Paddling from the Beginning – Fitness

Paddler on Lake Michigan at the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium. Door County, Wisconsin.

In the last “Paddling From The Beginning” post I gave you just some of the reasons we paddle.  Today I want to talk just a bit about paddling for fitness.. for us average non-super athletic types.

I’ll never forget reading an interview with Israeli expedition paddler Hadas Feldman where she said something to the effect that she had to go on a major expedition every so often to simply avoid getting fat.  Obviously she wasn’t serious, but that’s athleticism I understand!  Certainly there are paddlers who go for the most efficient strokes, amazing speeds and all that. Bless their little souls! But most of us define fitness by simply staying active, alive and not getting too fat!

Paddling burns calories but like all exercise it’s not a solution in-of-itself.  Depending on who you read, paddling can burn anywhere from 300 to 400 calories per hour depending on your weight and effort. (Keep in mind, that’s paddling, not floating along with the current.) Also If you stop off at Krispy Kreme on the way to the launch you’ve already shot your first hour or two of paddling right out the window.  If you are going to paddle to lose weight, you have to cut out the calories in your diet as well.  Well, most of the time. I lost over 25lbs in a month on one paddling trip without minding my calories. However, I paddled 8 hours or more per day over  most of that time period. Once you start paddling long hours the bigger concern is often taking in enough calories. In a later post in this series we will talk about some good stuff to eat and drink when you are out on the water as well.

Another benefit of kayaking is simply toning up your muscles a bit.  Paddling will improve muscle tone in your arms, back, chest and stomach. If you are doing it right, it will also help you to tone up your legs as well.   In addition, if you really want to be a better paddler, you’ll soon find yourselfe including some off the water exercise as well.  Put together it all helps you become more fit.

Ultimately there are many ways to lose weight and stay healthy. Often the biggest challenge to fitness and exercise is boredom and the feeling that we are depriving ourselves of the basic enjoyment of life.  Paddling offers a way to exercise in an ever changing, non-repetitive environment which ultimately helps us to overcome exercise boredom.  In fact you paddle for the fun of it.  Fitness.. is just an accidental by-product.

Next we’ll talk a bit about gear.. First of all you need a PFD…


Discussion – Coaches & Experienced Paddlers: Have any paddling for fitness success stories? Tips?

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8 Responses

  1. Kellie

    I’ve found that rolling and sculling are two of the best ab exercises ever. Until then, I’d never met an ab exercise that I liked or that liked me. I’ve also spent the first few years of paddling in a futile attempt to keep up with the guys. On the plus side, it has made me work on my forward stroke, though from time to time, I consider placing a small electric motor at the back of the kayak. To put this in perspective, one of my paddling buddies paddled in excess of 2,400 miles last year (must be that fitness paddling thing). I did not put in as many miles (: and yes yes the main thing is that paddling (and rolling and sculling) is FUN.

    Looking forward to reading tips from coaches and experienced paddlers!

  2. Derrick,
    things are a bit different with me.
    I am the most “unfit” that I have been since I started sea kayaking.
    Previously I was mountain biking and then backpacking and my fitness level was way higher than now.
    As a common mortal I have a 9to5 job and that leaves me pretty much just the weekend to paddle. I paddle more (more time on water) than I used to walk (backpack) or ride.
    So what gives? sea kayaking even at a decent pace never gets me anaerobic. There is too much momentum built in paddling to exert the body at the level of MTB or backpacking.
    The only time that I am out of breath is sea kayak surfing or short sprints.

  3. It seems that only the racers really paddle for fitness as the rest of us tend to paddle within our comfort zone. While it is true that walking will increase cardiovascular endurance, it takes rather long walks to get decent results. Research is on the side of more intensive workout with adequate rest in between. Monitoring ones waking heart rate for unexpected increases is a good warning that you have not recovered from your previous work out and should not go at it hard that day.

  4. Interesting post.

    Silbs – I agree about it needing rather long walks to get decent results. I recently walked for 18 days in the Himalaya, often from 7.00am to 4.00pm. Along with eating less than usual (though never being hungry), no alcohol and very few “processed” food treats, I sure changed body shape, increased muscle tone and improved cardio fitness.

    Derrick, with expeditions I find it’s not just the hours spent on the water that sheds those kilos, it’s the walking to and from the kayak to the campsite, all that incidental exercise that gets lost in our comfortable home existances.


  5. Anna Mallin

    I’m in my late 60’s and paddle for fitness. One of my goals is to assure that I don’t hold back any group I’m with. Another goal is maintaining and increasing the efficiency of my forward stroke with a Greenland paddle. I live on a dammed river and use a GPS to clock speed. Initially, I used the GPS to give me confirmation when I hit the efficient “sweet spot” with my forward stroke. Then I noticed that my average speed was increasing nicely. I now aim to paddle 10 km every other day at a “purposeful” pace with occasional sprints and to do it at an every increasing pace “without breaking a sweat”. I was toddling along at about 7.5 km per hour over a 10 km stretch last summer and will be curious what I can achieve next summer. On alternate days (provided there is no one around), I “play” – swooping around docks and swim platforms trying to get the maximum out of edging and turning strokes. I’ve still got a ways to go before my boat and I dance to perfection – and I’m having a ball working on it.

  6. Good thoughts everyone.. It just goes to show how many different ways we can approach it and how different the results can be for each individual… Like everything, there is no one answer.

  7. For some reason I’m getting an error on your latest post, Life Jackets. Also I’ve emailed you…..haven’t heard back. Anything wrong with your site?

  8. MarcP

    Message for Kellie:

    There’s a sneaky trick in paddling – riding another kayak’s stern wave – it can help push you along with far less effort – kind of like following (draughting) another cyclist on a windy day.

    The trick is to get right on a paddler’s stern, with your bow as close as possible, 1-2 feet max, in line with the boat in front’s stern.

    It’ll work better (or only) in calm than in conditions, and is an easy way to take a breather. I’d guess effort drops by 1/3rd or so. It also works better when paddling fast, as then the boat actually makes a rideable wave. If paddling slower, the benefits disappear.

    It removes some of the fun of going where you want and looking around – until you do it so easily that focus isn’t required.