How Strength Training Has Helped My Paddling

By Kiku Huckle As a fairly slender female, I fight a lot of expectations and stereotypes whenever I step inside a gym. As an endurance athlete (I paddle outrigger canoes) I also fight a lot of expectations about what should happen when I’m not on the water. Interestingly enough the message I hear in both places is almost the same: women don’t need to lift weights, or at least not too heavy or too often.

Enough articles have taken on the misconceptions of women lifting weights (no, you won’t get too big; yes, having muscles are attractive; yes, muscles help burn fat; no, I do not need you to show me how to bench) so I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining that. What I will tell you about is how lifting weights (heavy ones, and fairly often) has helped me as a paddler.

The most obvious reason lifting weights has helped me is that the stronger I am the more water I can pull, which makes my boat go faster, and that makes paddling fun. The obviousness of this statement is … well, obvious but it is surprising how uncommon it is for endurance athletes – including recreational paddlers – to strength train with this objective in mind. I am in the distinct minority on my team for regularly participating in strength training – among both men and women. I do not say this to disrespect any of my phenomenal teammates, nor to make it appear that I am the strongest paddler on my team (I’m not). But my coach does consistently put me in the “power seats” of the boat because, in spite of my size, I can pull a lot of water and I can pull a lot of water for a respectably long period of time. I owe that to strength training.

The other facet of my strength training is structural balance and injury prevention. Paddling – until you really learn how to do it right (which, to be honest, can seem an impossible task) – wreaks havoc on your back, hips, and shoulders. The repetitiveness of the stroke risks shoulder injury through overuse; fatigued or weak core muscles make it hard to sit upright which can strain your lower back; sitting and pushing off your legs for leverage adds to the tightening of hip flexors so many of us experience from spending 8-plus hours a day working at a desk.

Most problematic for me is the “paddlers hunch.” Not only do I look like a hunchback by the end of paddling season (someone has to physically push my shoulders back so I can stand fully straight) but it leaves my shoulders even more vulnerable to injury than normal because of their poor positioning, creates shooting elbow pain during any type of pulling exercise (like pull-ups), and tightens the right side of my neck so much that it is easily strained during any type of activity that requires me using my shoulders. In other words: I’m a mess.

This fall I took some time off the water and worked on strengthening my shoulders, scapulae, and pectoral muscles so that everything would move together they way they do in “normal” people. The result? I no longer look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame! More importantly, it feels very nice to be able to stand up straight, and even nicer to step back into a canoe and not worry about tearing a rotator cuff during a regular practice.

I do need to keep up with my structural balance training (sadly it’s not a “one and done” type situation) but when I do I’m free to keep lifting – and lifting heavy - so that when I make it back in the boat I can move even more water than before. And that’s a great feeling.

KikuCanoe That’s me sitting second from front – I tried out sitting more forward in the boat last season. This picture was taken at the end of a 20 mile race last August.