Posted on Nov 18, 2011

BEEP BEEP BEEP As I separate dreams from reality. It’s still dark, why did my alarm go off? Shoot, it’s winter. Do I really need to paddle this morning? Maybe I’m coming down with a sore throat. Is that rain I hear? Must be a thunderstorm. I’ll sleep for just 15 more minutes and then feel better. Uuuggghhhh…. My bed is so warm. I hate paddling.

For most people in the Northern Hemisphere, winter means holiday music, fireplaces, and hot chocolate. For us it means paddling OC-1 in the dark. In the cold. In the rain. It means coming home late at night or leaving early in the morning. It means not seeing our family. Taking time off of work. Spending lots of money.

Paddling is a huge commitment. We all do it for different reasons. Whether it’s for racing, to stay in shape, to be on the ocean, to feel connected to our ancestors, to meditate, or all of them combined. We’ll never be able to agree on why we paddle. But we can all agree on the importance of making sure that every workout counts. That all of the sacrifice is worth it.

There are a few ways to train. Most common for recreational athletes would be a flat and linear method. Meaning that training density (volume/intensity) is relatively consistent throughout the year. Maybe for a couple of weeks before a big race it’ll come up, but for the most part we’re doing the same thing year round. What happens with this method is that the body will quickly adapt to the training and then plateau. So the only improvements we see are mechanical or knowledge (race experience, surfing ability) related.

Another method that a lot of elite athletes do is also linear, but the training density slowly increases to keep the body from adapting and plateauing. However, what invariably happens is that the athlete will increase the training load until they literally fall off the cliff. They will go from overreaching to overtraining. The body will reach its physical limit and without being able to recover and adapt, it will break down.

The most effective way to train is to combine these two systems. It’s called Progressive Overload. Training will increase in a linear fashion until the athlete goes to the edge of their physical abilities, and then they will stop and recover. Everytime you stop, the edge of the cliff gets extended. Your body supercompensates. The most common way of instilling this in to your training program is to separate each month into a four week cycle. Each four week cycle consists of three weeks of building and then one week of rest. Then the next cycle starts with a slightly higher training load than the previous. In this fashion you keep increasing the load, you avoid plateauing, but you also avoid overtraining. The hard part is finding the sweet spot. Finding the edge of the cliff. Go too far and you overtrain, go to little and you plateau.

The other key training tool is Periodization. It’s an intimidating word for an extremely simple concept. It’s a term for splitting your year into periods, or phases. The reasoning being that the body adapts to different intensities in different ways. Our body has three main energy generators. If you make a movement right now (throwing your computer out the window for example), the energy used for that motion is stored in your muscles in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate. You only have a couple of seconds worth of stored energy before you need to start converting glycogen into the energy required for motion. If you were to throw your computer out the window and then sprint after it, you would be metabolizing carbohydrate without the use of oxygen. Which is a quick and powerful way to produce energy, but the by-product is lactic acid. There is recent evidence that suggests that lactic acid produces Human Growth Hormone, but, we're concerned more with the fact that lactic acid causes rapid fatigue in the muscles. It’s that burning sensation you get at the end of a regatta. As paddlers, our primary source of energy is going to be aerobic. It means that we’re metabolizing glycogen for energy but able to take in enough oxygen to neutralize the lactic acid. It is where the energy would come from after you chased down the computer, realized it was broken, and then had to run to the Apple Store to buy a new one. Anything over a couple minutes will be aerobic.

Each energy system reacts differently to training. Anaerobic fitness comes quickly, but goes just as quickly. Aerobic fitness is slow to come, but slow to go. Which is where the term base training comes from. Base training means that we are working on expanding our aerobic potential. It’s the low intensity training that expands our lung and heart capacity, our metabolic pathways, our circulatory system, and even the mitochondria in each cell. All of these physical changes occur very slowly. Whereas high intensity anaerobic training adaptations happen much quicker, especially if someone has a well developed base. What this means, and what Periodization does, is that high intensity training will be focused at the end of the year. Right before the race that you want to achieve peak performance in. The hard part, for paddlers, is to put in the time at low intensities.

A lot of the physical adaptations from training will happen at both high and low intensities. But, the main reason to focus on keeping the intensity low for most of the year is that your body can’t handle high intensity and high volume. So, you get more benefit with a higher training volume and a low intensity.

With all of that in mind, setting up a training schedule according to the precepts of Periodization and Progressive Overload is easy. The next blog post will be on the specifics of Periodization and on how to set up the schedule.

So that next time your sitting in the dark in your car, with your windshield wipers on, your heater blasting, your coffee cradled in your hands, debating on whether you should rig your canoe. You’ll have an answer. And hopefully you’ll have a little more inspiration to get on the water.