Devizes to Westminster training plan: a breakdown of the next few months’ training

I’ve been posting a training blog / log but haven’t really covered any of the why behind the choices of sessions etc, but whenever I see someone’s training program (and I’ve got loads of snippets from various programs saved away) I always want to work backwards to what is driving the choices and overall structure, although it's often nice to steal a session or two to add some new variations to your training. So here’s my best shot at breaking down the aims and thinking behind what I’m doing.

Contents (if you want to skip around):

Overall aim

Secondary aims

Timeline, some outlines

Typical paddling sessions and aims

The training week

Gym program

Final thoughts

Overall aim:

The final aim is the Devizes to Westminster race (DW) in mid April, so four months away. While it's important to have the end goal in mind I don’t personally think it is worth trying to lay out exactly what I’ll be doing, setting up specific training blocks with easy and hard phases etc, all the way up to then. If you’re a full time athlete then it probably is but the benefit for me is minimal I’d just end up getting ill or being more / less tired than expected or deciding I didn’t like an exercise or session for some reason and having to change the plan anyway. The long term plan is, therefore, pretty fluid. Instead there’s some general aims and some milestones, which then be referenced for each training block. Each block is more rigidly structured a few weeks at a time (my current block is further down).

Secondary aims:

  • Stay healthy. Mainly this is trying to avoid shoulder and forearm problems. But could cover anything, who knows…
    • I’ll continue stretching and massaging my forearms most evenings (massaging my arms goes a long way to reducing my forearm tightness).
    • Make sure I have face pulls or other upper back exercises in gym sessions. I know from experimenting that it keeps my shoulders much healthier.
    • Don’t do exercises that cause pain, e.g chins tend to make my elbows hurt so I’ll avoid them.
  • Stay sane / enjoying it.
    • Hard to specifically program for but; vary the sessions a bit, do more gym than some would recommend because I enjoy it, don’t try to aim for two or three sessions every day because I don’t have time and I’ll get annoyed with it. If I’m enjoying it I’ll try harder and get more out of the sessions.
  • Increase the paddling pace that I can sustain.
    • Increase aerobic capacity (CAP) and lactate threshold (THR) while paddling. The terms CAP (core aerobic pace), and THR (threshold), seem to be pretty exclusive to paddling. If you google “core aerobic pace” you get six results, all of which are about paddling! I think CAP would more commonly be called Zone 2, and is aerobic, endurance improving, and the pace at which you could have a short conversation. It starts off feeling easy but after an hour plus of the session might be getting a bit hard. Defining threshold seems more controversial but it’s a pace that you can only hold for a “short” time, but not a flat-out sprint. You’d test threshold with a 5 km time trial or similar.
    • CAP and THR go pretty hand in hand a lot of the time but aren’t the same. I want to not just be able to go long and steady at good speed but also to be able to have interspersed high intensity efforts and be able to deal with it e.g. running a postage to stay with / get away from someone. An ability to deal with lactic and going into the red is still important even on a very long race.
  • Regain lost strength.
    • Get back lost gym strength. I’m not as strong as I used to be (maybe 10-15% down) but it’s relatively easy to regain lost strength so it's a good investment of training time and energy, I won’t bother trying to get stronger than previous levels though (at least not until after DW!).
    • I don’t need any fancy program to regain strength, three gym sessions per week which focus on big exercises and progressive overload will get me 95% of the way.
    • Increase core / abdominal / lower back endurance. I have never found it very exciting but I’ll add some to the end of all gym sessions. In particular I notice that improving my lower back strength helps me on the water. I love back extensions but there is no way of doing them in the gym I train at so I’ll have to use various other exercises.
  • Be decent at running (for portaging).
    • I’m just going to do steady state runs for now, mostly 20 to 30 minutes. Then closer to the race, February probably, I’ll add in some interval running sessions. It’s not enough of a priority to take much focus away from paddling and gym for now. As long as I’m doing one run per week it will improve enough if I pick it up a bit more later in the year.
  • Increase general tolerance to suffering / improve mental game / race simulation.
    • Not too many specifics but doing some long paddles (20-40 km) is a good start. I’ll paddle through the winter and won’t be put off by wind, snow, etc but I’d do that regardless. I’ve seen people say training in horrible conditions is bad because if you get cold and get ill it’s counter productive but I think you just need to use that to learn how to deal with the conditions next time, who says it won’t be below zero and snowing this Easter?
  • Loose a few kg bodyweight.
    • Not something to obsess over, but it would probably be good for a long race to be slightly lighter than I am now. I used to race at about 87 kg. At the end of summer I was 90/91 but I’m down to about 87/88 now just by training more and eating better. Keeping an eye on it will naturally help it move the right direction.
  • Race specific aims and sessions.
    • Near to race I need to include some portage or portage simulation sessions, but not yet.
    • I should paddle with the boat like it will be, e.g. with the weight of the emergency kit added and if I’m going to wear shoes then wearing them and with the footrest set up to accommodate them. Also, I’ll do some sessions wearing a buoyancy aid.
I’ll plan gym pretty separate from paddling. When planning an individual training week it impacts on paddling and running, e.g. I’d rather not run the day after squatting and I’d rather not do a big gym session in the morning and a time trial in the afternoon, but the progressions and session selections can be thought of pretty separately.

Timeline, some outlines

Even though I’m not going to plan every week up to the race it’s still a good idea to look ahead a few weeks. I generally plan to have an easy week one week out of four or five weeks so planning the 4-5 week blocks is useful. Christmas to new year will be an easy week, it's harder to get training in when visiting family etc. I'll still run and do some training but it makes sense to make it an easy week, especially when the week 21-27 November was an easy week to it's about a month cycle. I’m also likely to be away for four days in the second week of February so I’ll plan a five or six training block from Christmas to then. After that I’ll look at the calendar and plan another month or two. I want to keep a long paddle in every other week (roughly), which gets longer each time, somewhat like race practice, i.e. take drink, continuous not intervals, take food/gels. I started planning these out then decided the plan will go out the window so quick it isn’t worth making. But if I add 5km each time then I’ll be up to 40 km before DW quite easily, which I think will be plenty. I'm not planning on coming down for any of the Watersides (it's a long drive) so these sessions will take their place. After Christmas up to two runs per week as standard. Nearer to the race:
  • Change to mainly strength endurance gym, probably one or two small blocks 6-8 weeks before the race.
  • About eight weeks out from the race, cut the lower body gym down to just one exercise at the start of an upper gym session, something like 3*3 squats. I’ll keep my strength and still get a hormone response from the heavy lift but it won’t make me sore or take away significant energy from more important sessions.
  • More paddling. I’ll probably go up to five paddles per week for about eight weeks, but it will depend on how everything's going at the time.

Typical paddling sessions and aims

These can and will stay pretty similar all the way up to the race, but with a few more intense sessions closer to the race. Physiologically I could probably just keep a few sessions and repeat them again and again all winter, with maybe a gradual increase in total paddling time, but I want a bit of variation for variety (I’ll stick to a fairly small number of core sessions that I know I like though). To improve CAP and THR pace I need to paddle mainly at those paces so I won’t be doing any bungee and resistance work or starts or short intervals like minutes or 30 seconds. I wouldn’t be doing them much at this time of year anyway but I won’t be introducing them like I would if I was aiming for a regatta or marathon race… If I paddle four times in a week two will be CAP, one THR and one will vary depending how I feel. Typical sessions for THR will be: 10,8,6,4,6,8,10 with minute rests (i.e. 10 minutes on, 1 off, 8 on, 1 off, 6 on ... ) 6/1*8 (6 on, 1 off, times 8) 8*1000m, starting every 7 or 8 minutes 6-1-6 (6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6 with minute rests) 3/1*10-15 2000m *4, 3 min rests 10 km time trial Typical sessions for CAP will be: 8/1*6 10/1*5 (or *6) 12/1*4 15/1*4 60 mins steady (or longer up to 90 mins) 20+ km


windy river tyne

Generally a nice stretch of river, but it does get pretty windy.


The training week

I have lots years of paddling under my belt so I think I can get away with not being too obsessed with doing loads of paddling all winter. I’ll definitely paddle but, for example, moving from three paddles and two runs to five paddles probably won’t make a huge difference to me like it would with someone who hasn’t paddled much before. I posted before about why I was doing quite a bit of gym but it mainly comes down to paddling taking up more time and being more mentally taxing as I’m paddling on my own. Thus, I won’t be doing huge amounts of paddling. I want to up the training volume from the last block, so I want to move to four paddles as standard now if I find the time. Plus three gym sessions, which is probably the least I can get away with while still making good progress, four would only be a bit better. Plus I need to run at least once a week. To fit all that in I need some two session days, but they should be separated by single session days. The week is a bit front heavy as I’ve written it but in a few weeks I will probably try to add another run on Fridays. Monday’s CAP paddle is going to be fairly easy and the real focus of the day is the gym, the CAP shouldn’t interfere too much with the gym like a faster THR session would. The faster and harder THR paddle gets its own day so that it doesn’t conflict with a gym session. The run is a bit awkward, I don’t want it on Thursday, after leg gym when I’m sore, but I don’t want to plan on having it Friday as I might still be sore from gym, also Friday (and Saturday) can often get busy so I’d like to schedule it sooner in the week. Having it in the afternoon after leg gym means I won’t be sore yet, it might conflict a bit but to be honest if my squats don’t improve as fast as they could then I’m not too bothered. Then the remaining two paddles and upper body gym all get a day to themselves. If I have some spare time and don’t feel too tired from the week then I will try to add a small core session on Saturdays as it's an area I’m not great at. Monday, paddle CAP + Gym (max upper) Tuesday, Paddle THR Wednesday, Gym (lower) + run Thursday, paddle THR/CAP Friday, Gym (reps upper) Saturday, long paddle. E.g. 20km, 25km, some weeks. Or just a normal THR or CAP other weeks. Maybe some core at home If I don’t have time on Saturday for a long paddle, because I’m doing something, then I could move it to Thursday and get whatever session on Saturday that I can, perhaps just a run or maybe a gym. Sunday, rest day.


Gym program

The majority of gym is going to be upper body, but I still think it’s a good idea to have a leg/lower body session as well (legs are used more than you think, they are needed to transfer force from footrest / seat up to arms and hands). Also, “leg” exercises like squats and deadlifts are more than just leg exercises, really they are full body exercises and very good for “core” and lower back strength which is vital for paddling.


Gym plan

Monday, Max upper A, bench press from pins, 5*5. Ramp the weights up within the work sets B, seated cable row 3-4*10-12 C, DB overhead press, 3*8-10: 18*10,10,10 D1, curls, 3*10-12 D2, cross body triceps extensions, 3*8-12 E1, face pulls, 3*10-15 E2, plank, 3*75 secs Wednesday, Lower body A, squat, 4*5 B, 1 leg rear foot elevated split squats, 3*8-10 C, RDL, 3*6-8 (can be dropped if squats were too hard) D, heavy core exercise, side bends for now Friday, reps upper A, bench press, 4*10-12 B, chest supported row machine, 4*10 C, Skull crushers 4*8 D1, straight arm pulldowns, 3-4*8-12 D2, rear delt flyes, 3-4*8-12 E, core circuit. T3 circuits, 10-15 reps each, 3-4 exercises, v sits / hip ups / toe touches / sit ups [caption id="attachment_343" align="aligncenter" width="625"]

Miscellaneous gym thoughts:

Why those exercises? You could write loads on it but essentially … I want to be focused on, and build strength at, horizontal plane pressing and pulling (think bench press and bench pull) as that’s close(ish) to what you do when paddling (compared to overhead press or upright rows). So that means trying to increase bench press and pulling exercises. Obviously I’ll do bench press but also doing a fair bit of triceps work to help the bench. Also upper back exercises to keep my shoulders healthy but should be useful for paddling in and of themselves. And then some horizontal pulling, which will be based partly around what I can do in the gym as it’s a bit limited. Then curls, straight arm pulldowns, overhead press are in there for general development and balance. Core / abs exercises I’ll vary every few weeks for variety but I’ll try to have a mix of heavier and lighter exercises and a mix of flexion (e.g. sit ups), extension (e.g. back extensions), anti extension (e.g. roll outs), rotation (e.g. medicine ball throws) and anti rotation (e.g. pallof presses - great exercise!). I like, and have found effective over the years, training pressing and pulling exercises a bit different. Pulling muscles more for endurance (8-15 reps mostly), pressing more for strength and power (1-8 reps mostly). Hardly my own idea, plenty of strength coaches recommend it, but I've found it works well for me. I won't be doing bench pull. There isn't one at the gym I go to (I've never seen one outside a canoe or rowing club) but I'm not too bothered by that. I haven't found it to be a great exercise really. Training bench pull doesn’t seem to help me improve on it, other exercises help it more, and it doesn’t seem to transfer to much else either. To stick up for bench pull a bit, I do quite like doing bench pull with the weight resting on blocks between reps so that you can reduce the eccentric (lowering) phase and start each rep from stationary (when you’re paddling you don’t pre load the muscle before the catch). I won't be doing many chins. My elbows and forearms are a bit temperamental and chins make them much worse. I think they are a great exercise and transfer well to other exercises but they mess my elbows up too much if I do them often so it’s not worth it. Similar note, I'll use straps for most of the pulling exercises (1 arm row, deadlifts etc) because I want to save my forearms and grip from being worn out by them. You could say I should do extra grip training and stop it being a problem but whenever I've tried that I just get compartment syndrome like symptoms and my grip doesn't improve but gets worse. Paddlers love bench press as much as anyone and I’ll certainly be doing a fair bit of it but I will vary my bench press rather than do it exactly the same for months on end. It’s probably better for gaining strength, for having that strength transfer to other things like paddling, and for reducing injuries (but that’s a tangent I’m not going down now). I’ll change about every three weeks. I like to try to always finish on good one. A good rep in the gym or good technique at the end of the session. I’m not sure how much evidence there is for it but I think it helps to ingrain good technique having the last time you did it being a good one. I try to focus on technique when padding back to the club after a session has ended, and if I’m not going to paddle with good technique (maybe I’m chatting) then I’ll deliberately paddle with completely different technique, arms low and a bit slumped, so as not to confuse the two motor patterns. Gym wise I only do it on important gym exercises, bench press, squats etc, and it one of the reasons for having a back off set with lower weight after the main exercise on Monday’s gym.


Some common advice I'm not planning to follow

Paddling at night. I’m planning on doing K1 so it’s all in the day, and also I’ve done hundreds of sessions at night before anyway. Paddling the course / doing the Watersides and Thamsides. They’re a five hour drive away and I’ve done them many times before so I pretty much know the course and the portages. Add that I won’t be doing it at night and I’m not too concerned.

Final thoughts

I’ve followed loads of different programs and trained in several different groups over the years. I’ve learnt something from all of them but in the end I think you need to learn how you personally react to everything. I think it’s really important to try to learn as much as you can about the best approach for you, but without just taking the easy option and claiming that it’s because it “works best for you” (I hate doing high rep one arm rows but they are great for me). It’s easy to get stuck in paralysis by analysis once you start to try to think about how to plan training, there’s just so many different ways, but it’s always better to do something than nothing. People have got fast training in a variety of pretty varied ways (lots of gym vs no gym, paddling all year vs no paddling all winter) so the absolute most important thing is to get out there, try hard, and be consistent. So that’s my plan. The specifics will probably end up changing completely (I’m going to be at Wey for a few days next week so that’ll mix everything up already) but really it’s the overall plan that matters, the week plan is just there so you don’t wake up and have to work out what session you should be doing before you’ve had any coffee! I hope there’s some useful titbits in there.


"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

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