If you’re a little late in getting to that “new year, gotta get fit” resolution and need some inspiration then this post is for you. There’s no need to call in the ice breaker, dawn the snowsuit, or break out the “Yak Trax” in order to get in shape for the upcoming kayaking season. My recommendation would be to take a trip down to the local indoor pool and start swimming!
Swimming is a great way to get prepared for kayaking from the perspectives of fitness and safety. There’s no doubting the fact that swimming is a great way to get in shape. It’s aerobic, low impact, full-body, and fun; it’s really the “do it all” exercise. When thinking about swim training, I always go back to memories of the BSA Lifeguarding certification that I completed in scouts. I thought that I was in good shape when I started that course. Heck, I had just come off of Spring track where I was running 4:40 miles! That week of swimming laps of the pond, diving for dumbells, and experiencing a few near-drownings at the hands of the instructors kicked my butt and took me to a whole new level of fitness that I didn’t think was possible!
By “swim training” I don’t mean an everyday “bootcamp” or enrolling in a lifeguarding course. Start out slowly; just get in the pool and do a few laps to see where you’re at. Even if you’re in pretty good shape you may be surprised how quickly you tire. Don’t be discouraged! Over time you can build up endurance by increasing the number of laps or the amount of time you spend in the pool. Try swimming a few laps doing the front crawl and take breaks by going onto your back for a few laps. Then move on to decrease the number of laps spent on your back to build stamina. Make sure that you mix up the routine in order to keep improving your strength and stamina. Also, you don’t have to swim every day to improve. Three to four days a week should do the trick to get you that elusive beach body and well prepared for kayak season!
Swim training is also vitally important from the perspective of safety. When things get sketchy on the water there’s no doubt that being a strong swimmer could make the difference. I’ve experienced one incident in which swimming to safety was my only option. It was at the end of my first season of whitewater paddling and I was stepping it up at the West River Fest in VT. The run was a dam release that started with about a half-mile of class III whitewater and then mellowed out to class I and II. I had never run that much class III continuously and was a little nervous and tight at the put-in just below the dam. “You’ll be alright. Just don’t stay in your boat for the first couple of rapids.” Infamous last words of encouragement…
Of course the big mistake came on the very first rapid. I got bumped funny, was too tight to recover, and swiftly capsized. A few missed rolls later I found myself “swimming.” It was really more like going through a spin cycle than swimming because I was fully at the mercy of the current. The rapids were pretty big and boney and I was worried about finding a munchy hole or getting pinned. Needless to say, there was a lot of motivation to swim hard for the river’s edge and that’s what I did but to no avail. I tried to get to the first eddy that I saw but the current whisked me right by it and over another drop. Eddies kept flying by on either side as I struggled to stay on top of the water. My training kicked in as I quickly reverted to a “defensive position” in order to conserve energy, protect my head, and wait for a better chance to break out of the current. It wasn’t until about a quarter mile later that I was able to get to the safety of an eddy. I crawled up on the bank completely gassed and commenced to evacuate all of the water that I had consumed during my trip. Scary and humbling.
Granted, whitewater kayaking is not sea kayaking but the idea of being a strong swimmer for safety’s sake remains valid. We’ve all heard stories or read accident reports of kayakers being separated from their boats for one reason or another. You’re almost always waaaayyy better off staying with your boat and waiting for help but if you know that help is not going to come in time then you have to make a swim for it. The better you are at swimming the better your chances will be.
Stay warm and get to the pool!