Why the Off-Season is still ON for Training

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by Paddle Monster Paddle Strength Coach, Chris Chapman

Race season has come to an end. The weather is turning for some of you and forcing you off of the water, while others change focus away from paddling as next season is in the distant horizon. Historically, the off-season was a time to give in to the cold and frozen waterways; rest, relax and not do much in the way of training. However, in today’s sporting world, regardless of the event, the best athletes are training year round. While some of you can still paddle, and others even brave the icy waters, for the rest of us it is time to move indoors. The off-season allows us change the focus of training in order to build strength and power qualities for the upcoming season.

In the classic model of ‘Off-season’, no structured training was ever completed. Here in Canada we see a perfect, albeit reverse example in the sport of Ice Hockey. Historically when winter ends and spring turns to summer, the lakes thaw and rinks would take out their ice. Since no hockey could be played, player would trade their sticks for a bag of golf clubs. Summertime was spent on the greens or at the cottage soaking up the sun. The problem with this type of model is that the de-training of physical and physiological qualities, especially those associated with strength, happens rather quickly.

After 1 week after stopping training, most strength qualities will maintain or even increase as fatigue from training subsides. However after 2 weeks of training cessation strength decreases by about 2% and muscle activation can decrease up to 13% (Hortobagyi et Al., 2000). From 2 to 4 weeks strength losses jump up to 6% and peak force production (think of the catch of your stroke) decreases up to 8%. After 6 weeks these values jump up to 12% (Mujika and Padilla, 2000), and the rest is downhill from here.

The other side of the coin is that anybody who races in paddle sports does on-water paddle training. While this statement seems blatantly obvious, it also makes you realize everyone else you are competing against is generally doing the same thing as you. If everyone is doing the work on water, how are you going to be better than them? One way to set yourself apart is by taking care of the details off-water. While this can include such things as nutrition and recovery, two of the biggest impact factors you can add in are cross-training and gym-based strength and power training.

Depending on your environmental constraints, two sports great for cross-training are swimming and cross-country skiing. While rather different in mode, both have similar stroke profiles to paddling which creates a transfer of training, and both are low impact which means you can do a lot of training with minimal sustained loading on the body. By changing the mode of training you give your body a break from the monotony of doing the same movement pattern over and over, helping to mitigate overuse injury. By changing the mode you also give yourself a psychological break, creating a new challenge and point of focus. One of the benefits of this is as the off-season moves along, you start to miss paddling and get a renewed excitement for getting back on the water. This is massive in avoiding burnout which zaps the fun from paddling. Lastly, given your primary sporting focus is paddling, you don’t have to worry as much about focussing on or losing technique when cross-training, so you can use these other modes of endurance training as pure engine-builders. Your on-water coaches will take care of your off-season endurance training, so definitely reach out to them for any further questions on cross-training.

Members of the Canadian National Canoe/Kayak team finishing a cross-country ski race at the end of a cross-training camp.

Turning towards my area of expertise which is gym-based preparation, as an endurance sport paddling has some of the highest forces produced for single propulsion cycle (e.g., one stroke). This means muscle qualities like strength and power play an even greater role in driving performance over other endurance sports such as running or cycling. One of the problems that arises is these qualities are much more difficult to build on water due to the nature of the paddle stroke. While strength can be enhanced by creating drag with resistors and power can be improved with explosive paddling drills, we are limited in how slow and fast we can move in order to enhance these qualities to increase performance. The weight room and related equipment are much better tool for this. It gives us a more general way to improve strength and power far beyond what can be done on water, as we aren’t limited by the physics of the paddle in water. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do the on-water specific training. It is necessary in order to fully realize the gains made and create transfer and truly maximize paddling performance. If you aren’t spending time in the gym, you are missing out on a critical piece that can set you apart from the competition.

Enter the ‘Strength Reserve Model of Endurance’

There is a myth that has perpetuated among endurance athletes that strength training will hurt performance. Athletes are typically worried about putting on size and interfering with their endurance abilities. However this couldn’t be any further from the truth. When you dive into the literature there is actually no evidence whatsoever that strength training decreases endurance performance, and it’s actually quite the opposite. While I could cite 30+ published papers easily support this claim across all endurance sports, I think it is easily summed into the two figures below (Figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1: The strength reserve model of endurance comparing two athletes with different absolute strength levels and their relative output during the same performance workload (Sale, 1991).

 

Figure 2: The strength reserve model of endurance showing a single athlete who increases their strength overtime and how it decreases the force required for a given performance (Edington and Edgerton, 1976; Sale, 1991).

I was rather fortunate to learn from the legendary Canadian neurophysiologist Digby Sale during my time at McMaster University. These figures are taken directly from his coursework and are still the best example I have seen to date in the exercise science world explaining the strength reserve model of endurance. This model is single biggest reason why you should be hitting the gym in the off-season.

To explain this principle starting with Figure 1, let’s say I am ‘Athlete A’ (bottom) and you are ‘Athlete B’ (top). My maximum bench pull strength is 500N of force, and your maximum bench pull strength is 1000N of force, so you are twice as strong as I am. If we are both using the same paddle and board on the same body of water, each stroke requires 400N of force. In order to complete the stroke I need to use 80% of my maximum strength, while you only need to use 40%. This means for every stroke I am working twice as hard, in turn fatiguing much quicker. If I take my foot off the gas to bring the stroke down to my 40% to match you, I won’t be moving the board nearly as far per stroke. If you ramp up to 80% of your max to match me, you will be producing 800N of force and moving the board much further than me. In all scenarios you win, given other factors are relatively similar, just because you are stronger.

This concept in cyclical endurance sport is called economy, and is defined as the amount energy required to complete a given workload. Athlete B (you) requires much less energy to complete the same external performance as I (Athlete A) do, because I need to be at a much higher workload or training zone. Looking at Figure 2, it is easy to see that as strength increases the % of strength required to produce the same performance decreases over time. Strength training increases economy, and this has been shown time and time again across all endurance sports.

So as you can see, strength training is one of the best ways you can spend your off-season time and energy to increasing your paddling performance. With the Paddle Monster off-season training program, we combine decades of experience successfully training Olympic paddlers and other world class endurance athletes, applying a model that has been proven many times over to provide you with a tailored program based on your current level and event of choice. Our Paddle Monsters who went through last off-season can speak to the improvements they saw by following the program. If you want to take your training to the next level and give yourself an edge over the competition, join us this winter for the off-season training program.

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Paddle-specific strength programs are part of the All-Access Program on Paddle Monster. Programs are included in the All Access plans and have advanced, intermediate, novice and home versions, adapted by your coach for your specific needs each week.