Core Boat Sessions

By John Willacy

A regular question goes along the lines of ‘What sort of training should I do?’ Tricky… it takes you into the ‘how long is a piece of string?’ sort of area. So here are a few ideas of Framework Sessions that all sorts of training and sessions, at all levels, can be built upon.

These Boat Sessions involve a proportion of Interval Training sessions, so we’ll take a brief look at Interval Training to put things into context a little.

Interval sessions make up a large proportion of many a training programme, across a variety of sports, including paddling.
An’ Interval Session’ is basically a physical training session where the athlete performs for a relatively short period of time at a high intensity and then follows this with a lower intensity recovery period, before repeating the cycle. This is in contrast to continuous steady-state or ‘endurance’ sessions. Here the session is made up of usually one (or only a few) periods of activity, undertaken at a constant pace over a longer distance/time. Recovery then takes place at the end of the session.

The Up-Side of Interval Training?

The higher intensity, and so hopefully higher speeds, encountered within an interval session helps ‘train’ us to paddle at faster speeds. We will learn to adapt to the faster movements of both body and boat. A predominance of long slow miles will make us good at long slow paddling.

This exposure to higher intensity paddling has a number of benefits:
• It exposes us to, and familiarises us with higher boat and blade speeds – useful for racing, chasing surf waves, downwind runs etc.
• Intervals working at higher intensity exposes us to a different kind of discomfort than steady-state paddling. As always, this familiarisation is very important – both body and mind will start to accept and compensate from this exposure.

The higher paddle load, due to the changing boat speeds, will also have a more beneficial muscular strengthening effect than steady-state distance paddling.

Interval training also means we can work ourselves hard in a relatively short session time. A hard interval session may only take 45-60 mins, whereas useful steady state paddling sessions are likely to be longer. An interval session means you can get back on the couch sooner!

At a practical level, for group paddling it is easier to hold a training group together throughout an interval session.  The recovery periods allows paddlers to re-group throughout the session, rather than the ‘see you again at the finish’ mechanics of steady-paddles.

A surprising distance can be covered within an interval session, with active recovery. This distance and time in a boat do have a certain endurance training benefit too, from the point of view that all time in a boat (with the arms going around) is useful. However steady-state paddling has only a limited effect on speed/strength improvement.

High-intensity interval training gives us more bang for the buck. It helps us to ‘get fit’ quick, to raise a level of fitness in a relatively short calendar time. If time is short, say 6-8 weeks, then an interval training programme is likely to be more useful as a ‘crash’ programme and have a more noticeable training effect than an aerobic biased programme. Of course it is exactly that, only a crash programme.

A high-level training programme can more easily accommodate a mixture of ‘contrasting’ back-to-back interval sessions rather than sequential aerobic sessions. Though both can be fatiguing, a high level of long-distance sessions can be difficult to recover from.

Interval Training is also a good way to increase our heart stroke volume, and encourage other physiological changes, but we are going a bit deep there.

The down-side:

While interval training will get us fit, fast and strong – it does give a benefit to our aerobic/endurance fitness, but this is only a limited benefit. To gain long-mile fitness we still have got to do, well you’ve guessed it, lots of long miles too.

It hurts – oh boy does it… On the whole the high intensity bouts of exercise can be unpleasant. The older you get the lower the proportion of interval training you seem to do!

Getting Started:

The following example sessions are aimed to provide a core selection of sessions for fitness and technique work that can be used for year round training, these may be paddled on either flat or moving water.

Get the feel of these sessions, find how many efforts, what rest etc. works for you. Don’t be afraid to tweak or experiment with them. The numbers here are aimed at paddlers who are, and have been, training at a level for a period of time. As with any other new sessions you should enter into them gently to begin with, reduce the number of reps and sets given here. You should finish your early sessions wanting more, not collapsed on the slipway – that is for later. Do not go too hard until you are familiar with these session, or you risk strain, repetitive or over-use injuries – these will spoil your future training sessions for weeks, or even months. Trust me! If you go too hard you will also reduce the quality of your next sessions due to fatigue.

Make sure of a good, structured warm-up before starting any session – especially so for colder weather and high intensity efforts. Don’t forget a structured warm-down also. The shorter work (on) intervals combined with longer recovery (off)  intervals can cause cooling in the winter – so practicalities may dictate to some extent the length of the recovery periods to match the weather/temperature – so higher work to rest ratios in the winter maybe necessary.

All sessions can be worked in just about any kind of boat – sea kayak, slalom boat, WWR or sprint/marathon boat.

All off/rest intervals are active rest i.e. continuous steady state paddling at a lower intensity – once the session starts, the paddling/boat doesn’t stop unless stated or you reach the finish. No slacking!


Obviously the usual rules apply: The BCU recommend that you do not padde alone, do not paddle after dark and do wear a buoyancy aid at all times on the water. Let someone know what you are up to, where you’re doing it and when you’ll be back.


1 rep (short for repetition) = 1 work effort  i.e. 1 sprint.  Also known as an ‘effort’ or ‘on’ time, as in – 60 seconds ‘on’ =  60″ on = 60 seconds of work.

Sets = a group of reps i.e. 2 sets of 5 reps would mean 2 lots of 5 sprints. Also written as 2 x 5

‘Off’ = rest/recovery time i.e. 3 x 60” on / 120” off  – would mean 3 sprints of 60 secs each, with 2 minutes rest between each effort. Rest between reps is gentle paddling – do not stop. Rest between sets is usually longer – 3-5 minutes.

Paddle Strokes are counted on one side only, i.e. every time the right-hand blade enters, that is one stroke. (If you really need to know how many ‘total’ strokes you have made then try multiplying the figure by two, it seems to work.)


2 x 10 x 60”on / 60” off with 3-5’ between sets

Translated: 2 sets of 10 reps of a 60 second sprint, with 60 seconds of rest between each sprint – the whole lot is repeated twice (i.e. a total of 20 sprints) with 3-5 ‘minutes’ of rest between each set of 10. The rest between sets allows the work in the second set to be of a higher intensity and higher quality than if 20 reps were just attempted in one go. Phew! Did you get all that?

The Sessions:

8 minutes on

8 minutes on, followed by 2 minutes off – repeat
Repeats: 5-8 efforts


This session works best with a heart rate monitor (HRM). The On interval is worked at 75-80% max heart rate (for me I start at 150 beats per minute (bpm )) with the Off interval paddled at an easy steady pace, but not less than 120 bpm.
Rest: 2 minutes steady paddling between efforts


• Lift the intensity by 5bpm per effort for the 5×8’ session i.e. 150, 155, 160, 165 etc.


• Do 8-10 efforts
• Keep raising the intensity by 5bpm for an 8x session; when you can’t raise it anymore then hold that intensity for each of whatever ‘on’ efforts remain(probably 3x)

Good for:

• To improve base paddling fitness, forward stroke fitness and fwd stroke technique.
• Pacing – Learning to lift to a pace and to maintain a constant pace.
• Feeling tired the next day.


A watch alarm set to repeat on 2’ intervals helps, and when synchronised with a stopwatch will help you to keep count of the intervals – if you start on 10’ then you need to work until an 8 is showing on the watch minutes and then start again when a zero is showing! i.e. start on 10, finish on 18 start on 20, finish on 28, start on 30 etc.

Heart rate should be held within a 5bpm band i.e. a 150 effort will mean a heart rate between 150 and 155, 160 – between 160 and 165 – no higher or lower.

At the start of each effort don’t suddenly go up to the hard pace, work smoothly and steadily up to that pace – you should be able to get there within 1 minute or so. This will help you last the distance and keep in control – too fast a rise will bring in lactic problems.
Place a lot of attention on your stroke technique; this is a good session for working forward paddling technique and fitness. The 80% pace is low enough to be in control but high enough to be working well. At higher levels you’ll need an efficient stroke just to last the distance.


60 seconds on, 60 seconds off
Repeats:  1 set of 10x efforts


Max – paddle as hard as you can for 60” on – no pacing –  go hairy-bears, balls out from the start and just hang in there until the end.
Rest: 60 seconds off – steady paddling. 3-5 minutes off between sets


• Alter the length of the rest interval – 30” off will make things much more lactic, with an ongoing lactic build up as the session progresses – good lactic tolerance work; 90-120″ off will put emphasis more on speed endurance.
• 2 sets of 6-8x
• Stop fully just before the start of each effort and make it a standing start instead of a rolling one.


• 2 sets of 10x with standing starts

Good For:

• Speed endurance
• Or lactic tolerance – can alter emphasis by altering rest
• Getting out of breath and running out of steam


Use a watch set on a 60” repeat alarm and go Pavlovian, when the watch beeps you instinctively go – go as hard as possible from the start and just hang in there. Ease off when it beeps again. This is a speed endurance sess. designed to make you hurt and get used to the feeling of pushing the boat when things are hurting. Make a concerted effort to push the pace as things start to tie up towards the end of each effort. This session works best in a small group (2-3) of equally matched, hard working paddlers – push hard to stay out in front!

Stroke Pyramid

An equal stroke pyramid, counting strokes on one side:
10 strokes on 10 strokes off, 20 on 20 off, 30 on 30 off, 40 on 40 off, 50 on 50 off, 40 on 40 off … continue down to 10 on 10 off


Max for all on efforts
Rest: Steady paddling rest for number of strokes required. 3-5 minutes off between pyramids


• Lengthen with a ‘flat top’ pyramid i.e. do 2 x 50 on/off at top of pyramid before coming down again
• Finish with a 5x 10 on 20-50 secs off at bottom, for a little speed work
• Turn into a ‘Locomoter’ sess, with fixed stroke rest i.e. 30 stroke rest throughout but still with rising/falling pyramid for the ‘on’ efforts i.e. 10 on 30 off, 20 on 30 off, 30 on 30 off etc.
• Standing starts


• 2-3 flat top pyramids with standing starts
• Locomoter  with 10 stroke rest throughout

Good For:

• A good mixture session that covers a little of everything at the speed end of the spectrum.


Count your strokes on one side.

5 on 5

15 seconds on 45 seconds off
Repeats: 5 sets of 5 efforts (5 on 5)


‘Beyond Max’ – as fast as you can possibly make the boat go – thrashy and splashy
Rest: 3-5 minutes between sets


• The 15” on – 45” off  gives a 3x rest ratio – lift this to 5x rest ratio i.e. 15” on 75” off
• Drop the work period to 12”
• Standing starts
• One set of 5 of these is good to tag onto the end of just about any other sess as a warm down/pre-warm down – no matter how hard you worked you should usually be able to manage a set of these at a reasonable quality level. Do this with sessions throughout the winter and you will have a head start when you start to emphasise speed as the season draws near.


This is a pure speed sess or even a recovery sess and as such is not really designed for ‘Monster work’, but can be extended to 2 x (5 on 5) – but you probably wouldn’t.

Good for:

• Developing speed/strength
• Developing acceleration
• Learning how to ‘change gears’
• A Recovery sess


Learn how many strokes you make in the 15” on (probably 12-15 strokes) then set a watch alarm to repeat on the minute. Go very hairy bears on that minute beep, counting strokes, then once you’ve reached your stroke number, paddle gently until the watch beeps again. This sess is about moving the boat and blades (and reacting to the beep!) as fast as you possibly can; absolutely at max – don’t get too stressed about splashing etc. just shift that boat! ABSOLUTE MAX!

140 Cruise

45-75 minutes steady at a reasonable constant pace (140-150 bpm) – do not push too hard.

Good for:

• Endurance/aerobic fitness
• Fwd paddling technique.
• Learning and maintaining pace and concentration
• Recovery session after a heavy training load/mild injury
• Re-introduction session after a training break


Should be looking for good rotation; using full body (feet, legs, hips, trunk, shoulders and arms) to deliver the power. Looking to make stroke entry and exit smooth with little splash or water lifting and looking for a smooth boat glide with little pitching or yawing. This is not a time trial, set a good pace and learn how to maintain it, but don’t work too hard – watch for losing concentration, do not allow the pace to drop later on in the session.

Time Trials

15-60 minute time trials – can be longer


It’s against the clock!

Good For:

• Endurance/aerobic fitness
• Fwd paddling technique.
• Learning and maintaining pace and concentration at higher intensity
• Holding it together when things hurt
• Performance confidence
• A good old ding-dong with your paddling buddies and then for bragging rights later
• Surprisingly rewarding


Find yourself a time trial course (usually an out and back course) that you can repeat in reasonably repeatable conditions.  Start your watch and work hard until you get back! Learn how to pace so you can last the distance. Record the time you take in your training diary/time trial book.  Try to repeat regularly – fortnightly, monthly or so. Your records will give a guide to developing trends in base/paddling fitness. Can be paddled solo but you will go faster when you are chasing or being chased.  A number of different length time trials are useful.  (See the PSK article – ‘Time Trials – Pull Hard or Go Home‘ for further info on TT’s)

Paddle hard, and try not to be sick.

John Willacy
May 2016