Fit to Paddle

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

Today people of all ages are discovering the freedom and fun that can be had on the water. However, in today’s world of time saving and labor saving devices we as a society have become less active on a day-to-day basis. This sedentary existence combined with infrequent bouts of activity can lead to what has been coined the “Weekend Warrior Syndrome”: People that experience injuries because they are not very active during the week yet they play hard on the weekend. The common injury sites for paddlers are the neck, shoulders, elbows, and lower back. Therefore, there is a need for a conditioning program for paddlers to increase strength, endurance, and flexibility, while reducing the risk of injury.

Certainly if one looks hard enough he or she can find articles in some canoeing or kayaking magazines that feature an exercise or stretch for the water enthusiast. Yet there is very little information on complete conditioning programs for any paddle sport. This guidebook will not tell a person: where the best rivers and lakes are, how to paddle, how to shoot the rapids, what to do when the boat capsizes or any of the other ABC’s of rafting, canoeing, or kayaking.  What this book will do is give the readers the tools needed to be better conditioned for the activities they so enjoy. I have been a personal fitness trainer in Santa Cruz since 1992. In that time I have trained several competitive and recreational kayakers, rafters, canoeists, and outrigger canoeists. When asked why these athletes trained with me the primary reason they gave was that the conditioning programs I designed were specific to their sport.

Unfortunately, sport-specific training is an area where many health clubs fall short. When someone becomes a member of a gym they are usually given an exercise program to follow by a staff member. The typical program is a general conditioning routine designed for overall fitness and resembles a bodybuilder’s workout. Unless the member has certain medical issues most exercise programs will be almost identical regardless of the individual’s need. This is not to say that these generic programs are bad but they could be better designed to meet the specific goals of the individual. Fit To Paddle is a comprehensive, sport-specific approach to conditioning. It is designed to fight the “Weekend Warrior Syndrome” in a safe and effective manner. The program can be performed by anyone regardless of gender, age, or fitness level. You do not have to be a member of a health club for this program to be effective. Many of the exercises can be performed at home or on the water.

I was eleven years old when I first sat in a canoe. Boy Scout Troop 705 was spending a weekend on the Saco River in the state of Maine. My dad, determined to share in my childhood adventures, became my partner. Little did I realize back then that this canoe would be the vehicle in which my father and I would truly discover each other. We talked about friendship, broken hearts and our first crush, the Boston Celtics and the New England Patriots, school, and what it means to really be a man.

The sandy-bottom Saco River crept along for miles but to me it felt like we were flying. As we paddled downstream the troop leaders instructed us on proper paddling techniques, water safety procedures, and how to read the river. On the second day we encountered our first and only set of rapids. It was a fifty-foot stretch of class II white water but to this eleven-year old it was the Snake River! After that weekend I was addicted to the exciting world of white water canoeing. My father got us a fifteen-foot orange canoe and we used it every chance we got.

Over the course of the next few years dad and I tackled some of the fiercest rivers in New England. Rivers with tongue-twisting names like the Pemigawasett, Androscoggin, Contoocook, and the Penobscot were where we honed our white water skills. In the early spring, as soon as the ice broke off the river’s edge, we would be on the water. During the summer months we took extended voyages on the rivers that rush through the Canadian and Northern Maine wilderness. When autumn set in we would pray for rain to bring the water levels back up before ice once again formed on the banks. In the bitter winters of New England we discovered, to our delight, what an excellent sled the canoe made. Unfortunately, steering left much to be desired and we resembled an orange bobsled of destruction careening through the forest.

I was fourteen years old when my dad bought a new toy: a kayak! Naturally, like any other fourteen year old, I was at the stage where I was trying to gain some semblance of independence. Perhaps he knew this and that’s why he got the kayak. I think he used it for only a handful of times before I considered it mine. By today’s standards that kayak turned like an aircraft carrier on a sea of maple syrup but back then it was lightning on water. Unfortunately, one day we awoke to find that someone had stolen it from our backyard. I sure do miss that kayak, but I am grateful that it got the two of us back in the canoe for another year. My dad’s health started to diminish and our days as a team would soon come to an end. Perhaps because of losing my canoe partner I became a fan of white water rafting. Throughout the college years I would take friends rafting down the rivers of western Massachusetts and southern Vermont.

After I finished college in the east I moved to Santa Cruz, California. Within a short time I was hired at a local health club and began my career as a personal fitness trainer. The thrill of tackling white water has transformed into a passion for surfing but I still maintain a strong connection to the former venue. I participate in outrigger canoe races, tour the Monterey Bay in an ocean kayak and go on excursions to the rushing rivers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Yet, whenever I reminisce of all those times spent cascading through the white waters in all sorts of watercraft, the moments I cherish the most are when the river was calm and a father and his son could learn about each other in a beat up old orange canoe.

The following chapters will: provide information on how to create a personalized paddler’s conditioning routine, describe exercises and stretches, and give the reader sample conditioning programs.

There are a few rules that everyone needs to follow:

  • Before beginning any new exercise program it is strongly recommended that the participant consult their primary care provider.
  • Execute proper form during all exercises and stretches. If the form is incorrect it means different muscles are compensating. The more compensation occurs, the higher the potential for injury.
  • If you experience dizziness, discomfort, or pain stop immediately.
  • The final rule is to have fun!

Rocky Snyder

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