part when it comes to technique is when you intensify your work and start to go fast.  For anyone trying to learn to paddle faster, the process is a little like walking on a tightrope.  On one side of the tightrope is technique and the need to paddle “in control” to maintain sound movement patterns in order to consolidate effective technique and minimize the risk of developing bad habits.  On the other side, is the need to paddle faster.  Always being “in control” of your movements limits your ability to learn to move your body more quickly, so you’ll want to spend some time on the other side of the tightrope pushing the pace, even if it means feeling slightly out of control.  

So, let’s take a look at our faster workouts again and use the 8 x 70 seconds all out session as an example.  You want to use this workout to teach your body to paddle faster.  That’s going to require faster, more dynamic movements and a higher stroke rate.  Yet you don’t want to lose your connection and spin your wheels.  This is just going to make you slower and develop bad habits.  

Remember the tightrope analogy.  When learning to paddle faster, you want to tread the fine line between being in control and moving a little more conservatively and being out of control but moving more quickly and dynamically.  The only way to do this is to work on both sides of the line.  You obviously can’t do this in the same piece so, what I recommend is taking one piece and paddling it a bit more on the side of control, then doing the next piece and doing it a bit more on the side of faster and slightly out of control.  Alternate back and forth on either side of the line from piece to piece.  Just make sure that your last piece is a little more in control rather than out of control.  Then make sure you paddle with really good technique in your cool down so that the last 10 minutes of strokes you take are of really high technical quality.  

Using this approach, over a period of a few weeks your ability to paddle well with a faster stroke rate will improve dramatically.  Back in my canoe days we used to do a similar workout that was 10 x 1 min, all out, with 4 min rest done back and forth on a 250m course.  The first time I’d do it each April I’d be doing 48 strokes/min in each piece which is ridiculously slow.  However, the quality and connection of each stroke was excellent.  The next week, I’d typically do it at 54 to 56 strokes/min, still slow, but faster than the week before.  Within a few weeks I could do this workout paddling really well with great connection at 65 strokes/min.  When we went to Europe in mid-May for World Cup races, I’d struggle a little in the first race, be a lot stronger and battling for a podium spot in the second race a week later and, finally, in the third race a week after that, I’d win.  Similar to what was happening in the 10 x 1 min workout, I was gradually establishing the ability to paddle faster with optimal technique and connection in the races.  

Use your intense training sessions to help establish an optimal pre-race warm up

A good warm up on race day is essential.  If you’re going to go really hard right from stroke one and establish good position in a pack with your peers, you’re going to need to be well warmed up to do it.  It is really difficult to paddle that hard without being physically ready for it.  Eliminate from your mind any notion that you can “warm up during the first few minutes of the race”.  

Since you’re going to be doing some really intense work in your training, warm up thoroughly for these workouts, trying different things from workout to workout until you find a warm up that prepares you the best.  Not only will these warm ups allow you to do the workout with higher quality, they’ll help you learn what warm up is best for you before an optimal effort.  That is the warm up you’ll want to use on race day.

Build recovery into your training

A huge part of proper training is the cycling of work through periods of progressive overload and recovery.  My suggestion is that you take whatever amount of time you have to prepare for your race and break it into three-week chunks.  Two of those weeks should be “hard” or “loading” weeks and the third should be an “easy”, “recovery” or “unloading” week.  In my opinion, this is pretty standard procedure in training regardless of what you’re preparing for or how much time you have to prepare.  Perhaps you can extend the work into cycles of three hard weeks and one easier, but the fact remains, properly periodized work involves cycling of training into hard weeks of progressive loading followed by an easier week to allow muscles, connective tissue and the nervous system a chance to recover and provide time for consolidation of gains made to date.  This training structure minimizes the risk of overtraining and enables you to maximize the quality of the training in the most important workouts where the greatest gains are stimulated.  

So, if we look at 9 weeks of preparation, for example, I’d suggest 3 weeks focusing on development of specific aerobic base – two progressively harder and one recovery.  Then I would transition into more intense work, with a 3-week cycle focused more on level 4 work and anaerobic threshold and adaptation to sprinting.  Two of these 3 weeks would see progressive loading and the third would be recovery.  Finally, I’d do a 3-week cycle of even higher intensity work with level 5 work focusing on anaerobic threshold, aerobic power, neuromuscular speed and lactate tolerance.  Again, this would see a two-week period of progressive loading and an easy week of “peaking” leading into the race.  

A 6-week buildup into the race might eliminate the middle three-week cycle described above.  In this case it is even more important to carefully work the tightrope between control and trying to paddle faster when doing the most intense work.  

Race aggressively

When it comes to race day, there’s no point in being overly cautious.  Races are meant to be hard and you’re not going to achieve personal bests or podium finishes without really going for it.  While you may not have had the benefit of time in preparing for this early season race and your preparation may therefore not be as thorough as you might like, you’re better off going for it and hitting the wall somewhere on the course than pacing yourself too cautiously. 

For starters, if you’ve done all your off-season, land-based, homework and done a solid 6 to 9 week on-water block leading into the race, you should have the ability to start aggressively and finish strong without dying.  While your effort is unlikely to be as strong as it will be later in the year with more on-water training behind you, it can still be really solid and lead to a good result.  If you aren’t aggressive, it’s a certainty that you won’t put forth a high-quality race.  While you may not run the risk of dying on the race course, you won’t ever be racing at your limit.  

There’s nothing worse than not racing at your limit.  It leaves you uncertain of where you stand and what you are capable of.  It leaves you with no ability to assess the quality and effectiveness of the work you’ve done.  It deprives you of important opportunities to learn.  One of the most important things I’ve learned in more than 40 years of high-level racing in paddle sports is that it is far better to go for it, crash, and burn, than it is to be cautious and never really push your limits.  

Whatever happens on the race course, if you’re aggressive, you’ll find there is lots to learn from when it’s over.  You might surprise yourself and have a personal best performance, or you might struggle and find it feels slow and tough.  Remember, the schedule somebody else determined left you with inadequate time to fully prepare.  The fact that you’re not as ready as you’d like to be isn’t your fault if you did everything possible with the time you had.  In a sense, there is nothing to lose in early season races in this situation.  You can race free of expectations and pressure and just go out and give it, trying to simply do the best you can.  I have never been disappointed with my performance doing this.  I may not have been as fast in a big early season race like Carolina as I’ve been later in the year, but I certainly have found reason to be satisfied with my performance by following this approach.  


Once your big early season event or events are over, you need to start to prepare for the rest of the season.  You should have ample time between your big early season race and the other important races later in the year.  This provides you with time to address some of the things you may have had to shortchange while preparing to race early in the year.  

The first thing you’ll want to do is map out the time until your next major event and start a new block of training leading towards it.  You may have other smaller races leading into your next major event, but these should be viewed as part of your preparation rather than end goals of their own.  Start your block with a return to work focused on development of specific aerobic base.  Hopefully, you’ve got more time to properly address specific aerobic base from this point forward.  Six to nine weeks would be ideal.  Then you can intensify six to nine weeks before your next big race day. 

The training you’ll want to do over this long block that might last most of the summer should look much like the training described above that you just completed for your early season event.  The major difference is time.  Things won’t need to be so compressed.  You should have far more time to address your base and then each component of higher-level preparation described above.  


Training for major events is fun, much more so than just training for training’s sake.  It involves critical thinking while you plan and then a lot of goal chasing as your abilities develop week to week and you strive to do your workouts better than you did the week before.  

Training for major events when you don’t have the optimal amount of time to prepare for them can be equally fun.  It’s like you’ve given yourself a bit of an extra challenge and that can make it really rewarding.  Remember, you should feel no pressure, which can make the training even more fun and enjoyable.  Approach the process with confidence and enthusiasm, and believe in yourself.  This will ensure the process is fun and will, in the end, lead to a much better result.  

Please feel free to ask questions or seek guidance in the comments below and happy paddling!



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