Don’t Hang Up Your Paddles Over The Winter Months

By Brian Turnbull

A cold winter’s day on the reservoir (Image courtesy of Alan Hunter)

The days are growing shorter, temperatures are on the decrease, the sea and rivers are losing some of the gentility they showed us over the past few months. This usually means we start to get that urge to stay in and ease off on the paddling – but why stop paddling over the winter? If we do then we are likely to have lose a lot of the physical conditioning we had built up towards the end of the previous summer. With a little imagination and some enthusiasm I believe it’s not that difficult to keep a degree of fitness over the winter months. Lots of things get in the way though and seem to conspire against us to prevent any sort of regular paddling activity, the weather, floods on the river, boisterous seas, long dark nights not to mention an 8 to 5 job! The excuse are endless. With all this going on it is all to easy to say stuff it and just get parked in a comfy chair in front of the tv! We need to try and overcome this desire to vegetate and get out there and work with the elements, use the adversity to advantage and turn it round to use it as a positive and constructive element to our training and enjoy what the weather gods give us.

Getting motivated and staying motivated can be very difficult but need not be an insurmountable obstacle, making the activity interesting and something that we can look forward to as much as we do our fair weather paddling I find helps hugely. Winter training needn’t always be in a kayak, there are many ways to keep a decent level of fitness up. I am not a lover of the gym but wouldn’t knock this if it suits and is convenient. Winter activities for me consist of cycling indoors on rollers, cycling outdoors and of course paddling when I can, I mix in a bit of core strengthening exercise as well. Time constraints prevent any more than 2 to 3 sessions during the week with a longer session at the weekend, the evening sessions during the week are usually no more than 1 to 1 ½ hours. To be able to get the session in with a minimum of fuss it helps if it can be done without any excess travelling, to have to travel somewhere to train can be an excuse not  to go, so whenever possible my sessions take place at home or within 20 minutes travel time.

I find it helps to have a sort of flexible schedule to my training, in other words I know my time commitment for the week and when I would like to fit my training in but equally happy to move this around to fit with the weather or other things going on. Training buddies have both advantages and disadvantages; it usually means some discussion has taken place about where when and what is to be done but it can also add an element of inflexibility to the equation. Having someone to train with though can be a great motivator and help drive things on when you would otherwise start to slack a bit. I don’t believe training needs to be overly complicated or very scientific for the level that I paddle at, I am not aiming to compete at the Olympics, but,  like most folks I simply want to enjoy my paddling. To have a decent level of fitness that allows me to get the best out of my paddling is good enough for me, in fact if it becomes too serious then some of the pleasure would be lost.

Of all the activities that I use as training tools indoor cycling on rollers is probably the least exciting, but there are things that I use to make it more interesting. Probably my most important tool to keep things interesting and fresh is to use a sports watch that will display and store various data. I find this piece of kit indispensable, this display of data during exercise can in itself be a great motivator. Some watches have training buddies to gee things along a bit, or you can simply try and improve on previous efforts. This data can include things such as heart rate, forward speed and pedal cadence. Having this information to hand allows us to experiment with different gears and cadence to find our optimum zone. Interval sessions are much easier to manage with this type of information to hand. These watches allow us to store and view data on a pc and compare efforts. When you think about it what a great motivator this is; next time on the rollers I will try and get to 10km in a quicker time, basic I know, but I find it a challenge and a reason to get back on. Using this watch as a training aid can be made as complex or as simple as is desired, the important part as I see it is its ability to motivate. You can link up this information with others as well and compare results which inevitably means a bit of competition will creep into the game; why not set up a 10k contest with your buddies!

Rollers also allow us to just dump the bike on them and get pedalling; no faffing with clamps such as are found on turbo trainers, no hassle from traffic and no need for lights. An added bonus is the balance element – we are subconsciously working on our core strength. How often we do this really depends on how much time we have at our disposal but because it is so convenient even several 15 to 20 minute sessions would see us improving on cardiovascular ability, indeed short sessions of about 3 mins duration at high intensity have been shown to produce improvements in cardio ability and also in fat burning. I find I do fewer road cycling sessions over the winter months but again when I do, the sports watch or the phone app Strava allows comparisons to be made between sessions and also to compare our times with others over the same segments on or off the road. What could be better than being a few seconds behind a segment time of another rider to get you back out there and try a bit harder next time?

The sessions I look forward to most are the paddling ones. I suppose I am fortunate in that the River Tweed is on my doorstep and so I use this for my training sessions when the sea is venting its anger and can be heard before it can be seen. I shouldn’t really call them training sessions because I don’t see them like that, they are just another paddling trip, or not just another paddling trip but more of a little mini adventure!

The  winter months usually see the river levels fluctuate wildly; recent months have seen it swing between 2’ and 10 +’ above normal levels, having the river on my doorstep allows me to keep an eye on the level and so pick the best times. Any level works but it is probably wise to avoid the rising river as this will usually see logs and the occasional dead sheep getting washed downstream. River paddling can be very good for improving our skill level as well as keeping up fitness; it is a very dynamic environment and can teach us many of the skills we need in sea paddling, once we have these skills the river is a great place to hone them. To be able to read a bit of water and to feel how the boat interacts with a bit of moving water is invaluable. Not only is this training it is also great fun and challenging. We might not think of it as training but if we learn how to handle a back eddy on the river we can use this skill to anticipate potential flows and counter flows when working along a rocky headland on the sea. Experience on the river with moving water and reading surface textures will help us greatly when we transfer these skills to the ocean.

On the River

The stretch I use for winter evening sessions is about 8km total, this consists of a 4k upstream paddle against the current followed by the return. I try to get 1 or 2 of these in on weekday evenings. Keeping an eye on the river levels and weather I will select the best evening for the job and it would normally go a bit like this ….

The river is high but steady at about 7’ above normal flow, the weather is half decent in that it’s not raining and about 3 degrees C, the moon would be visible but blotted out with cloud at the moment, I get the boat off the roof as a dog walker passes by and gives me a puzzled look, I dither a while until the dog walker disappears all the while wondering what they must have been thinking…..  I get myself organised. I launch about 50 metres up into a small tributary of the main river which allows a few minutes to just check everything is in place and functioning, I head off towards the main river, my eyes adjusting to the darkness as I progress, I have the backlight on the Garmin set low and will  try not to use the light as this spoils night vision. I press start on the timer and ready myself for the main flow by adjusting the boat angle to slice out upstream into the main flow, the first few hundred metres in the main river are fairly benign with only one or two minor back eddies. I glance down at the Garmin which reads out at 8.5 km hr, this speed varies a bit as I make progress up the side trying to make use of all the little eddies that I  know are there… I can see a semi submerged bush up ahead and the sound of water rushing through it becomes louder as I approach it…this is an area where I know a small croy sticks out into the river and disturbs the flow a bit…my speed drops a bit as I pass the bush all the while keeping clear enough to avoid mishaps. I make steady progress towards the first bend where I know there is a very narrow and well defined back eddy….I think about paddle technique as I glance at the Garmin to view paddle cadence, it is just a glance as I feel the boat moving easy under me and the left paddle strokes are very easy suggesting I’m right on the fence of the eddy…. I must ready myself…the boat will be fired out of this back eddy at over twelve km hr to be met with a head on flow of something in the order of 6km hr……I get the angle right and the boat shoots out into the main flow… feels like the boat has started to go faster….this is something I notice with the Taran which is probably a result of the higher water speed over the hull helping it up onto the plane….Oh if only I could generate that sort of speed with the paddle! Safely over this section I work my way up the side using the eddies when I can.

Soon I reach a fairly major bend in the river which when lower can be difficult to paddle upstream because it looses a bit of height here. My nostrils are filled with the stench of rotting flesh – this area on the inside of what is a large horseshoe bend has a fairly thick willow growth, the smell is from rotting salmon flesh, these are fish that have completed their spawning and have failed on their return journey to the sea or have succumbed to the “ fungal” disease that so many salmon die of, the inside of the bend here being a bit slower allows things to drop out of the flow and get tangled in the willow bushes. I think when our vision has been impaired our other senses become heightened, had this been daylight I probably wouldn’t pay much notice of the stench!

Moving water practice (Image courtesy of Neil Turnbull)

Safely round the bend where progress was slow I now make steady time up towards a metal pole where the salmon cobles get tied up on… stands out against the filtered light in the sky. Being a prominent mark I usually glance at the Garmin to get an indicator of how  well or otherwise I have done to this point, it has just gone 19 minutes, I’m happy with that. Progress from here through the next few hundred metres can be slow….the eddies are very skinny and the river relatively steep but with the higher river level I get good depth on the paddle blades and so concentrate a bit on technique. The flow eases off a bit as I approach a series of croys and then a weir across the river with a chute slightly off centre to river right….this bit of river can be confused in terms of flow and sharpens the senses, at this river level I know if I move across to river left from my position here on the right I know I will be able to paddle over the top of the weir… I find myself easing off a bit and getting my heart rate and breathing down a bit in case of mishaps during the traverse! The main chute safely negotiated I head over to the left bank where I use a good back eddy to propel the boat towards the weir – over it goes with no fuss. When the river is lower this part usually means getting out and wrestling the boat over the weir and past some bushes! I glance at the Garmin again….it shows 30 minutes, not particularly quick to this point but I am happy. Progress to the turn point is now a case of following the left bank using back eddies when I can, I push things on a bit from here. I can make out the shape of some Swans up ahead and begin to curse them under my breath…. They fly a few hundred metres upstream only to be disturbed again….they eventually follow the only sensible one in the flock and turn downstream! I like to get to the turn point inside of 45 minutes, not always achievable, sometimes it ticks past the 50 minute marker. Destination reached I press the timer stop button and rest for a few minutes.

The return journey can be under 15 minutes as opposed to the 45 minutes it took to get up here, speeds on the return can be as much as 20 km hr. I ready myself and swing the bow out where the flow of the current helps with the turn, the anticipation of the roller coaster return seems to get the adrenaline pumping and I seem to be paddling harder….I temper things a bit and try to concentrate on technique…..I aim the boat towards the faster runs to take advantage of any assistance from the river. The weir looms up very quickly and I try to judge the position of the main chute to take advantage of the main flow and to avoid punching through the stopper behind and the resulting back tow which would slow things down……I get the chute and slide through to be met by some confused waves and very boily bits that see a few bracing strokes being used…..nearing the tail I glance at the Garmin and it shows 19 and a bit km hr. Staying with the main flow I reach the horseshoe bend again but his time I just career through the main run where if things fall into place 20km hr is possible. I am now into the last few hundred metres and the lights from the town reflect from the surface and help with the boat position in the main flow….very near the end and I glance at the timer which shows 59 mins….it’s a good time but I am not going to get a PB even although I push things on a bit towards the finish point. The end is reached and the timer is stopped, I save the data and look forward to analysing the information later.

Chart showing an example of the information available to the paddler when using a sports watch paired with a cadence sensor

Loading the boat onto the van I feel content from the physical toil, the activity seems to clear the mind of the days clutter… I think about the hour that has just passed and already I am looking forward to the next time and run it all over again. A session such as this one can do so much for us from a training point of view… has given us intervals of intense activity mixed with more relaxed parts, it lets us concentrate on paddle technique, not only just good efficient forward technique but also a whole gamut of other strokes to keep the boat moving in the right direction and prevent the paddler from getting a wet face! It has been a paddling activity in a real paddling environment and as such brings to use all the skills we need that will ultimately help us to get the best from our paddling.

Finding a paddle venue suitable for use over the winter months that can be considered a safe training environment during darkness as well as well as daylight is not easy, obviously it very much depends on distance to travel and as I mentioned earlier if any great distances are involved then this can deter us from making the effort. So finding a place within a few minutes travel is best. It is also advisable to build up an intimate knowledge of your training venue; almost to the stage where it could be paddled blindfold. If its deep enough to float a boat then it could probably be used for training …….sheltered estuaries, rivers, canals and reservoirs can all be used. Perhaps the most important thing of all is that the activity must be made to be enjoyable so get out and have a look around your patch and see what’s available and work with the elements and conditions, include them in your training ventures. It might be raining with a horrible headwind, don’t let it defeat you, look on it as something that makes us stronger and fitter and ready for the better days ahead.

Brian Turnbull – Nov 2016