Endurance Training

Fit to Paddle

The Paddler’s Guide to Strength and Conditioning by Rocky Snyder

Just keep going. Everybody gets better if they keep at it.

Ted Williams

A paddler requires not only strength for strong paddling skills but also the muscular endurance to maintain stamina for an entire session. Strength training conditions the body to be strong but it is essential to include endurance training to focus on stamina. When creating an effective endurance program there are four elements that must be addressed. Just by increasing one of these elements will increase the demand placed on the body. They are as follows:

  • Frequency – The number of times the exercise is performed in a length of time (days/week).
  • Duration – The length of time it takes to perform the exercise.
  • Intensity – The desired effort level performed during the exercise.
  • Type – The choice of exercise performed in a workout.


The following describe cardiovascular exercises that are either sport-specific to paddling or can be performed as cross-training exercises.


It may sound obvious, but to become a stronger paddling machine a person needs to paddle! A basketball player shoots baskets. A marathon runner runs. There is an element known as the overload principle. The overload principle refers to the method of exhausting muscles to such an extent that physiological adaptations occur with the involved muscles, making them stronger and/or more durable. An example would be if a person paddled for the very first time and became quickly exhausted. Sooner or later that individual would grow stronger because their muscles were taxed to a point of muscular fatigue.

There are many conditioning drills for paddlers. Regardless of which drills are chosen be sure to maintain proper posture while paddling. Improper posture can force the body to compensate. This compensation will place more stress in areas that may not be used to such levels of stress. This stress can increase the chance of injury; so be careful to maintain proper paddling form at all times!

In the next few pages several drills will be described. Some of these drills involve more than one boat. So rally the troops for a workout on the water. The drills can be a good deal of hard work but also a lot of fun.

Resistance Paddling

Purchase a plastic bucket with a sturdy handle or use a large coffee can. Drill holes in the bucket/can until it looks like Swiss cheese. The more holes you drill the less resistance you will have. The bucket/can can be dragged behind you for added resistance when paddling.

Paddling Upstream

Runners perform a drill called “hill repeats”. The runner sprints up a long hill and walks back down. This drill is repeated for several sets. The same type of drill can be performed on a river. Find a swift stretch of water and begin to paddle upstream. Choose a distance of fifty to two hundred meters. Once the distance has been covered simply turn around and head back to the starting point. Once at the starting point repeat the drill. Try five to ten sets.

Interval Paddling

Warm up by paddling at a comfortable pace for at least five minutes. After the warm up is completed break into a fast hard sprint. After a pre-determined time or distance is covered, revert back to the comfortable paddling pace until you feel recovered or until the heart rate drops below the target zone. Repeat this five to fifteen times. A good distance for intervals would be between fifty to one hundred meters. A good time for intervals would be between fifteen seconds to one minute.

Partner Paddling

If you have a paddling friend take turns towing each other by holding on to a towing line. To determine when to change places you can do it in a number of ways:

  • Count the number of strokes and switch when you get to a pre-determined amount.
  • Wear a watch and establish an interval time of one to five minutes.
  • Choose a distance to cover of fifty to two hundred meters before switching places.


Drafting Paddle

For this drill, choose a distance such as one kilometer, or a half kilometer. When beginning this program it may be good to start with a light distance and as you become more conditioned increase the distance. Have the group paddle with one boat behind the other in a straight line. The lead boat begins to paddle hard with the rest close behind. The last boat in line has to break away from the line and overtake the leader. As soon as the last boat takes the lead position the next boat in the back must battle hard to take the lead. The drill resembles how geese fly south for the winter. The exercise should continue until the desired distance is covered or until every boat has been in the lead.

Tug o’ War

With both boats facing opposite directions, connect a rope to the stern of both boats. A handkerchief should be tied to the rope at a point equidistant from the two boats. Have two floatation devices positioned ten feet apart, each five feet from the handkerchief. Have someone blow a whistle to begin the tug o’ war. When the handkerchief crosses one of the floatation devices the battle is over.

Back Paddling

Paddling backwards incorporates many of the opposing muscle groups of forward paddling. So much time is spent training the forward paddling movements that the opposite muscles get neglected. As previously mentioned, a body that has a balance of muscle tension is very efficient at any activity. Therefore, try back paddling for an endurance routine.

Paddle Relays

Break the group up into four subgroups (A, B, C, and D). Have boats from A and B at the starting line and boats from C and D positioned fifty to a hundred yards away. Blow a whistle to start the relay. Boat from A and B paddle as hard as they can to reach and tag a boat from group C and D. Once tagged, boats from C and D paddle as hard as they can to tag boats in groups A and B. This relay should continue until the last boat finishes. For added incentive, have the winning team choose a fitting punishment for the losing team (i.e. load the boats and gear back on the trailer, buy dinner, etc.)

Land Paddle with Resistance Bands

During the dead of winter or when the weather is bad and turning the water into nothing but chop but you still want to do a paddle workout, go to a sporting goods store and purchase a rubber resistance band (preferably one with handles). Secure the middle of the band to an immovable object a few feet off the ground. Hold on to both ends of the resistance band and kneel or sit on a flat padded bench and mimic the motions of paddling. The further away the bench is placed the more resistance is applied. Be sure to check for wear and tear in the band. Replace it if any tear or abrasion occurs.

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is a great full body workout and a terrific cross-training exercise. Be sure to have good seated posture at all times. Use the legs as much as possible; they are your biggest muscles. Exhale when pulling the handle inward. There are different attachments that can be added to an indoor rowing machine. Some attachments will convert the machine into a kayak or canoe simulator.

Suicide Drills

Set up five cones on the beach in a straight line, ten meters apart, so the total distance is forty meters. Sprint from the first cone to the second and back to the first. Then sprint to the third cone and back to the first without stopping. Then to the fourth cone and back to the first. Then finally to the fifth cone and finish back at the first. Allow two minutes recovery time before beginning the next set. Perform three to four sets. The same drill can be performed paddling on the water using floatation devices spaced ten to twenty meters apart.

Water Sprints

In knee high water sprint twenty to forty meters. Allow one to two minutes recovery time before beginning the next set. Make certain that the running surface is level and free of rocks and reef for safety reasons. A pool is the best place. This drill can also be done on soft sand or set up as a relay to keep things interesting.


Swimming is a great cross-training exercise and if your craft capsizes, swimming may become very important! It may be a good idea to take a few lessons at your local swim center if you are unfamiliar with proper form.

Underwater Swimming

Kayakers need to be able to hold their breath underwater for prolonged periods of time. It is important to train the lungs and the mind to be able to stay underwater, without panicking. Wear a watch to help keep track of time when performing underwater swims. Start with intervals of fifteen to thirty seconds and slowly add more time with each workout. Be sure to do this close to shore or in a pool for safety reasons.

Walking & Running

Whether you walk or run it does not matter, you will reach the same destination eventually. It just might take more time if you walk. They are both good choices. Whichever you choose, be sure to be as tall as possible. Keep the head over the shoulders; chest up and hips tucked under. Be sure the arms swing freely forward and backward and that the feet are pointing straight ahead.

Stair Climbing

Cross training with health club stair climbing machines can be a good workout. But if there is a long flight of stairs in the neighborhood, hopefully wooden stairs, then try going up and down those for an endurance workout. When climbing make sure the form is the same as when running or walking…stay tall. Be sure to walk slowly on the way down to allow your body and heart rate to recover.

Drafting Runs and Cycling

If you run or cycle in a group the same drafting technique described above can be used. Form a straight line. The last person must overtake the leader. This should continue until the desired time or distance is reached or until everyone has been in the lead. For safety purposes choose a route with little or no traffic. It may be a good idea to run on a track or cycle in a park or forest.

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