Kayak Training with the New Mexico Adventure Racing Club

Each year the New Mexico Adventure Racing Club host a series of adventure racing clinics, from basic map & compass navigation, to rappelling, kayaking and mountain biking. On March 28th, 12 racers from NMARC met me at Cochiti for a cold wet day of customized kayak training specifically for adventure racing.

For those who are new to Adventure Racing, it's kinda like a triathelon, but instead of swimming, biking and running - it's hiking, mountain biking and kayaking - with a twist.  Instead of relying strictly on strenght, fitness and endurance, almost all legs of an AR involve navigation; that is - using a map & compass to find some hidden point in the terrain. Like Easter Egg hunting, with a map!

People race for different reasons. Some do it to win. Some do it to finish - a personal accomplishment. Some do it for the mental challenge.  Some do it to stay in shape. Even non-competitive racers can easily burn 500-1000 calories/hour. So even if you do a 4-8hr "Sprint" race, you'll lose a few pounds!  Others do it to see some awesome places. A good race promoter will often put points in the most unusual places, say the top of a 400ft cliff, or at the entrance to an unknown cave. Those that find it are rewarded with some spectacular view that few have ever seen.

I took a similar 8-week adventure racing training clinic in Dallas in 2004.  Most of those who signed up were training for the Steele Sports 48hr Caprock Canyon race.  Originally, I had no interest in racing, but 8 weeks of fun things to do for ~$120, was a steal, in my mind.  Little did I know, I'd end up competing, and almost winning the 2004 Caprock Canyon 48hr race.

From then on, I was hooked on adventure racing.  Race promoters would often sponsor a team of newbies just to get them into the sport. Whenever they needed a navigator, I was often the one they called. I raced pretty actively in 2004-05 until an unrelated knee injury took it's toll. 

New Mexico is a great place for Adventure Racing. We all know about the world-class mountain biking, national forest, state parks and literally 1000's of hiking trails.  But there's plenty of water to be found around here too.  Good race promoters know paddling is the way to separate winners from losers. Why? Because we spend hours training on our mountain bikes, hiking in the hills and navigation practice (only because it's so critical to racing).  Hiking and biking is fun, easy and it's easily accessible. We can do it every day after work and really get good at it without trying too hard.

But who paddles?  And why practice when there's only a few small lakes and rivers around here?? "There can't be THAT much paddling in the XYZ Race next month, right?"  Wrong!  Good race promoters can have teams zig-zagging across a small lake like Cochiti 5, 10 or 20 times! ...just because they can...and they know people aren't practicing.

There are a few things every adventure racer needs to know about paddling.  First and foremost is - relying on strenght and fitness is a guaranteed way to lose a race. Women often make better paddlers because they rely more on finess and technique - not strength and and brut force.  Most racers rely on their "stronger" arms to pull the paddle. So taking 3000 strokes around the lake is like doing 3000 pull-ups.  Learning to rotate your torso is key to paddling long distances.   

How do you know if you're really rotating your torso?  (1) Your arms should not bend more than 90-degrees. If they do, you're using your arms. Have a teammate observe while you paddle. Better yet - have them video-tape you; the camera doesn't lie.  (2) You should feel your spine twisting all the way down into your seat. If you're not feeling your hips pumping in the seat, you're faking it by simply moving your shoulders. (3) In addition to your spine, you should feel your PFD moving across your belly-button, and you should feel your feet pumping against the foot-braces.  Think about it, when you walk, your hips and core do most of the work; your arms sway naturally from side to side. It's the same when we paddle - it should be natural, powerful, ergonomic and fluid.

Second - learning to re-enter a dry boat from deep water in a minute or less can be a huge advantage over someone who has to swim to shore, or wrestles with the boat to get back inside.  I teach all beginners how to re-enter a dry boat....then I teach them how to rescue others. It's a simple rescue that anyone can do. It takes minutes to learn and practice, but the knowledge and skill helps you become a *huge* asset to the people you paddle with.

Third - Many racers will buy or rent the cheapest kayak on the market; usually a "recreational" kayak. Recreational kayaks are designed mostly for comfort and for people who have virtually no experience. By design, recreational kayaks promote a relaxed posture. The seats are almost in a reclined position. This makes them super comfortable for "recreational" paddling.  But are you a recreational paddler?  Or are you in this for a purpose?  Think about it; when you're reclined, your stroke can enter, at most, at your knees. Take the paddle out at the hips, and your stroke is only 1.5ft long.  By sitting up straight (in a boat that promotes good posture), you're able to place the paddle in the water near your toes, and rotate your torso until the paddle exits the water at your hips. Now your stroke is 3ft or more; an increase in power & efficiency by more than 100%!  Even the strongest paddlers with the best technique are at a disadvantage in a recreational kayak.  You'll burn far more energy than is necessary in a boat that is sluggish by design.

Recreational kayaks are also the heaviest boats on the market. Not necessarily a good thing for racing. Especially when the race director has you carrying it a mile from the Transition Area to the water on a windy day.  Race promoters are evil people ;) They're heavier, because they're made from cheaper plastic. To achieve the same strength & durability, manufacturers have to force twice the amount of plastic into the same mold, thereby increasing weight. 

Recreational kayaks are also super wide. Great for anglers who need a stable boat. Bad for racers who need a sleek, fast boat.  The added width makes the boat heavier.

These boats are cheap, because they're heavy, and no one wants them. So, by supply & demand, the price has to come down.

Find a boat that allows you to sit up straight, where your torso can easily rotate in the cockpit.  Find a boat that has a smaller "low-back" seat. These, by design, promote more of an upright posture, and when you're paddling effectively, you won't even feel the backrest.

Other elements of the kayak adventure racing clinic include dressing for the weather, paddling a tandem kayak and navigation / terrain association. Steve Prickett teaches racers how to paddle a tandem and how to navigate on the water.

When training, it's always best to practice in a solo kayak, probably 75% of the time. This way, you can isolate and improve your own technique.  In a tandem, it's easy to blame the other guy for being a lousy paddler, when, in reality, it may be you.  Tandems are often called "Divorce Boats" for a reason....    Work on your skills independently and you'll be much better in a tandem.

Adventure Racing is a great multi-sport activity.  Whether you compete, or want to spend more time outdoors, or want a fun way to get into better shape, Adventure Racing offers it all.  For more information, check out the New Mexico Adventure Racing Club's website. They're a great group of people and always looking for partners or teammates.


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Upcoming Kayak Instruction Classes

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