Kick up your kayaking

A paddling session can be a serious cardio and strength workout, if done properly.

If you prefer a little less leisure in your athleisure, rest assured: With the right technique, you can transform the beloved watersport of kayaking into a workout routine worth leaving land for. Below, professional kayakers share their best training advice.

(1) Warm up your shoulders
Dane Jackson, a professional kayaker sponsored by Red Bull, spends time focusing on his warm-up to keep his muscles strong and to avoid injury. “I do 100 push-ups and some sprints for a few minutes before kayaking. I’ll also do forward and backward strokes swimming,” he says. The goal there? Work your shoulders. After all, shoulders are one of the easiest muscles to injure kayaking, Jackson says. “I try to keep my shoulders as strong as possible. As soon as you hurt your shoulders, it’s hard to recover.” Using a Theraband or a Bodyblade can help strengthen the small stability muscles of your shoulders, adds Aaron Mann, an athlete on the U.S. National Canoe/Kayak Team.

(2) Engage your entire upper body
The biggest mistake people make is using only their arms when taking forward strokes, says Jackson. “You’re only using half of your body. If you use your torso, your shoulder muscles, and your abs, you’ll keep more muscles activated and produce more power.” The easiest way to make sure you’re doing this, he says, is to act like you’re starting a lawnmower when you take a forward stroke. "You turn your body completely, then as you pull to start it, you pull your whole body back."

(3) Master the forward stroke
Body position is important for both your forward stroke and balance, says Mann. “Sitting upright with a slight lean forward ensures you get maximum reach on each forward stroke. Your body position can help with balance in both flat and whitewater, too.”

Then, to make sure you get the most out of your stroke, reach as far forward as you can with your arm. Reach forward with your shoulder, too, says Mann. “On the initial catch, you start the pull with your arm and finish with your shoulder and back. Turn the paddle over to the next stroke when you pull the blade in the water to you. Don’t finish strokes behind your body because the paddle is no longer pulling through the water but actually lifting the water up, which is just a waste of energy.”

(4) Start with a steady-state workout
Do as the U.S. National Canoe/Kayak Team does to build base endurance and paddle without stopping for 60 to 90 minutes at around 75 to 80 percent of your max heart rate.

(5) Work your way up to intervals
If you want to break up your session, Mann suggests trying these two workout routines aimed at both endurance and speed:

Endurance: Do 2 sets of 5x 4 minutes on/30 seconds off at 85 to 90 percent max heart rate with 5 to 7 minutes rest between sets. “The purpose of this workout is to improve our intermediate endurance and focus on our technique while tired,” says Mann.

Speed and VO2 Max: Do either 3 sets of 8 to 10x 30 seconds on/30 seconds off with 5 minutes rest between sets. Or do 3 sets of 10 to 15x 15 seconds on/15 seconds off. These intervals should be done at around 95 percent max heart rate. “These we use for speed, lactic tolerance, and endurance,” says Mann.

(6) Stretch out your back

“I stretch my back every single day,” says Jackson. That’s because sitting in a kayak for hours on end can make for a super tight, stiff backside if you don’t prep and recover properly. Jackson’s go-to move? The Downward Dog yoga pose—it relieves pain and tension in your lower back.