Preparing to kayak is very similar to preparing for sports like wrestling or gymnastics. Kayaking provides a great workout of the upper body. When performed appropriately, your torso really gets a great workout. The thighs and feet do isometric exercises to hold you in the boat. A light warm up and stretching regimen will help you avoid potential injuries from sudden motions like bracing.

Warm Up

If you remember your high school gym classes, they probably had you do some light warm-up exercises to get the blood flowing and to warm the extremities. Back then, they may have had you do some push-ups for example. Another nice warm-up is light jogging or walking. Simply unloading our boats and carrying to the put-in is often good enough for a light warm-up. Don't forget to take it a bit easy after a long lunch break and warm up gradually there as well. I like some easy ascension practice to warm-up.


Only after you have warmed up your major muscle groups and especially the shoulders should you even consider stretching exercises. I would concentrate on shoulders and torso stretching for this sport. There are lots of ways to do this. In calm water, try to twist your torso and reach your rear grab loop. You will notice that many paddlers do torso and shoulder stretching in their boats with their paddles in the air, this works as well. You can also try paddling your boat on one edge for a distance and return on the other edge. If you have really good balance, it is fun to pretend you are a C Boater and practice paddling with both blades on one side. For shoulder stretching, I like gentle streching my bent arm against a tree. Once you are really warmed up and well stretched, consider a roll or two - especially on a challenging run. Each person will develop their own regimen for loosening up the shoulder and torso muscles. I would hold off on the hard core play moves until you have completed your warm up and streching regimen.

Here are some useful extra resources:

Kayaking is an interesting sport that can be enjoyed by persons of all physical capabilities. There have also been a number of handicapped paddlers in our sport, Team River Runner comes to mind. Many disabled paddlers have competed in slalom racing over the years as well. Paddlers come in all age groups as well from 4 years old to well in their 80's. Paddlers come in all shapes and sizes as well from the small and petite Risha Shamota to a previously large paddler that invented the sport of squirt boating and former club member - Jesse Whittemore. That said, you will really get more enjoyment out of paddling if you do some exercise on the side.

Let's face it, most of us need to earn a paycheck and only get to paddle on the weekends. Some of us are getting older as well. As we age, we lose some strength and flexibility. Flexibility is important in kayaking as it helps to avoid injury (and certainly doesn't hurt in rolling a boat as well). Unlike running, paddling is an upper body sport for the most part. The most important set of muscles are your abs and the core in general. Any good strength training book on abdominal exercises is a great start. The next order of business is the arms and shoulders. I highly recommend purchasing a small set of dumb bells, forget the bar bell. Go for light weight and high repetitions, you are aiming for endurance - not bulging biceps. Use really light weights for shoulder exercises. These muscles are quite small and easy to injure if you are not careful.

For cardiovascular exercise, jogging and strenuous hiking are hard to beat. Bouldering or rock climbing are great exercise as well. Try out the Billy Goat "A" Trail for a great exercise. I often hike in late Fall or Winter. The trails are not crowded, weather is cooler, and the views are spectacular. We have lots of great trails in the Baltimore/Washington area, check out Bryan MacKay's book for trip descriptions: Baltimore Hiking & Biking Trails. Biking can be a lot of fun as well and there are many local trails to choose from.

All boaters need to maintain decent swimming skills. I know the PFD will keep you afloat but you probably want to avoid a long swim if at all possible and that means aggressive swimming. If you have a pool membership, take advantage of that resource. For the rest of us, practice aggressive swimming across wave trains - perhaps at a lunch spot. It is a great way to cool off and really hone those rescue skills.

Flexibility - now there is a tough one. Most women maintain flexibility throughout their lives - this isn't the case for us guys. It really pays to warm up first before stretching those muscles. Wind sprints, easy weight lifting, tread mill are all good for getting the engine started. Start with gentle stretching, if it hurts - back off. Concentrate on your shoulders. Here is a great video: Shoulder Stretching. Here is a short article I wrote on warmup & stretching: Warm Up and Stretching To Reduce Injury.

Some exercises I find useful for stretching the torso while I am in my boat are paddling in a straight line while holding the boat on a 45° angle, do so on both sizes. We do this exercise in the Little Falls workout prior to our eddy practice in the Z Channel. I also like twisting my upper body to the side and sculling with both paddle blades. With today's smaller boats, you can also try to reach the end handles / grab loops on the front and back of your boat. Once you are more warmed up, try a practice roll or two which is another good stretching exercise.

Here is a great video on kayaking fitness: Kayaking Fitness.

Here is a great strength training regimen for your shoulders from Davey Hearn: Shoulder Routine.

This is a great article on strength training for paddling. In addition, the link on Rotator Cuff Training (and stretching) is excellent: Rotator Cuff Training.

Water Comfort

How comfortable are you upside down in your kayak? In my beginners class, I have the students move to the tucked position and tap the side of their boat 10 times before performing the wet release exercise. It gives them something to do while upside down and helps them overcome the fear of being underwater. Sometimes it makes sense to take your time in set-up and wait a bit for that nice solid water feel before executing your roll. If being upside down frightens you, you will most likely rush your rolls or pull the rip cord prematurely. How do you gain that confidence? Practice rolling in waves, practice backferries in fast moving water - always a great carnage exercise. Some other exercises for gaining water comfort are hand paddling in easier rapids, catching eddies with just your hips, surfing waves and small hydraulics.


Confidence is like constructing a building - you need a solid foundation. Your foundation consists of training, practice, and variety. Take turns as the lead paddler or choose different lines rather than following others. Take your time stepping up river difficulty, there are lots of great runs for every skill level. Ignore others progress, many rise too quickly only to crash and burn - this sport is supposed to be fun. Here is a great set of articles on confidence: How to Gain Confidence.

We don't need no stinking swim skills - we have a bombproof roll. How many of us have heard that line before? Even the best boaters come out out of their boat once in a while. There is a great podcast series called: Inbetween Swims. There are some great boaters in that series. The Upper Yough Race has the "Wheel of Misfortune" that is typically awarded to the worst beatdown during the race. I suggest taking a look at the winners of this dubious award - most are fantastic boaters. Whitewater can be very humbling - sooner or later you pay the dues for all of that fun.

Even if you don't flip, get pinned, have equipment failure, or come out of your boat - you may need to swim to implement a rescue. Swimming in fast moving water while dodging obstacles can be pretty exciting in it's own right. Endurance, planning, and knowlege are all essential in staying safe when swimming down rapids. Your PFD certainly helps and that is why we mandate that you wear it. Even with this assistance, holes, whirlpools, eddies, etc. can send you underwater when you least expect it.

When the weather gets warmer, find a nice deep stream with fast moving water and practice both aggressive and defensive swimming techniques. Learn how to ferry and catch eddies while swimming. This is a key rescue skill you should practice from time to time. Practice throw ropes skills as both the rescuer and the swimmer. Many a wise paddler has stated they will not run a rapid that they can't swim.