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Training Methodology: Paddle Faster for Longer

If asked to compare low-intensity training with high-intensity training, I think first I would explain my understanding of what low and high-intensity training would be.

Low-intensity training can fit into most exercise categories, as most day-to-day activities result in low-intensity exercise (e.g. walking, shopping, playing with the kids, and paddling at a comfortable pace). So, on a scale of training zones from 1 to 5, I would place low intensity in training zone 1. Low-intensity training can be continuous exercise or intervals of exercise with periods of rest. At this low level, the benefits of exercise are limited to maintaining aerobic conditioning and increased functions of the heart.

Steady-state training (continuous with a steady effort) falls into the low to moderate level of intensity training and is a commonly used training process by many paddlers. It has much better adaptions then low-level training on the aerobic conditioning. Steady-state training is just that, steady. It is done continuously and remains in the aerobic level of exercise so therefore benefiting the aerobic system as it solely uses oxygen as fuel and benefits the health of the heart.

High-intensity training (HIT) is anaerobic exercise and doesn’t exclusively use oxygen as fuel. It also uses carbohydrates and burns more fat than low-intensity training. So, if you just want to lose weight and burn fat HIT is the way to go. Regular high-intensity training (HIT) workouts also improve your ability to withstand the rigors of other types of interval training. The aching sensation in your muscles that accompanies a hard sprint (which results from burning carbohydrates for fuel) becomes less intense and subsides more quickly over time, allowing you to work at a higher intensity with less rest. Your capacity to transition smoothly from burning fat (before your workout and during rest periods) to burning carbohydrates (during your work intervals) and back again improves with high-intensity training, as well. Together, these metabolic benefits bolster health and athletic performance, particularly in paddling which requires short bursts of all-out effort interspersed with periods of reduced effort, such as when racing.

Putting It All Together

So steady-state cardio /low-intensity training has its value in a training program — even if some paddlers find it unexciting. And although high-intensity training is clearly effective in increasing higher level exercising, it can grind you down if that’s all you do.

Given these pros and cons, what’s best for your workout?

The answer is a resounding . . . it depends. Beginner’s needs are different from those of competitive athletes. Before you can decide on what type of training to do, low or high-intensity training, it is best to find a goal. Then, the program you choose should reflect a balance of getting good at what you’re not good at and even better at what you are good at.

Experienced paddlers wanting to increase paddling fitness should take this simple test:

sit quietly, find your pulse, and count your heartbeats for one minute. If your resting heart rate is below 60, feel free to experiment with high-intensity training. If it’s above 65, you need more low-intensity training/steady-state cardio training. This is just a general rule to follow with heart rate and is about as far as I would use heart rate in my training as it is too slow on the uptake in monitoring training intensity when doing interval sessions and downwind paddling.

Since aerobic fitness is the foundation for so many paddlers’ activities, I suggest that when starting out on a training program for beginners, emphasis must be on steady-state cardio first, regardless of your long-term goal. For an experienced paddler, a good training plan must start out with a good base of aerobic training before taking on high-intensity training.

Once your aerobic system is coping with training intensity, dial back the steady-state training and bring in some high-intensity training. Make sure, however, that your resting heart rate stays below 65 beats per minute. If it shoots above 65 at rest, return to aerobic work and limit high-intensity training.

So, to continue to increase your paddling fitness whether a beginner or experienced paddler, you will need to use both low and high-intensity training at some time in your training plan. Hence, I use 5 different training zones (TZ) in the make-up of all my training programs. The volume and TZ are combined to progressively increase (functional threshold paddling pace = TZ 3/training zone 3) to cope with all paddle specific conditions in racing and touring in calm or rough water.

I liken the 5 training zones to gears in your car. More specifically, when you are trained in using the 5 training zones your paddling becomes like a finely tuned automatic gearbox in a racing car that can effectively change up and down through the 5 gears efficiently, without extending yourself to failure.

Using the Correct Training Intensities and Volumes to Avoid Intensity Blindness

Overcoming intensity blindness requires constant monitoring of relevant intensity metrics such as heart rate, functional threshold pace (FTP), stroke rates, rate of perceived exertion (RPE), and a willingness to go a little slower than your body wants to. This transition proves surprisingly challenging for many athletes, who find it difficult to escape the inertia of habit and/or find it difficult to believe that slowing down will actually benefit them.

It takes discipline and restraint to complete this transition, but those who do are always well rewarded. First, you will notice that you just feel more comfortable in your low-intensity workouts and perhaps enjoy them more as a result. Then you will discover that you feel fresher for your high-intensity workouts (HIT) and perform better in them. Next, you will experience accelerated fitness development. And finally, you will achieve a performance breakthrough in your next race. By then, you will be completely sold on using RPE and FTP as your intensity guide for training and racing.

Kai Bartlett doing one of Micks high intensity interval workouts.

High-Intensity Intervals

Note that in high-intensity interval workouts, the entire interval block, including active recoveries should be counted as time spent at high intensity. This is because doing so more accurately reflects where your heart rate actually is over the course of the session. For example, suppose your paddling interval is at TZ 4 for 3 minutes with active recovery at TZ 1 for 2 minutes and you repeat that 5 times. In this case, your heart rate will spend close to 25 minutes in the high-intensity range even though you are only producing high-intensity power outputs for 15 minutes.

Training Volume

It is widely assumed that the reason elite endurance athletes spend so much time at low intensity is that they must do so in order to sustain the extremely high training volumes they do. In other words, it is assumed that volume is primary and intensity secondary in the formula for optimal training. But the latest science indicates that the opposite is true.

If a “mostly-slow” approach to intensity were necessary only to allow high volume training, then recreational athletes training at lower volumes would fare better with an approach that leaned more on moderate and/or high intensity. Indeed, many athletes believe they can “make up for” training less by training harder. But in a 2014 study, Seiler found that athletes who ran just 35 miles per week on average with the volume and intensity in the correct balanced improved their 10K race times by twice as much as runners who did half of their training at moderate intensity, which is typical of recreational athletes training to go slow.

So, it appears that a balance of volume and intensity is optimal for all endurance athletes. The optimal volume of training for each athlete is the amount of volume/intensity training that yields the best results. Because low-intensity training is so gentle, this amount will be relatively high for everyone, but higher for some than it is for others, and it will tend to increase for each athlete as he or she develops.

Training Intensity

Using different training intensities not only adds variety to your training sessions but is key to developing specific paddling conditioning to improve performance. Along with varying the training intensities to improve adaptation and add variety to keep training interesting and fun by also using intervals of differing volumes (time or distance) paddlers will find the best balance to creating their personal best performances.

Set Out a Training Plan

When asked to set out a training plan the first thing to dial in is the goal and the goal date and work back to the start date of your training plan. Once you have set this out, you will have a set number of weeks and months. The longer time set out, the better the results will become. Olympians prepare in 4-year blocks to get maximum results and use all the training phases of a complete training plan: general preparation, specific preparation, pre-competition phase, competition phase, and recovery phase. But we all lead busy lives and not all have this amount of time, so we mostly use a reduced scale of this training plan. However, the more time in the phases, the easier it becomes to get bigger improvements.

Example 20-Week Progressive Training Plan

General Preparation: 40 % is 8 weeks of the 20 weeks

Specific Preparation: 30 % is 6 weeks of the 20 weeks

Pre-Competition: 20 % is 4 weeks of the 20 weeks

Competition Phase: 10 % is 2 weeks of the 20 weeks.

This a basic layout for a one-goal event e.g. Molokai to Oahu. But for paddlers competing in multiple races in a competition phase would have a different % make up over the training plan and they would also have a longer training plan. In our next blog, we will look into functional threshold pace (FTP), how to find FTP, and use it in conjunction with all 5 training zones (TZ) in a training program.

Mick Di Betta


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