We are getting loads of questions about maintaining SUP fitness over the winter months when athletes cannot get out and paddle. Many of the questions involve purchasing an indoor SUP trainer. Although indoor paddle trainers may have their place in your training program (we will get back to this in a minute), maintaining a high level of specific paddle fitness is not likely a goal you should strive for during the winter. In fact, even if you lived here with us in San Diego and you were a professional paddler, we would be telling you to get off the board, stop the intervals, and skip that late season race.
As a general rule, there is no perfect substitute for getting on your board and paddling if you want to build or maintain paddle fitness. Nonetheless, some paddlers are turning to indoor paddle trainers(1) as a substitute when they cannot get outside and paddle. Although we have not personally tested every machine on the market, our feeling on these machines is the same as our feeling about treadmills for runners and bike trainers for cyclists. Although you can get a good workout, the inherent issue with trying to simulate an outdoor endurance sport on an indoor trainer is that the indoor trainers do not exactly simulate the movement you are doing outside. For example, with many indoor SUP trainers you do not engage your core or legs as you would on a paddleboard. As a result, you run the risk of picking up bad habits and learning inappropriate or faulty movement patterns. Ultimately, even though you can get a good workout, you run the risk of doing more damage than good to your paddle stroke.
Whether you ultimately decide to use an indoor SUP trainer or not, here is our 5 step program to getting through the winter and having a great race season next year even if you cannot get out and paddle for months on end.
Step 1: Get your head screwed on straight:
You cannot maintain peak paddle fitness all year round. Nobody can. This is one of the fundamental principles of our periodized training program. If you try to maintain your peak paddle fitness year round you might pull it off for a year or two but you are more likely to burn out and do worse next season than if you were forced to take a break. This is not only our experience coaching hundreds of endurance athletes (including world champions) over the years. It is also the experience of Olympian paddler Larry Cain. As he states in his blog:
“Interestingly, the most successful sprint canoe athletes are from colder climate countries and spend anywhere from 1 to 3 months off the water each year. In this time they do intense training for aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and develop the various types of strength required for paddling at the highest level. They train this dryland fitness a minimum of 10x/week through the winter. “
“In contrast, the paddlers from warmer climates are often tempted to do too much paddling through the winter, and not only miss opportunities to take their fitness to the highest level but often burn out or get stale on the water. Those that were frozen off the water enter the competitive season a little behind on their paddling but way ahead on fitness as well as hungry and excited about returning to the water.”
Step 1 is to do what it takes to convince yourself that not being able to paddle for a few months is not the end of the world. You can make huge fitness gains off of the board.
Step 2: Pick cross training exercises and cross train like you mean it
Whether you are paddling, running, swimming, or biking, your success as an endurance athlete is improving your endurance engine. You can build this engine very effectively by doing aerobic exercise other than SUP or prone paddling. Examples include swimming and riding on a bike trainer which are both done indoors. In many colder climates most athletes find that they can get outside and run even though they cannot paddle. In the coldest climates athletes turn to cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and other winter sports. All of these options have the potential to help you become a better SUP or prone paddler next year.
Step 3: Get in the gym
Winter is a great time to work on your strength training. Come spring you will be able to translate strength gains you make in the gym to your paddling. We encourage you, however, to rethink your strength training if you are stuck in the late 80’s doing the bench press, bicep curl, shoulder press Schwarzenegger routine. Strength training has come a long way since Pumping Iron came out. As we recommend in our book and Jenny Kalmbach highlights in her training tips, focus on training movements rather than muscles or muscle groups. Paddling is a “full body workout”. It requires coordinated, sequential muscle activation to control joint movements and maintain both gross stability and specific joint stability as well as requiring proprioceptive feedback to initiate and control these sequences. Whole body movements that function similarly like kettlebell swings, broad jumps, Turkish get-ups, medicine ball throws, etc. can help improve overall body awareness (proprioception and athleticism), joint and trunk stability, and power generation. That all translates to better energy transfer during a paddling stroke and less chance of injury.
Step 4: Slow and steady wins the race
During the winter months you will be working your way through your Adaptation and Base Building phases of the periodized training year. As a general rule, these are lower intensity phases of the year. If you are out jogging, cross country skiing, or swimming, keep it on the mellow side (Zone 2 or 3) if you can. Save the big intensity and intervals for the spring.
Step 5: If you really want an indoor paddle trainer(1) save it for the spring and limit yourself to twice weekly workouts
We get it. You love paddling and you hate running and biking. We really get it. You did your best and you made it through the winter running around outside or sitting on the bike trainer going nuts. Spring is almost here and your first race is around the corner but you cannot get outside to paddle because it is too dark and/or cold in the morning. You are starting to panic and come unglued.
If that is you, and you have the funds and the initiative, you can consider adding in paddle workouts on an indoor trainer as you get ready for the spring. The only thing we ask is that whenever you are on an indoor trainer you have a plan. Do a set workout of heart rate based intervals and then step away from the machine. Get in. Get out. Get done. The biggest issue we see is athletes who get on an indoor trainer without a plan and just lollygag around creating bad movement patterns and working at too low of an intensity to make their time worth it.
Bottom line: We feel that indoor paddle trainers have their place but an indoor SUP trainer is not an essential training tool for the competitive SUP race athlete. For most paddlers, if they really focus on their cross training and strength training in the winter, they can make significant fitness gains even though they are not out paddling year round.
1. If you are going to put one of these machines on your x-mas list, the Vasa Kayak Ergometer with the Surfset board looks pretty interesting. If you get one, let us know what you think.