Gear or Your Body: What’s the Better Investment?

I had this thought last year at Canoecopia 2011 as I was giving my presentation on paddling fitness: Here were all these people, some 24,000 or so over the weekend, there to look at (and buy) new paddling gear for the season. Some were seasoned paddlers looking for a new boat to add to their collection and some were there new to the sport, excited to purchase their first canoe. There was probably millions worth of boats and gear that were sold. People spend a lot of money on gear and countless hours researching it online, but how much do they invest in their bodies?

I totally get the gear thing – I love my gear and I am one of those that will research something to death before I buy it to make sure I am getting exactly what I want. I still remember how excited I was to purchase my first canoe: a Mad River Explorer. There’s a passion that comes with outdoor sports equipment. Look at biking…there’s a passion there to get the best performing bike. Thousands are spent to shave a few pounds or ounces off a bike. Or take a look at backpacking where ultralight (and ultra high prices) is the craze. You name it…we love our gear. And there seems to be, in my opinion, no more passionate outdoor adventure sport than paddling when it comes to equipment. Come on….is there anything more beautiful than a wooden canoe? Paddling of course is probably the most gear intensive sport so this passion goes hand in hand. Just look at what it takes to get on the water: the car racks, the boats, the paddles, the safety equipment, the right clothes, heck…even the right vehicle. I know for a fact people have decided what car to buy based on their love of paddling - I did this last year. One of the factors in my decision was the rack mounting options, specifically how far front to back, I could get the cross bars. I have a 21 ft race kayak and ideally, to minimize cross wind stress to the boat, you want the bars as far apart as possible.

This passion is evident on all the online forums. From discussions on equipment like what’s the best paddle or what’s the best boat to discussions on technique. But the thing missing from the sport is the passion for getting in shape for it. I’ve looked…. there is little to no discussion. Even talking to fellow paddlers reveals often strong opinions on equipment, but get on the topic of getting in shape for paddling and you guessed it...nothing. My issue with this is the fact that it all starts with the body. So people spend all this time researching products, spend thousands on boats, gear, and instruction and then practicing on the water, but how much time do they spend on their bodies? I guarantee there have been countless people that have gone to pool sessions this winter working on their roll, but haven’t spent the same time working out. What’s the point of all this if the body can’t handle it? Its like spending time and money on an epic cross country road trip, but not making sure the car is in tip top shape. Not smart…is it?

In previous posts I talk about taking ownership in your body. Most people don’t think they will get hurt…actually most people don’t even think about or know about their physical capacities. As a physical therapist treating these injuries, I see this all the time. One of the main reasons people get hurt is that they subject their bodies to a stress above and beyond what it can handle. So ask yourself this: what CAN you handle? What can you handle at this exact point in time? Are you going to be ready for that spring opener? You may be have been fine in years past but are you physcially ready this year? Just some things to think about.

I feel that in paddlesports, we have some misplaced priorities. Don't think I am knocking gear because I am not. We need it to do what we do and I love the innovation that occurs making the sport more enjoyable and safer, but it really should be body first and then gear second. For me staying in shape buys me freedom and time. Freedom to go as hard as I want and time to do what I do for as many years as I can. Gear can't do that. I want to be that dad that’s still paddling down the river with his kids and not the one that is out of shape and sitting on the couch. But its not just about getting in shape for paddling as it really should be about getting in shape for life and everything that the body has to do. You could sustain an injury (from being out of shape) that keeps you away from paddling maybe even forever. I know many reading this post are probably thinking of purchasing a new boat, but have you done anything lately to stay in shape so you can safely handle that boat? So some things to think about as the 2012 paddling season approaches. What are your priorities? What’s the better investment…your body or that boat?

The Water is Frozen...Now What?

What are you doing to stay in paddling shape this Winter?

When was the last time you were on the water?  For me now it's unfortunately...I hate to admit it...2 1/2 months.  It's been a crazy Fall that has made it difficult to get on the water.  The difference though, is that I am still "water ready". I have been cross training, lifting weights, running, and doing paddle specific exercises that, although not as perfect as paddling, simulates paddling and makes that transition back to the water easier.   Matter of fact, this is the way it's been for me the last several years, especially trying to maintain my race fitness, and even after not having been in a boat for several months,  I am ready to hit the water paddling in the Spring.  So what specifically am I doing to stay in shape all Winter long?  Here is a sample of what I do.

1) Strength training: 2-3 times per week
2) Cardio: 3-4 times per week. This may be running 2x/wk with biking on the trainer 1-2x/wk.   I have also been doing repeated sets of stairs.   I have my own "bleachers" to run.  I have 42 stairs on a hillside that I do for a workout itself, sometimes wearing a backpack, sometimes running the stairs,  sometimes doing 2-3 steps at a time.   This helps carrying a boat up a steep takeout.   I also love to get out in the snow and will go do a trail run or long hike in the snow 
3) Paddle specific workouts:  2-3 times per week.  The most important aspect of paddling is rotation through the torso, so I try to simulate this several ways.  The easiest way is to do theraband rotations.  Basically you place a theraband in a door and rotate away for however long you choose.   you can actually do both cardio and strength together.  A lighter band will allow you to do a cardio based workout of 20 minutes or more while a heavier band will allow you to do more of the traditional strength workout.  We need both strength and endurance with rotation.  We need the endurance for those long days on the water, while we also need the strength, for example, to punch out of a hole or to "paddle like hell" to avoid a strainer.  

I also try to get in the pool once a week and do rotations against water, using my hands as paddles rotating left and right and engaging the rotators of the spine. 

4) Miscellaneous:  As mentioned in my previous article, I try to get some exercise done while doing other things.  I wore a backpack the other day while vacuuming the house.  Throughout the day at home on Saturday, each time I stood up I did so on one leg.  I also do a lot of snowboard specific drills this time of year like plyometrics and squat holds where you get in a squatted position and stay there for as long as you can.

So what have you been doing?  What's your plan for the Winter?  Remember,  it's a lot easier to maintain fitness than it is to get it back.  So go ahead and post a comment and let me know what you've been doing. 

Living a Fitness Lifestyle: When Life Gets in the Way

The human body was never meant to be as inactive as we are today.  In this day and age we have every convenience that allows us to use less and less of our bodies.  Now of course we have great inventions that have saved us from injury-causing, backbreaking work, but its all the little things that have cumulatively added up to cause us to use our bodies less and less.  Everything from drive-ups, escalators, elevators, the list is endless.  
So how does this relate to you, my fellow paddler?  Well it creates a situation where a lot of us just are not in the shape we need to be to do the things we want to do. So let’s look at ways to incorporate fitness into our daily routine.   I here so often," I don’t have time to work out.”   Sure, I agree. Life can be hectic, chaotic, and there are many things that can get in the way of working out and staying in shape.   I am sure all of us can come up with many examples.  But it still comes down to priorities.  Do I have to give up some things to stay in the shape I am in?  Sure.  But one thing that we can do is to add exercise into our daily routine.  It starts by looking at just about everything you do and asking yourself if there is a way you can make it more intense or challenging.  Lets look at some examples of what I do:
1) Mowing the lawn.   Its takes me about 45 minutes to mow my lawn by hand and I GPS’ed it at 1.75 miles. This is something that has to be done on regular basis, and yes it already is being physically active, but can we make it more?   My house sits on a slope.   To make mowing the grass harder, I mow up and down instead of across.  I also push the mower up the hill walking fast or even sprinting sometimes.  I have even been seen wearing a backpack with weight while mowing the grass.  Again, it has to be done, so why not get the most out of it?  This keeps the legs strong and keeps me in overall shape for backpacking and hauling a heavy boat up a steep hill at the takeout.
2) Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.   At home I even sprint up the stairs.  
3) Working out while watching TV.  It’s taking up more of our time.   We are all addicted, so might as well do some exercising during it.  You can do whatever.   Change it up.  You can do a weight routine, squats, time on a treadmill, etc.  
4) Playing at the park:  When I take the kid to the park, I do bodyweight exercises on the gym equipment while they are playing.  I’ll do pull-ups,  body rows, push ups, step-ups, calf raises, etc.  Now the other parents sitting there look at me weird, but who cares.
5) Playing in the pool.   I talked about doing paddling specific torso rotations in the pool, so just figure on doing these every time you get in the pool.   Yes these can be done subtlety.   For example, lets say you're at the public pool with the kids.  You can wedge yourself into the corner of the pool, arms up on the edge holding yourself and you can rotate your legs left and right, activating the core, specifically the oblique muscles, thus simulating the rotation you would do while paddling.
6) Cleaning the house.  Throw the backpack on again.   It has to be done, like cutting the grass, so might as well make the most out of it.  
7)Misc:  incorporate little things into the routine of daily living.   Going to the fridge to grab a drink?  Do a set of walking lunges there and back.  Need to stretch and cant find the time?   Do your needed stretches while checking your emails in the morning.  
So you see, there really is no excuse for not being in shape.   It really comes down to priorities.  Sure we are all busy and that’s why I do things like these.  I don’t have time to get in the gym and honestly nor do I really like going to the gym.  I would much rather be outside exercising, even if its in the winter, but what keeps me motivated to exercise is the activities that I enjoy.  I have said this in previous posts, but I will say it here again:  I never want to not be able to do the things I want to do.  I never want to find myself in a situation where I have to limit my activity because I am not in shape for it.  Its as simple as that.  
The examples I have above don’t fit for everyone all the time.  I completely understand just sitting down and watching TV, trying to relax from a busy day.  Don’t think I do these every time, all the time.  But it is about staying consistent.   Remember, to stay in shape you have to consistently do an exercise to maintain the benefits of it.  So if you can’t make the gym, try to figure out a few things you can do to incorporate fitness into your daily routine.  It might just be that difference that gets you to your goals.  It might be that difference that make that hike a little easier or that 16 mile river trip more enjoyable.  

The Unfit Paddler

Outdoor adventure sports continue to increase in popularity. Mountain biking, trail running, climbing, snow sports, and paddling continue to see increasing numbers. As a physical therapist I evaluate physical abilities. I do this not only formally in the office, but also out in the field informally. I notice when people have bad posture or they have a running stride limited by tight hamstrings, or they walk with a leg length discrepancy. This is what I was trained in and this is how I see things. Its no different than looking at a abnormally worn car tire and thinking that car wasn’t maintained well. When looking at the active crowd, I see a lot of fit individuals across the board, but I also see a lot of unfit individuals. However, I see more unfit individuals in the paddling crowd when compared to other outdoor pursuits. This observation is supported by the almost complete lack of any good information about the demands of paddling and how to get into shape for it. There is a rise in fitness paddling information, specifically using paddling to get in shape, but not much specific to actually getting in shape for it. Go to the sports section the next time you’re at your favorite book store. There you will find books on running, biking and everything in between and how to get in shape for those, and as you guessed…. nothing on paddling. You might find bits and pieces on the web: “do this stretch, do this exercise”, but nothing comprehensive. Why is this? Lets take a look at a few things.

First let me describe what I mean by fit and unfit, but let me start by making the point that as a physical therapist trained in anatomy and physiology, I look at the body as a machine. As with any machine, the body has a certain capacity for work, a certain ability to handle stress. If those capacities are exceeded, then things start breaking down. It’s that simple. So the fit person generally looks like a fit person. When we look at what determines fitness we think of strength, flexibility, endurance, posture, and sport specific skills. Paddling requires all of these to do safely. So quite often I see people on the water that really don’t fit the definition of being fit. I see people with bad posture, poor muscle tone, and poor skills. Couple that with being in a static posture of long sitting, which is already hard on the back and sets the shoulder up for bad mechanics, and we have a recipe for injury. I point all this out as a wake up call to paddlers to take that self-ownership and really think about their abilities. It’s not just whether they can hit a roll or execute a proper eddy turn, but truly whether their bodies are up for the task.

There are several reasons why the paddling crowd is less fit. First, but in no particular order, is the fact that paddling is more recreational than other outdoor pursuits. Most people paddle because they like to be on the water, not because they are using it to get in shape. That’s fine, that’s why I do it. Second, paddling is not as physically tasking as other outdoor sports. You can pretty much float down a lazy river. Remember, I am making a general statement about the physical demands of paddling. Yes, there are many physically demanding aspects of it, such as playboating. Third, there are several hurdles that have to be overcome to get on the water, so people don’t get on the water as much as they’d like. (If you live on a lake or river, lucky you). This happens to me quite often. I’d love to be on the water more, but don’t always have the time, due to my schedule, time to load equipment, drive time to accessible water, etc. Compare that to just being able to hop on the bike from the house and be on country roads in a few minutes or strapping on a pair of running shoes and off you go. Expand on this thought: just before, I said that paddling generally is not as physically demanding as other sports, but that there are aspects of it such a playboating that are more demanding. But I doubt that the average playboater spends enough time in the boat to get in shape for it. Again, comparing it to running, you get in shape and stay in shape for running by doing it on a consistent, regular basis. Practically speaking, one can get in shape for running by running alone. Also one could get in shape for paddling by paddling if done on a consistent regular basis. Most paddlers I know, even die hard whitewater boaters here in the midwest, might only get on the water every few weeks. That’s a lot of time in-between of deconditioning. And fourth, paddling up here in the northern climes is a seasonal thing. That’s a huge amount of time to fall out of shape if paddling is the only real physical activity you do. It’s similar to snowsports. I stay in shape all year and start gearing my training toward snowboarding in the fall, but nothing I do can perfectly get me in shape for a full day on the slopes. I wish I could board all year long.

So what’s the point of this post? I want it to serve as a wakeup call to all paddlers no matter what kind of paddling you do. We all need to ask ourselves that most basic question: “Can I handle…am I fit for what I am about to do?” Believe me - the answer to this is so often, “no.” I treat these injuries all the time. But its not only fitness now, but will you be able to paddle that river 5yrs down the road, or 15, or 30?
So some things you can do:
1) Do a personal fitness assessment. This isn’t so much fitness testing, but a real world understanding of your abilities versus what you want to be able to do. (Hint: If you haven’t been doing that activity lately, you’re probably not in shape for it). As a therapist treating orthopedic injuries, I find that many people have a very unrealistic understanding of their abilities and/or the task at hand.
2) Learn more about fitness in general and how that relates to paddling.
3) Learn about the demands of the sport.
4) Form a fitness plan and a yearlong plan. Being fit for an activity requires doing it or something similar on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to get in shape for paddling and stay there than to do it so infrequently that you get out of shape in-between. Lets say you are a 2-3 times per week paddler. That may be fine to stay in shape during the summer, but what about the winter? It may be time to hit the gym a few times a week and do some paddling specific exercise.

Time to Make a Splash (But Not Too Big)

Well fellow paddlers its time to get the boats down and get on the water. Some have braved the cold temps and been on the water already, but for the most part, a lot of us will be getting on the water for the first time in several months. Hopefully if you’ve been working out and doing some paddling specific workouts, this transition shouldn’t be too difficult, but either way, you want to make sure that what you do these first few times on the water isn’t too much above what you can handle. You may think you can handle those 10 miles on the river, but let’s use running as an analogy. You wouldn’t run 10 miles on your first time after not having run in several months, would you? No, you’d start at maybe a few blocks then add a little each time you run until you're up to your desired goal. That’s the smart way to do it, but all too often people just jump right into something. Now sure, you may say that an easy 10 miles on the river is not as taxing as running 10 miles. Sure, I’d agree there, but the idea is that you want to ease yourself into it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect workouts that progressively build to your desired time or intensity on the river, but just make sure you take the time to build up slowly.

Many of you will be going on “spring openers.” Several days of paddling coupled with going too hard in a big group and for many it’s the first time on the water in a long time - perfect time to get hurt. Now I’m not knocking the concept of the spring opener, but because of the whole group dynamic thing and the fact that we’re excited, we often end up doing too much, too soon. There you are playing on that perfect surf wave, trying new moves that you saw on the latest video over the winter and before you know it, your shot….and you still have several miles and several play spots to go and you have tomorrow to paddle. Just some things to think about. Know when to say when and ease yourself into it.

Paddling Fitness at Canoecopia 2010

Thanks to all those who attended my presentation at Canoecopia. Hopefully it spurred some thought on being in shape for paddling and what that really means. There are many aspects that determine whether one is “fit” for what they do. It’s not just about that activity specifically. You may make a good effort to get out on the water several times a week, but what if you have a flexibility issue? What if you have poor posture that crept in over the years? Do you have adequate strength to allow for proper mechanics and functioning of the shoulder? It really is every aspect that you have to think about.

That’s why I encourage everyone to learn as much as possible about the demands of the activity they want to engage in and ask that fundamental question about whether they can handle it safely and enjoyably. Like I mentioned in the presentation, the big disconnect that I see as a health care professional is that people take their bodies for granted and end up doing things above and beyond what they are capable of doing and injuries occur. Understand the demands, assess your own fitness, and from there formulate a plan to get where you need to be. It’s that simple. Then hopefully that transition to the water this spring will be easy.

A Fitness Self-Assessment: Taking Ownership in Your Body and Its Abilities.

Many of us up in the colder climes are thinking of the coming warm months (heck this winter has been bad all over the U.S.) when it'll be time to crawl out of the cave, shake the winter off and get active again. We start planning our trips and we get the equipment ready. But often the most important equipment, our bodies, is overlooked. How many of you actually think about the shape you're in? Have you thought about your body's ability to do what you ask of it? So often I see the answer to this with the injuries that I treat. We take our bodies for granted and go about what we've normally done in the past. Taking a moment though and thinking about your abilities is an important part in staying injury free and enjoying what you do. So as you approach your upcoming endeavors, put as much time (preferably more) into your bodies as you do in planning and in maintaining your gear. We are, our bodies are, snapshots of what we've been doing. The shape we all are in at this very moment, whenever you may be reading this, is an exact reflection of what we've been doing. Think about what you've been doing lately - in the last few days, the last few weeks, the last few months. Now think about what you want to be doing. Hopefully the the past few months are a reflection of what you want to be doing.

Like cars, our bodies require regular maintenance to work right. As car owners, we want to make sure they run well, and last a long time. With cars being the complex machines they are, most of us just take em into the shop and let the mechanic do the work. With our bodies though, we have to be our own mechanics. How many know how to do this maintenance though? Does it take advanced training or a degree in exercise physiology? No, but what it does take is a willingness to take ownership of our bodies and realize that we have full control of the shape we're in. With that ownership in mind though, we do need to learn as much as we can. We need to look at the activities we do and have an understanding of the physical demands those activities impose. Understanding the demands helps shape what we need to do to get ready for it. This site hopefully will serve to spark some thought regarding fitness for not only paddling, but for all your outdoor pursuits.