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“Why train? I only want to finish!”

This was an interesting but understandable comment from a first-time Hawkesbury Canoe Classic paddler. However, if we mere mortals want to finish without too much stress, training in some shape or form is essential.

The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic’s lenient “cut-off” times mean you could take 20 hours to finish the event. Experience has shown that just a little training goes a long way to reducing that time from 20 hours to 16 hours!

That could mean a whole 4 hours less paddling! Less possibility of blisters, less wear and tear on the posterior. That’s got to be worth some preparation!

Getting fit and staying fit ... how you do it is up to you, but the important thing is to enjoy it, otherwise a large part of the motivation for doing it is gone.

Training need not involve set distances or target times. A relaxing paddle on your favourite backwater will also help your fitness.

For the more serious

A training plan of at least three months is the way to go and it is important to stick to it.

First plot your program in black and white. Get that weekly schedule down on paper in advance. If you only do what turns you on at the moment, your program is doomed.

Find a friend to train with. The physical and emotional support will help when times get tough.

Make your program as logistically convenient as possible. The fewer difficulties you encounter, the less likely you are to throw in the towel. If you have access to boat storage next to water, make the most of it.

Keep a record of your training (but don’t let it take over your life). It will help you work out what you are doing ... both right and wrong.

Start slowly … give your body time to catch up with your ambitions.

Add some zest to your plan. When boredom gets to be a problem, (and it will), be creative. Give yourself a break or a reward.

Try canoe polo or white water touring to add diversity to your training. Canoe Polo is played throughout the year on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in Sydney.

So how fit are you right now?

If you have any doubts about being fit enough, talk to your doctor about what you intend doing. Once the doctor gives you the OK and you really want to know how fit you are, go to your local gym.

They’ll put you through a fitness assessment and help you work out how to reach your goals.

Just a word of warning: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re fit to paddle 111kms because you’re an avid gym junkie. The fact that you are fit is excellent and will certainly help towards completing the event, but you will still need to prepare yourself for the special demands of paddling. So, make sure that you add paddling to your training and get yourself “paddle fit” too.


Stretch your arm and trunk muscles. All muscle groups used, not just the shoulders, should be stretched. Some of these can be done while paddling, for example, moving the neck side to side. If you bend forward when paddling, take time to rest the paddle and stretch up and back. Pull your shoulder blades together and down at the same time.


Correct paddling posture, maintaining the lower back curve (Lumbar Lordosis) is important to prevent serious lower back pain. Rectify immediately any problem encountered during training so potential injuries do not develop. Seek advice from a qualified canoeing/kayaking coach, trainer, GP or physiotherapist.

If you follow these simple instructions and plan your training properly, you will minimise your chances of requiring our first aid services. Our treatments have dropped from 85% of the field to 30% of the field. It’s up to you to help reduce this percentage further. Cold and inclement weather increase your risk of injury greatly. Make sure clothing is more than adequate, food intake is regular and fluid supplies are constantly maintained.

Warming up and cooling down

Not warming up and stretching before launching into hard exercise is like getting married after the first date … your odds of success are slim and your risks are great.

Once warm, your muscles will contract more forcefully and relax more quickly, enhancing your ability to produce speed and strength.

You’ll lower the risk of muscle strain and tears.

Muscles will be better co-ordinated because nerve impulses travel faster when warm. The body’s ability to transport oxygen is enhanced; your joints will have a wider range of movements so the transition into hard effort is easier with less risk of injury.

Like warming up, cooling down has an important function in the exercise equation and is probably even more neglected than warming up.

It helps your body to move smoothly and comfortably from hard effort to rest.

If you suddenly stop exercising, the blood will begin to pool in your now wide open blood vessels and just sit there. You can become dizzy and light headed.

Cooling down will help flush the lactic acid from the muscles and blood so the body can start to restore its muscles’ oxygen store and ease back on hormones and temperature levels.

All this will eventually occur without cooling down but a proper cool down will make it happen quicker.

Heart rates

Maximum Heart Rate: To get the greatest benefit from exercising, you need to work at approximately 80% of your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). To calculate this, subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 35 years old, your MHR is 185 and 80% of that is approximately 150 beats per minute. If your pulse during exercise is around 150 bpm you’re exercising to the greatest benefit.

Resting Heart Rate: To monitor how well your program is progressing and your aerobic fitness (for example, stamina, the condition of the heart and lungs, the ability to burn up energy and keep body weight down) you can measure your Resting Heart Rate (RHR). Just take your pulse upon wakening first thing in the morning for one minute. As you become fitter, your RHR will drop as your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient. If it goes up by 5 to 10 beats it probably means you had a hard workout the day before and should go easy today.

Nick Stepkovitch 
B.App.Sc.Physiotherapy, Grad. Dip. Manip. Ther., M.A.P.A., M.M.P.A., Sport Physiotherapist, NSW Sports Physiotherapy Group, Sydney Mobile Voluntary Aid Detachment and director of Sports, Spinal & Rehab Solutions at Hornsby

How to train

If you ask 100 people how to train you are likely to get as many different answers. However, there are some basic ground rules. Consider these as a foundation for your endurance program and once you incorporate them you can go off and tilt at your own windmills, ie your own personal theories on fitness. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests the following guidelines

Frequency of exercise: Three to five times a week.

Intensity of training: 60% to 90% of MHR.

Duration: 20 to 60 minutes of continuous aerobic activity (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or paddling).

Type of training: Along with the regular program at least two strength training sessions of moderate intensity (e.g. 2 x 30 minutes of some light weights).

Look closely. You’ll see this may only add up to three hours per week which is not too demanding.

Paddling is the best exercise for paddling and there is no real substitute for boat time, but let’s get real.

If you are training for three months, there will be many calls on your time from family to work or study, so realistically, over a twelve week period, if you can only get in a boat on weekends you may only have twenty sessions from when you start to train until the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic.

So what do you do? You cross-train. You walk, run, do aerobics, ride a bike, do circuit training, swim, exercise the old fashioned way before it became high tech, do isometrics or do weights. But do something, as you will quickly lose tone if you don’t. If you’ve got a winter cold, just take the dog for a walk. Be inventive, if you don’t have any weights, make some by putting some cement in some ice cream containers with a piece of wood for the shaft, or use a bag of sand or rice.

When you start your paddling, start with long slow sessions and work on your style Get that right first and you will find it a lot easier later.

Aerobic sessions in your boat should last from 90 minutes to a couple of hours. Introduce average paddling times as minimum speed for these sessions, ie, calculate the average speed you will need to finish the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic in your goal time and this is your average paddling speed.

Slowly make these sessions faster by roughly 10%. These sessions should be long and constant. Two 3 hour sessions done properly is far better than one six hour session.

Training for results

If you really want to do well in your first Hawkesbury Canoe Classic, then you can do more.

Fartlek training

This involves working at your average paddling speed but every few minutes do a 30 stroke effort flat out then drop back to your average paddling speed.

Pyramid training

After being well warmed up, move on to Pyramid training.

  • Start with 15 light strokes, then 15 double strokes hard.

  • Then try 20 light and 20 hard.

  • Raise this effort by 5 strokes a time up to 40.

  • Decrease by 5 back to 15.

  • Rest for 30 seconds, and then start again.

I could say “good luck” at this point but you really only need to do this intense type of training if you want to finish in the first few of your class.

Sit ups, chin ups (palms forward so no cheating), push ups, twisting sit ups, dips and leg step ups should be done as a minimum in your routine.


Weights are a necessity if you intend doing well. If you don’t mind your family laughing at you the first few times, they can be done in front of the TV, lying on the floor. Use light weights (2 kg to 5 kg) and do lots of repetitions, this will be more beneficial than trying to bench press 100kgs and less likely to damage you.

While using weights try:

  • Upward punching.

  • Forward punching, keeping the arms horizontal to the ground.

  • Side flexing, pull the weight up under your armpit.

  • Bent over rowing with rotation. Bend over 90º and pull weights up to your chest on alternate sides (you can also do a similar motion by laying on your back on the floor and watching the TV… sort of a lazy person’s bench press).

  • Curls - lifting weights from by your side to your chest and down again on alternate sides.

  • Wrist curls….lay your arms on the bench with your hands over the edge and just move your hands up and down through 90º, bending at the wrists.

Training – how much?

There is no doubt training will let you complete the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic with greater ease, and lead to faster recovery afterwards. However as past surveys have shown, a majority of paddlers have done relatively little paddling before the event. For example:

For 10% of starters, training amounted to less than 5 hours paddling.

Over 50% estimate their total training in a canoe in the lead-up to the event amounted to less than 40 hours on the water or 200kms propelled by paddles.

Over 2/3 of paddlers have never travelled further than 40kms in any one outing.

Stopping training - “peaking”

When you formulate your plan, aim at peaking around the weekend before the event. Peaking is the art of arriving at the starting line in absolute top condition – trained, rested and eager to perform at your very best. Once you have peaked, taper off dramatically so that you are just coasting in training, then don’t do anything for two or three days before the race, this will help your body to prepare and your mind to get mentally revved up.

So that’s about it ... paddle when you can. When you can’t, do some cross-training, but most of all have some fun.

Good luck!


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