Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Paddling Strength Training

When Oscar Chalupsky hosted a couple of clinics for us in the early part of last year, as well as a great couple of hours of his no-nonsense coaching, he left each attendee an illustrated exercise sheet with a series of strength & conditioning exercises that he has used to great success over his career.

There was nothing revolutionary about them, but I'm sure each of us with Oscar's exercise card, who has taken the time to run through the drills a few times, very quickly works out whether they do, or do not, have the kind of core strength required to paddle at the top level. Not many do's, I reckon....

I did the Tough Mudder late last year, and while aerobically I was well ahead of most of the participants, the obstacles I struggled with were the ones that required pure upper body power & strength. This year I decided to try to remedy that, not becuase I wanted to do another slightly silly Tough Mudder, but rather with the goal of becoming a stronger paddler.

Our new office is a couple of doors down from something that up until now has been a mystery to me, the PT Gym. It's called Oxygen Fitness, and it's a bit of a contrast to the gym I last frequented, the infamous Giles Gym in Coogee. Demolished, tragically, in the late '90's, Giles was perched perilously on the cliffs of North Coogee, had a big sign in the weights room that said 'DON'T SPIT ON THE WALLS' (which everyone ignored), was frequented in equal numbers by rugby league players, colourful Sydney racing identities, and detectives. Rumour has it the sauna was bugged by the NCA, and while shaving in the steam room, wiping your whiskers on your leg (yes you read that right), you'd often hear a great story about the latest heist here or there, mingled with old footy stories of biffo or coppers talking about a spectacular arrest.

The legendary, now sadly demolished, Giles Gym at Coogee. If it looks a bit crooked, it's becuase it was.
It was immortalised in the Les Norton books, where the hero often went to 'Gales Gym', where there were always old Kings Cross gangsters and hit men who used to sit in the sauna and spa pool that looked over the beach with their gold chains, speaking out of the corner of their mouths in hushed tones. My training partners included several members of the 'Maori Mafia' who ran Sydney's scaffolding industry, blokes call 'Ironbar' and 'Stumpy', Bra Boys, several disgraced detectives and the choregrapher of the Sydney Dance Company (who was head & shoulders the strongest bloke in the joint). It was one seriously egalitarian place!

Giles was unique, it was my training venue for the winters in between cricket seasons, and part of the reason I took up paddling. When it was closed down, I was shocked to visit a 'real' gym and see a bunch of blokes watching Neighbours while riding stationary bikes, occassionally hopping off to lift a ridiculous weight, mostly accompanied by a swagger, some grunting & a fair dose of peacock fanfare. If you'd done that at Giles you may well have been taken out the back & been given some etiquette lessons. After a few weeks of this, I decided to do something outdoors to get fit instead, bought myself an Old Town Nantucket, set my sights on the Hawkesbury Classic & never went near a gym again.....

Anyway, I digress, the gym next door is small, everyone seems to have a neck, it has a few free weights, some torture machines for stepping, the bizarre running machine (why do we need these things....?) and, crucially, affiliated personal trainers who, as often as you like, will reduce you to a whipmering mess on request.

I've hooked up with Ryan, who has a background in outrigger canoeing & is also a former elite footy player. He has taken Oscar's base of exercises & expanded them into something that seems to target every single muscle vital to paddling. Over the course of an hour each week, he's overseen my form on a variety of core & arm strengthening exercises, all aimed at building paddling strength. Essentially, he's given me a base of routines that will make me stronger, taking care to make sure I'm doing every one of them safely and using form that will maximise their effectiveness. I started this program in pretty decent shape, but he has managed to shorten me up like nothing else over the past year or so, and I'm confident it'll produce the results I'm hoping for.

OK, so I know sea kayaking isn't something we do against a clock or even very often in a race, but I tend to look at my own paddling in the context of what it is that holds me back. Like me, I reckon the overwhelming majority of paddlers are limited not by a lack of skill or opportunity, but rather by conditioning and the kind of reassuring strength in your joints & muscles that inherently prevents injury. I've watched people tie themselves in knots at skills lessons, blow themselves up on a short harbour paddle, & often thought they would have been better off leaving the kayak at home once a week & instead doing some decent cardiovascular conditioning. If you start slow, and keep at it, it's really not that hard to lift your overall aerobic fitness, and it happens surprisingly quickly.

Busted ....
So, while the inspiration for this tangent came from a world champion surf ski paddler and his generously shared path to high performance, the benefits of specific strength training geared up for paddling should not only have the less important benefit of making me go faster, but also help prevent the kinds of niggling injuries that can potentially put me off the water.

I'm enjoying the challenge, it's another one of those things that is taking me miles outside my comfort zone, and it doesn't require much more than a couple of spare hours a week out of my busy schedule.

I'm not a qualified exercise instructor so I won't outline any of my specific exercises here, but if you're local to southern Sydney & would like to get in touch with Ryan or the guys at Oxygen then either give me a shout or look them up through their website oxygenlifestyleandfitness.com.au.

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