I have a client who has entered into a max adventure race in about six week’s time. This includes a 30K mountain bike, 10K trail run and a 5K kayak. He is quite confident on the bike and run, but he has come to me with advice on the kayak as he has limited use of an actual kayak to train on. What muscle groups and exercises should I use to help this client?
Six weeks to prepare for a 5K kayak is realistic (depending on your client’s goals and current fitness level) as long as your client has good foundation strength, a solid aerobic base and is well educated in the principles of periodization. Let me discuss each of these in more detail:
With only six weeks until the race, your client may be experiencing a sense of urgency where the thought of "more may be better" may enter the mind. This will bring about possible overtraining, but more importantly, it may predispose your client for a higher risk of injury. Since this is a three sport adventure race, time must be spent training in each discipline, so be sure to emphasize to your client that cross training will help with not only reaching the finish line but will also help to prevent injuries. Your client surely has a set training program with only six weeks until the race, so I would stress the importance of proper recovery days, monitoring training load (volume and intensity) so there is not a drastic increase in volume or intensity from week to week and a well planned taper leading up to the race.
Since it is not possible for your client to use a kayak for all of the kayak training, it is important that any opportunity your client has in a kayak be quality and not quantity focused. Not knowing your client's technique comfort level with kayaking, I would recommend this be a strong emphasis during the next two weeks so he is biomechanically efficient. Without proper form, injury is more likely. Make sure the quality time in the kayak is primarily technique based. While sport specificity is important, becoming efficient enough to compete in a 5K kayak race injury free is possible with the help of a good foundational strength and endurance training program.
The biomechanics of kayaking are heavily centered on the core musculature as well as the upper body, specifically the rotator cuff muscles, triceps and latissimus dorsi. Since kayaking is a dynamic movement performed on an unstable surface, I would recommend most strength exercises prescribed be done on unstable surfaces such as disc pillows, pads, physioballs, etc. This is assuming that your client has a good foundation of strength as it is important to progress to unstable surface strength exercises only after base muscular strength is developed and your client has good range of motion, flexibility and balance.
While it will be somewhat difficult to provide specific strength exercises due to differences in naming exercises, I would recommend any core exercise that involves a twisting motion to closely mimic the spinal rotation experienced in a kayak. In fact, an isometric lower body seated (hips flexed, knees bent and heels off the ground) core exercise with a broom stick in the hands simulating a twisting, side to side, range of motion would be an excellent exercise for your client. This exercise can also be done holding a medicine ball in each hand and twisting from side to side without touching the ball to the ground. In addition, any type of core exercises that involve mild spinal rotation such as something simple as standing with a light bar on the back of the neck twisting from side to side and diagonally would be of benefit. This certainly does not rule out other core exercises such as the plank, side plank, tranversus abdominis isometric hold, etc. The emphasis should be placed on simulating the biomechanics of kayaking as closely as possible.
Upper body exercises that target the kayaking muscles should be performed on unstable surfaces at least 75 percent of the time. This can include internal/external rotation for the rotator cuff muscles with tubing while sitting on a physioball, dips with hands on the physioball and the feet on the ground or another physioball as an advanced option, lat pulldowns while seated on a physioball and of course pull ups, which can be done assisted or unassisted as these are always beneficial. I would also recommend employing the broomstick handle or wooden dowel used in the core exercise listed above with a cable machine. The broomstick handle can be placed through a handle that is connected to one side of a cable machine, and your athlete can closely mimic the kayaking movements by twisting to one side in a downward motion. Progress from a standing to seated to seated on a physioball. Be sure to exercise great caution with this exercise to ensure the broomstick does not slip off the handle.
Sport specific, core centered and unstable strength exercises can be done up to three times per week, focusing on higher repetitions, good form and light to moderate weight. The goal is to train the muscles dynamically through many planes and train the movements of kayaking rather than specific muscles.
As mentioned previously, the predominant muscles involved in kayaking are centered on many of the upper body muscles. In fact, there is a strong similarity between the upper body muscles used in kayaking as there are in swimming. Thus, with limited kayak specific training, I would recommend your client focus on swimming at least three times per week for at least 45 minutes, mostly emphasizing the freestyle stroke as this most closely simulates the motion of kayaking. However, for injury prevention purposes, other strokes can be suggested within each workout. I would recommend at least 75 percent of the workout focus on freestyle and 25 percent on other strokes.
Freestyle swimming itself, while not specifically kayaking, will help your client develop the necessary cardiovascular fitness that will assist in the kayaking leg of the adventure race. In addition, it will help to train the sport specific muscles (especially the core) in a more dynamic medium (water) versus on land strengthening exercises referenced in the previous section.
Combining sport specific periodization strategies with a solid dynamic strength and freestyle swim endurance program will ensure your client is more than ready for the adventure race, even in the absence of kayak specific training time in the water.
For examples of the exercises listed in this article, please visit the PTN Exercise & Flexibility Library.