If you are not limber and enduring enough, kayaking will be harder and less joyful. I started kayaking for the joy of being able to experience nature from close quarters. But after a time I realised that paddling kayak is also a very good excercise for almost the whole body at once.
Kayaking is not a sport needing extreme muscles or power. The photos of Nigel Foster, his body, and his way of holding a kayak paddle is a very good evidence of this. He achieves a lot with very little use of musle power.
Yet, there is a number of physical shape factors that will contribute positively to an improved kayaking experience. As it turns out, paddling kayak is a good exercise for improving your physical shape for those factors. Thus paddling kayak leads to a positive physical shape for kayaking, a positive spiral. The physical shape factors that will improve your kayaking will also be improved if you paddle kayak, or practice to improve your kayak techniques. Thus, over time, even if you do not think about it, paddling kayak will lead to a better physical shape, especially for the factors that are important and will improve your kayaking.
This is not all, improving your kayak techniques also lead to a lot less muscle strengths needed for paddling kayak. So at the same time as you are getting in shape, you are learning things about kayaking that leads to you being able to paddle with a lot less strength and effort needed. The two factors being left as important are endurance, and flexibility in the body. But neither of them has to be extreme in any way, unless you plan for truly long fast races, or for whitewater paddling or padlding in very rough sees.
If you start from a not too good physical starting position, you might want to speed up your improvemements by improving some factors more than only when you paddle kayak. The physical shape factors that are the most important are:
- Your general shape. The better condition you are in, the longer can you paddle without getting short of breath, and without becoming tired. This is a base requisite that will be improved automatically by paddling. But if you are currently not fit, doing some additional excercises might be a good idea. With being more fit follows that if you are paddling with others, you might be able to better keep up with the others. You would more easily stay in balance in the kayak if you are not tired. Also, would you fall in, you would not be as short of breath, and you would be able to hold your breath for a while, giving you both a calm mind as well as a huge safety margin. In fact, one of the reasons for my scare from the prijon kodiak was that I realised I would not have the stamina to climb back up again many more times.
- Being limber, specially in the back and legs. If you are not limber, a lot of kayaking skills will be negatively affected. You will most likely be able to paddle kayak anyway, but with improved mobility and ability to bend follows a great possibility to improve your padlding skills, and easier learn more advanced techniques like the kayak eskimo roll. Being able to bend forward is a key factor. This improves your ability to plant the paddle far forward in the ordinary paddling stroke, and it makes it easier to release the hips enough to do the hipsnaps that are part of the low brace, the high brace, and the eskimo roll. it also makes it easier to loosen the spray skirt if you are under water (where you are in fact doing an upside down sit-up to lean forward and release the spray skirt). Both the ability to bend forward, as well as strength in the stomach muscles are good for paddling kayak, so practices for these outside of your kayak is very helpful.
- There is an additional factor for the ability to lean forward and loosen up your hips. If you are not limber enough, getting a kayak with space enough for you to bend your knees while sitting in the kayak will help a lot. While we where at the Nigel Foster basic kayak control course we tested and realised quite clearly that kayak control is improved if you can alter both legs between being straight down in the kayak, and having the knee firmly planted in the top of the kayak, supported by the knee or thigh brace if such exist. Since I can not fully straighten my legs while sitting (yet), I need a kayak where the difference can be achieved through having enough room for my knees.
- The ability to twist your upper body from side to side is yet another physical factor that will both improve your kayaking, as well as become improved through kayaking. But the automatic improvement of physical shape on this factor will only apply if you are focusing on trying to do the kayak paddling and the kayak techniques with the twsting of the torso in mind. It is fully possible to paddle kayak without this twist, beginners seldom use it very much. In fact, there are different paddle types and different paddling methods, and in some cases this twist is even taught as being very small. However, if you paddle forward using the twist of the torso, and practice sweeps for turning, and also practice sideway movement using sculling draw, then you will be practicing and improving your ability to twist your torso. The better you can twist your torso, the easier and physically safer it will be to perform those and other techniques (you will be able to do the techniques while keeping your shoulders safe through not overextending your arms, instead twisting your body).
As stated earlier, all of the above physical fitness factors can be practiced while kayaking, as well as practiced outside of the kayak. As I see it, when you have improved this, there will come a point when the best excercise equipment is the kayak. Excercising the above physical factors through intentional physical practice while paddling improves both paddling technique and physical fitness at the same time.
- Intentionally edging your kayak while paddling, using one bent and one straight leg to keep the kayak in edged position, is a very good practice for getting the legs and back more flexible, at the same time as improving your capability to bend at the hip, and your stomach muscles. This can be done while you are anyway out in the kayak doing some paddling. It does thus not need to add to the time you spend on being in shape, it is just something you add to your kayak paddling habits. And you will after a time find that the edging skill is a very good kayaking skill, both for turning as well as for handling weather conditions.
- Intentionally twisting your torso while paddling, keeping your paddle in front of the center of your upper body without overextending your shoulders. You can do this every time you paddle forward, sweep or do a sideway paddling draw. Unless you have become fond of the bow draw, or the linked stern draw, or are having a kayak with a rudder (rudders are good at long trips in bad weather, but try to limit the use of the rudder until then, and you will become better at paddling through practicing good kayaking habits), it is likely you do a lot of sweeps during your paddling sessions. The sweep, if performed all the way to the stern, or as long as your upper body can twist, is a very good twisting exercise. On the other hand if performed all the way to the stern without twisting, it is putting unwanted load on the shoulders.
- Intentionally straigthening and bending your knees while paddling forward. If for every stroke you straighten the leg on the side you use the paddle blade, and grab the kayak hull top or knee support of the kayak with the other, then you are practicing kayak control for every paddling stroke, and you will become more flexible and it will be easier to twist the upper body, as well as paddle faster.
- Intentionally straightening the knee on the side on which you do the sideway sculling draw, and lifting the knee on the oppostie side. This is good in many ways. First of all, it will make it easier to twist the torso to the side, secondly it will make it easier to keep the balance, at the same time as this technique is a good technique for practicing both balance as well as the feel for the paddle blade. Thirdly it will help with building a habbit of straightening the knee on the side towards which you twist. Supporting yourself and the kayak with the knee on the opposite side, plus your stomach muscles. It will turn out that that it is a good knee move for many techniques (forward paddling, sideway sculling draw, sweep, ...). For a theoretical paddler, trying to figure out when you should lift the knee on the same side or the knee on the opposite side of where the paddle blade is used is hard. But realising that mostly it is the knee on the side where the power blade is drawn that is to be lowered makes it easier.
- Balance in the kayak is important. Normally, your balance is good enough for paddling. It might not be good enough for paddling a racing kayak, but kayaks come in many different shapes. Choose a kayak that is comfortable and stable enough. Stability in the kayak as felt by a beginner is often what is called the initial stability (if the kayak feels stable when you sit straight up in it, in small waves or only edging it very little). The secondary stability is the stability that helps you not to fall in the water. It is a stability, that if it exists, is felt after you have edged the kayak quite a lot, so that water is reaching the spray skirt or more than that. The initial stability, although it feels good, is actually a little of a disadvantage in waves (an intially stable kayak will tend to be gripped by the waves). Secondary stability is what you should be aiming for. When you have the right kayak, practice the sideway sculling draw, and the bow draw. Both are very good ways of practicing balance. If you select to practice these two, you can practice anytime you are paddling, or lying still with the kayak. Then practice to only brace when needed (see useful bracing), then practice sitting in the waves without bracing. (it will most likely help if you edge a little towards the waves).