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If you want to improve in the boat year after year, then, without question, you have to paddle all year, either on the water or on an erg. There is simply no way around the fact that if you take four or five months off from paddling it will take several months to get back into shape, thus returning you to about the same level you were at when the prior season ended. That then leaves you with only two or three months each year in which to improve. I live in Wisconsin where we have five months of sub-freezing temperatures and frozen water, and, over the last seven winters, I have trained on a kayak erg. I paddle a total of 210–240 hours each year, and about 50–80 of those hours are on the erg from November into April when the water outside is frozen.
My time on the kayak erg has been productive and I know this because I have had good results in midwinter and early spring races over the past few years. In fact, I think I’m usually fastest during late spring/early summer and generally lose a bit of ground in the summer and fall (part of the explanation, however, could relate to the fact that I have also lifted weights only during the winter months when I am using the erg, so my max strength is better then, too). Once our bay thaws in April and I can paddle outside, I work on LSD (long, slow distance) training and add short, powerful sprints to my training, as both of these types of workouts are difficult to do on the erg.
Resistance on my erg is accomplished via a combination flywheel/fan. This allows a feel of momentum and resistance that increases exponentially. A simple computer lead attached to the flywheel gives an idea of relative speed/effort. You can always add an inexpensive bicycle computer if your erg didn’t come with one. Seats and footrests are less important features of an erg as they can be easily customized by the user. With regards to the design of the erg, I think the distance from the footrest to the rope pick-ups needs to be long to allow resistance to come on early in the catch. The importance of this design parameter is difficult to explain, but seems obvious after you’ve spent time on ergs. The first erg I owned literally disintegrated after about 50 hours of use — thankfully, I don’t think that company exists any longer. My current erg is a Speedstroke which has held up very well with minimal maintenance. (I have changed the rope twice in the five years that I have used it. Nothing else has needed replacing or maintenance.)
Over the years, I have customized my erg, partly because when I’ve got nothing to look at for all those hours while using it, a guy like me tends to focus on and obsess over ideas of how to improve what I am doing. So, I added a heart rate (HR) monitor holder made from a bent coat hanger and it stands between my lower legs, as the Polar HR transmitter signal doesn’t reach all the way to the foot pullbar. I placed closed-cell foam on the footrest to cushion my heels. The footplate is converted from a small ICF K-1 type footplate to a full-length one so that I can apply pressure more with my heels like in a surf ski. My flywheel has both a cover to decrease resistance, and a tennis ball on a bungee cord to increase resistance (more on this later) at different times. I have also taped weights (four ounces of fishing sinkers) to each end of the paddle to more closely simulate the swing weight of a true paddle. And my iPod Shuffle hangs from the ceiling as that is the only way to keep it dry from sweat.
Like most indoor exercise equipment, the toughest part is often finding the motivation to use it. You need something to make the time go by more quickly, or something to occupy your mind without distracting it too much from what you are doing. Intervals work well for this. Whether your intervals are hard vs. easy, or simply the time until you take your next drink of fluid and towel off, having a short-term goal to focus on makes the time go by much more quickly. Also, having more data available to look at such as speed, elapsed time, and heart rate helps to occupy your mind. Some people find that setting up a mirror in front of themselves helps with improving their technique as well.
I won’t give specific advice about training concerning what to do, when to do it, intensity, volume, macro-cycles, in-season, off-season, etc. I will simply share what works for me. Each year, I have two cycles. The first of these is in the off-season from November through March when all my paddling is on the erg. I start with less total paddling volume and less time at higher intensity and slowly build both of these into spring. Once on the water in April, my second cycle starts and I focus mainly on increasing the length of my LSD workouts as the season progresses. Many other paddlers are like me in this regard.
We all have limited time to train, and don’t peak for one particular race, but rather, for an entire multi-month season. We would like to improve year upon year and enter the season fit and ready to race. In general, we mainly need more paddling volume in our training.
From early November through mid-April, I will try to get four good workouts per week on the erg, but this can vary from two to six workouts per week. Fully half of my sessions are completed in 45 minutes. Later in winter, when I’m adding a bit more volume, some sessions will reach 90 minutes. The first type of workout that I do, and the one I think is most important, is a basic anaerobic threshold/lactate threshold/lactate balance point (LBP) session. In previous years, I defined this pace as the HR that I could maintain for a one to two-hour race, so it was a fairly grueling pace. However, this winter I am doing these at my lactate balance point, LBP (based on the FaCT test and results from a Lactate Pro monitor). I do 9 minutes at that pace — which is dictated by the HR monitor — and then 1 minute easy to towel off, get a drink, etc. I will start in the early winter with three of the 9-minute intervals and work up to eight or nine in the spring. Why 9 + 1 minutes? Simply because 10 minutes makes it easy to follow the clock and because 9 minutes is short enough that it’s not too difficult to gear up to do ”just one more.” I also find that I recover more quickly from these workouts when I add in the 1 minute rests as opposed to doing a continuous 30 to 90 minute time trial.
The second type of workout that I do is a faster, more intense interval session. I have done and continue to do either nine x 2-minute hard intervals with 2 minutes of rest, or four 4-minute hard intervals with 4 minutes of rest in between. I break the 2-minute intervals into sets of three and add a 5-minute recovery between each set. For all of these, my focus is on the hard part of the interval, not on the recovery, so if I feel that I need more time to recover between hard intervals, then I’ll take it. I only look at speed during these (not HR), and I try to maintain a certain minimum speed throughout the interval. Effort is quite a bit higher than lactate threshold pace. During the past few winters, I did two of these sessions each week. In 2007/2008, I am only doing one of them each week.
The third workout that I do includes paddling with either added resistance or decreased resistance. Earlier in the off-season, I do more added resistance sessions, and later in the winter, I do more lower resistance sessions. Occasionally, I mix both into a 45-minute session. For these, I wear an HR monitor and am less concerned about speed. Depending on how I feel, I will use this session as either a recovery session with a lower heart rate or as a second, shorter and different type of LBP workout. When I add resistance, it is with a tennis ball that is bungeed in such a way that it applies an even and light pressure against the smooth side of the flywheel, and it slows my speed down by about 0.5 mph (with my computer set to show realistic speeds). I decrease resistance by covering the fan/flywheel with a homemade cardboard cover. For this workout, I am essentially spinning at marathon race pace stroke rate or faster but with lower resistance and/or lower heart rate.
My fourth workout is a sort of LSD session, and these are difficult to do on the erg because of the boredom. I try to do 90 minutes if I can at a comfortable and easy pace. My HR monitor dictates the effort and I will stay about 20–30 beats below my LBP. Podcasts that I have downloaded to my iShuffle really help me get through these and I still try to break the time up into 10-minute blocks with short water breaks in between. Occasionally, I will split these workouts into segments of added resistance, decreased resistance, and the default resistance.
Here is my reasoning as to why I do each of the above workouts each week. In my opinon, the LBP sessions are the key sessions to increase marathon race speed. I had considerable success with these types of sessions during a previous life when I was a cyclist, so I really believe in them. I try not to overdo it with them as too much time in or near the red zone can lead to overtraining and poor performance. This winter (2007/2008) I am doing these at a lower HR, which corresponds to my actual LBP, so they should be even less stressful than in previous years. The short, hard intervals are done to train power in the paddling-specific movement and, theoretically, to keep my LBP heart rate from dropping. These are hard sessions, but they don’t have that much volume, so I don’t think that they are too draining in the long run.
The variable resistance/speed sessions are similar to what you would get in-season by paddling into a headwind, on a downwind run, or in a team boat. I feel that the added resistance kind of ”wakes up” or recruits more muscle fibers in the paddling muscles to get in on the training effect — at least that is what it feels like. The negative resistance sessions might help coordination, muscle firing sequence, and all that is related to the neuromuscular system. They also seem to act as recovery sessions if done at a low heart rate. LSD sessions are tedious, though 90 minutes is hardly long distance, but I don’t want to force myself to sit on the erg for any longer than that.
I concentrate on technique continually when on the erg and think that technique learned on the erg is very applicable to the water. On water, you have steering, waves, boat balance, and other obstacles to worry about. On the erg, it’s easier to focus on the movement patterns of your feet, torso, and arms because there are no distractions. You can really concentrate on particular points, like your elbow height, wrist flexion, torso pause, etc., work to get it right, then imprint it over and over again. You get your body to learn a specific coordinated movement pattern at variable speeds and then later apply it to the water. As someone more or less self-taught and Internet-taught in kayak technique, I find it much easier to understand technique and force vectors on the erg than on the water.
This month, I am demoing a type of balance seat on my erg. The idea is that it will stress the core stabilizers more realistically and serve to both improve or maintain boat balance and recruit more core stabilizers into the training effect during the erg workouts. It should also help to avoid unintentional learned lateral shifts in balance from spending time on the erg.
This coming summer, I plan to use the erg once per week for a short session. The purpose will be to either use the session as an easy ”spinning” workout at decreased resistance, or as a technique session. I have easy and quick access to water during the warm part of the year, so I don’t lose time commuting to and from an access point. If you are less fortunate and have to hassle with loading/unloading a boat and traveling to get to water, and, if your free time is often limited, then having an erg is a very practical method of saving time and still getting paddling-specific training in.
In closing, I will leave you with a few thoughts most applicable to a northern or seasonal paddler who has considered purchasing a kayak erg. First, while the high-quality ergs are expensive, they last a very long time. I expect to get at least a decade out of my Speedstroke, which then makes it seem like a bargain. Consider how much money you spend on boats and how many hours of use each of your boats get. For me, my erg has more hours of use than any boat I have ever owned. Secondly, think of the amount of time, money, and energy that you already might spend on paddling and traveling to events. For me, it is substantial, and that alone justifies the cost of an erg and also the off-season hours that I use it.