The Art of Distance Paddleboard Training

Long distance prone paddle boarding is relatively unknown in the UK with little, if any, scientific data to go on. So, when I told Fletch senior that I was planning a world record attempt and needed a training program, we had little to go on. An acid test for any sport and exercise physiologist.

All on the arms, it is a physically hard sport. Add into that mix a global pandemic, coaching your son, an unpredictable outdoor challenge on the waters of Loch Ness and what you end up with is a big pot of variables.

I could be accused of bias on the merits of Fletch seniors training approach. But be it James Fletcher or James Cracknell or anyone, the approach is the same. It is scientific, methodical and speaks for itself. Tried and tested. A large chunk tested on me I might add in the past. All those familiar erg or cycle sessions you do!

Perhaps the only difference in this case was a healthy dose of trial and error to fill in knowledge gaps and unknowns. So, what were the key elements of training and preparation, and how did we handle them?

  1. Formulating a training plan & then sticking at it

Anyone heard the phrase “stick to the plan, the plan is working” from Fletch senior. Well, for this we had a two-phase plan aiming at a 36km marathon prone paddle of up to 5 hours on Loch Ness & a 90km paddle over two days across Scotland.  

Phase 1 focused on a Ski erg fitness mirroring a building ergo marathon program. Sessions focused on building endurance and incremental fitness gains between March and May. We monitored heart rate responses and adjusted training as adaption occurred. It is all about those straight lines as Fletch senior would say!

As lockdown receded phase 2 kicked in and it was important to build the up the outdoor miles. Incrementally at first then advancing to get used to those long paddles on the board. During this phase we developed an understand of how my heart rate was responding to both the different paddle positions and long periods of paddling (see 3 ‘test the unknowns’ below).

The longest training paddle we built to was 3hrs30min. Over the whole 5-month training period I covered around 400km on the ski erg and near 300km of outdoor miles on the board. Having that prep in the back pocket was a huge confidence booster! 

2. Prioritise rest and recovery equally with training

Rest and recovery are where your adaption happens. With the bigger training volumes required of marathon paddles this is even more important. Luckily, I take this ‘training discipline’ (and it is a discipline) seriously. I love to eat and after a few hours plus out on the water R&R comes very easy. I gest but ever underestimate how important this is when going long!

3. Test those unknowns

  • How does paddle position effect heart rate?

Prone paddling has two positions, either lying (prone) or kneeling. At the outset we had no idea how sustainable either were over long periods of paddling. We discovered very quickly that the lying (prone position) spikes your heart rate, but the kneeling position is far more efficient both in terms of heart rate and paddle speed. You can see the spike easily in the Heart Rate trace below.

However, the kneeling position stresses your hamstrings and lower back. By going prone every so often for a short period combat this without effecting heart rate adversely. Ultimately, we found that balance through HR observation and settled on 2minutes kneeling to 30sec prone, to help relax muscles and maintain comfort on longer duration paddles.

  • What is the best nutrition & hydration plan?

Rachel Armstrong provided all the advice needed on this in a document written for marathon or 100k row nutrition. Stage one was working out what my body needed to get me through a paddle of 5 hrs. For that sort of paddle its 90g/hour of carbs to give my body enough fuel to get through. You need a 2:1 glucose to fructose combination drink for that (4 bottles worth) to allow for digestion, added a small dose of hydration salts, then had jelly babies and flapjack to top up each hour.

It required testing though as in the kneeling position it exceedingly difficult to digest some foods, so I needed easy to eat small bitesize snacks. A whole banana for example would not have worked! 

  • How do I carry all the kit required to paddle unsupported?

Having decided early on to paddle self-supported (no support boat and all I needed on board); the next challenge was to work out how to carry all I needed on board. This included 4 water bottles, two tubs on snacks, a GPS Tracker unit, GoPro, and chin rest.

With a lot of experimentation, I got there by creating an extra water bottle holder (made from an old fin), and achieved a lot just using Velcro on the deck to allow attachment of GPS tracker, chin rest and food tubs in accessible positions.  

4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable

A wild outdoor challenge presents a simple fact – there are elements you cannot control. You must accept this as part of the challenge and roll with the punches. The conditions on a wild vast stretch of water like Loch Ness can change in the blink of an eye.

To combat this, I paddled in every conceivable condition on the Loch in training. Upwind, downwind, crosswind, stronger winds, lighter winds, misty, hailing, raining and every conceivable combination of these. This preparation gave me a huge amount of confidence on the day and a calmness knowing I could handle anything that got thrown at me when I went for the attempt.   

The Loch Ness paddle itself

The result of all this was a 36km paddle down Loch Ness in 4hrs33min. We estimate I took around 15,000+ strokes and averaged ~7.91kph. I sure felt every one of those strokes in the shoulders the next day. It was exhausting but also immensely satisfying challenge have completed.

As with any big distance challenge there is a satisfaction and a confidence to be gained from knowing your preparation has covered all the bases.  Taking that scientific and methodical approach of Fletch senior was fundamental to successfully taking it on. All the time invested to get all the elements of fitness, position, nutrition, and kit set up right really paid off on the day.  

Setting an official prone paddleboard world record for crossing Loch Ness was a fantastic outcome. But I found most satisfaction having invested in and enjoyed the journey to get there. That is what makes all the difference. Let us face it, outcomes or results take care of themselves. All you have got to do put the time in and give yourself the best chance!  

Pacing data from the paddle itself:

Every 2000 mDurationkmkm/hmin/kmHR
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