I know that some people don’t bother practicing freestyle on flatwater, maybe it never occurred to them or they don’t think there are any benefits so they never tried it. This post is dedicated to persuading such people to try training on flatwater, maybe before a session on whitewater or simply for convenience because it really is worth it, especially in times like this (during lockdown) – your local whitewater centre might be closed or you might have to drive a long way to get to it, but many of us still live near a lake or canal (or maybe even have a pool) where we can still kayak once a day as exercise, don’t go without practise if you can help it.
The first thing to say in favour of flatwater practice is that it boosts your strength massively, everything requires more power on flatwater because you don’t receive any help from the water. I normally train on my local canal once a week for around 45 minutes combined with 3-4 hours at Lee Valley on the weekends, but now that Lee Valley is closed and I’ve resorted to 4 flatwater sessions a week I can feel the progress I’ve made in reaching sprinting speed quickly as well as whipping the boat around faster and more decisively. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are as a kayaker, whether you’ve just started or have been paddling for years; if you religiously practice on flatwater be it actual tricks or just sprints every week, your performance on whitewater will improve dramatically.
Can’t quite bring that trick around? Struggle navigating different features? Your boof stroke isn’t strong enough? Have difficulty rolling? All of these things rely partly on strength and when we practice on whitewater the flow does an awful lot of it for us. If you just dip your bow in the green water and magically cartwheel that’s great for you, but if you can cartwheel on flatwater then the strength required to perform the movement without aid from the water combined with muscle memory will mean you can be more confident and accomplished when transferring that skill back to whitewater again. You might ask why you couldn’t just go to the gym instead of flatwater. Other than pointing out that your local gym is probably closed right now I would say that literally anything – like surfing, boofing or rolling all benefit from technique specific strength. If you can practice these skills in a more controlled environment (flatwater) then your body will get used to the movement and adapt to serve it better, simulating movements with exercises in the gym is no substitute for actually going out there and performing the motion in your kayak…
The second reason why flatwater training is so great is that it makes it a lot easier to work on and improve your technique. When you train on whitewater it’s much harder to isolate a particular flaw in your technique and work solely on that, you always have to focus on surfing or staying upright etc. Even if you are confident enough not to have to worry about tha you might be working on a trick and when you finally correct that mistake you had been making you screw up something you had been doing right previously. I know. It happens to me a lot. Flatwater is very useful when it comes to this because you have no outside distractions like the direction of the current, other paddlers or which way to look or edge; you can sit indefinitely on flatwater (until you get bored) and nothing is going to happen.
Say you want to learn how to flatspin in a hole, but every time you initiate the spin you catch an edge and eat it – you understand the technique but you just can’t do it. If you spend a couple of minutes practicing the motion on flatwater it’ll help you a lot, you can slow the movement down, really think about which way you should be looking and what you should be doing with your paddle, boat and body without being rushed or having to avoid paddlers upstream. Another example might be learning how to boof a feature; you can easily practice this on the flat without worrying about timing your stroke on the lip of a drop or getting a beatdown if you fail to make it over the foam pile. This not only makes flatwater a more friendly environment to learn on but also makes it easy to practice repeatedly, if your boof stroke doesn’t doesn’t work properly you don’t need to surf out of the feature, worry about swimming or paddle round the course to try again, just visualise the movement and have another go.
Finally, many people including myself can’t easily access whitewater. Lee Valley is the nearest place where I can do freestyle and it’s not even that close (although I appreciate that I’m lucky to be as close as I am), it takes me 2 hours to get to Lee Valley and 2 hours to return home which means I waste 8 hours travelling to and from whitewater every weekend and on a school night that travel time simple isn’t feasible. I would love to kayak more each week and my local canal (Regents Canal) is the answer, it’s only a 15 minute walk (or 5 minute drive) away and I don’t need to book or pay for it. I would prefer access to a feature but simply to get time on the water, vent my energy and build on strength and technique its more than good enough. I would imagine many people reading this live close to a canal or other body of water (whether they know it or not) where they could train each week without the hassle of getting to whitewater and I urge them to try it if it’s an option. I know that a single flatwater session during the week makes me feel a lot better and relieves my desire to get back to Lee Valley on the weekend so those of us sitting at home right now frustrated by social distancing and the shut down of whitewater courses like Lee Valley and Holme Pierrepont, I would remind you that flatwater is a viable alternative and certainly a way to distract from death tolls and fake news suggesting that 5G spreads coronavirus. Check out my Instagram video if you want to see some flatwater tricks and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog if you’d like to be notified about new posts…
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