How to meet challenge of preparing for a very committing expedition, with basically nowhere to hide once it's underway, based on historical weather data that shows extremely demanding conditions to be the stock standard daily fare, when you have very small windows of time to devote to training? My family commitments mean weekends, early mornings & evenings are out, so I have had to work out a routine of meaningful fitness preparation around lunch hours & the odd gap where I've got an hour or two during the day.
This has been the problem for me to solve over the past couple of months since agreeing to take part in a trip with Rob & Chris James which kicks off in July, and something I've gone far & wide in search of expert advice to try to overcome.
Chris & his mate Chris Walker, who won the sea kayaking division in the recently completed Harbour Series, suggested an approach favoured by a guy named Tim Ferris in his book 'The Four Hour Body', which despite sounding like some horrendous Anthony Robbins self help bible, gives some very simple & sound advice.
Essentially, the message is to measure. Measure your weight, your times on fitness paddles, your routines, heart rate output, you name it. Measuring gives you a start point, a line of progress & a goal, which any good navigator will tell you is the key to getting from A to B in one piece.
So what to do when you're basically limited to 60 to 90 minute sessions, for a trip that will have several legs where we'll spend upwards of 12 hours on the water?
Asking around a bevvy of fitness experts with performance paddling experience, there is universal agreement that interval training is king. That means spending intervals of time on a fitness paddle changing up a gear & pushing yourself above the general pace that you're aiming for. I've developed a 60 minute paddle where I will go hard for 3 minutes, every 10 minutes, & each time focus on something different, such as form, speed, cadence, leg drive etc. I'm rigged up with a heart rate monitor & have a GPS perched in my eye line, which records my speed & output, as well as telling me how fast I'm recovering. Improving fitness is all about improving recovery, so measuring these things in a palpable way tells me if I'm making progress. My aim is to get this up to 6 minutes on overdrive, with two minutes rest in between, for an hour. It's a goal Max set me which seems pretty hard core!
Here's a readout of my heart rate on a 60 minute paddle where I covered 11.3km, showing the spikes in effort around the intervals, and my recovery rate.
Ideally, those 150-160bpm spikes should be back around 145bpm, and the recovery rates in between back to 125-130bpm by the time of the trip.
I bought one of Dean Gardner's Kayak Pro Ergo machines, which is a phenomenal piece of kit for tuning your stroke & power, and have been spending an hour every other day working on the highest resistance setting trying to improve my resistance strength. That saves me oodles of time, as a one hour training paddle is realistically a three hour absence from the office by the time I get to & from the water.
Chris has one as well & we're comparing notes on how we're both progressing, which is a gentle competition to keep us both motivated.
I'm also doing a lot of swimming, which has been recommended to me by guys with elite athlete training backgrounds like Rob Walker, as being the closest thing to replicating paddling that you can do. I'm now punching out 2km a few times a week, constantly aiming to beat my previous times, and finding the improvement is accelerating as I keep up the effort. Swimming is one of those things you don't have to persevere with for long before it becomes way easier.
I've continued my quest to get my forward stroke in good order, with one-on-one lessons from experts in ski racing picking out the small flaws & giving me something to aim at.
I've used these past couple of months to build a base of fitness that will soon allow me to start working on the other aspects of expedition paddling. At the core of this is obviously getting out & doing a few days in loaded boats, in demanding conditions & working against weight resistance. Going against general sea kayaking lore, this is the sort of paddling that contemporary training wisdom says is really the icing on the cake for an expedition, the stuff you should get your head around, but not necessarily the paddling that will make your body any stronger. This is due to the big toll it takes if repeated over & over. That was advice I was pleased to hear, but nonetheless I'm intending to tune up with some long open water paddles prior to leaving.
I was lucky enough to spend loads of time with Les Allen & Ian Pexton talking about the sorts of preparation they did mentally for their multitude of big committing trips. Of course in Rob I have a guy who's paddled the majority of the East Coast, & in Chris a brilliant all round paddler with heaps of experience in & around Bass Strait. It's not a bad situation for me, not having done any multi day expeditions since before my eldest daughter was born in 2004, & one I'm fortunate to be in.
It's been an interesting couple of months & has opened my eyes to just how much performance you can achieve if you commit to an organised training regime, not to mention awakening the competitive instincts that I thought I'd left on Coogee Oval with my boots & expert phrasebook of sledges.
I'm acutely aware that I'm paddling with two guys who are real athletes & want to make sure I leave nothing in my preparation that could see my performance suffer when we're inevitably under the hammer. And you know what, all this hard work is also a lot of fun.
Time will tell if it all works; I might end up in a screaming heap after my first hard day on the trip, but I'll only know that for sure once I'm there. It's been terrific so far to be working towards a goal.