How to kayak your way to a fitter you

Our fitness expert James Fell shares his love of kayaking and why you too should take up the sport this summer.


I have a two-person sea kayak that I christened, “The Marriage Saver.” My marriage wasn’t in trouble, but it would have been had I gone kayaking with my wife in separate boats. A two-seater removes any need for anyone to say, “Hurry up” or “Slow down” saving hours of frustration on everyone’s part. I’ve spent a lot of time paddling either alone, with my wife, or with my kids — it’s great fun and an incredible workout.

I recently spoke with Canadian Olympic kayaker Adam Van Koeverden (whose won gold, silver and bronze at past Games) who’ll be representing Canada again this year in the men’s K-1 1,000 metre race about his advice for beginners. He says, “Just get out there. It sounds simple, but paddling is the kind of sport that requires practice to improve, and time in the boat to be comfortable.”

Of course, kayaking is his job and he considers each training session “work,” but he still enjoys it, “Paddling is a beautiful form of locomotion. It’s swift, and smooth, it’s relatively fast for the amount of work you’re doing…and it’s excellent exercise.”

I find it one of the most enjoyable forms of exercise I do, and I do a lot of different things. There are practical considerations however. You need a boat, and you need water which not everyone has readily available. Here are my tips for the average person to take the sport up, even if you don’t live right next to the wet stuff.

Take a course
This can be a low-risk way to dip your toe in the water, so to speak. You can get together with like-minded newbies and be trained by experts who look after all the details of equipment and location. It will give you a chance to try it out without much of a time or financial commitment.

Train up
The two most important things to focus on are core strength (Pilates is good) and upper body endurance. Normally I recommend women lift heavy weights for fewer reps into order to build muscle, but kayaking is an endurance activity, so if you’re into the weights and want to do a kayaking trip, a couple of weeks of switching to lighter upper body weights and higher repetitions will make your muscles more fatigue-resistant do you’ll be able to paddle longer and harder.

Make a vacation out of it
I live in Calgary, and Alberta lakes are not the best. So our kayaks stay at my parents’ condo on the B.C. coast where we spend a few weeks every summer. It’s something I look forward to every year.

If you’re looking for a new adventure to go on, there are great kayak adventures to be had. There is the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Baja California peninsula, Costa Rica or Newfoundland to name just a few. I’m aiming to do this someplace tropical one year.

Be safe
If you’re with a reputable tour group they’ll look after this stuff, but I spend much of my time alone exploring new territory. Tips for being safe are:

– Check the marine forecast to ensure no impending storms.
– Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
– If there is coverage, bring a cell phone in a plastic bag.
– Wear a life jacket! Don’t just bring, but wear it.
– Use a spray skirt to prevent being swamped.
– You also need a bilge pump, paddle float, tow rope and signalling device. The company you’re buying or renting from should know what all those things are and be able to set you up.

Thinking about buying?
If you’re lucky enough to have a place near good kayaking and decide to buy, chances are there’s a tour group in the area. Both our kayaks were purchased used from such groups. We saved a third of the price 14 years ago and only last year had to replace the rudder cables.

When you get deep into the fitness mindset, weekends and vacations aren’t so much about lazing around drinking 600 calorie margaritas and packing on pounds. It’s a chance to collapse into bed each night with the day fully seized. Flat-water kayaking is a great way to carpe diem.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.

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