top of page

Marathon Training

Very often folks say I want to do well in next years race but don’t know how to train for it. Lets start with a definition . A marathon athlete in training is preparing their body to withstand severe stress over a prolonged period and to move fast over a given distance. I will offer 2 programs that you can start with until you do enough research and get enough training experience to determine what works best for you & your specific goals. Will also try to keep the explanations simple.

Designing a good training program is very complicated You need to increase your bodies ability to deliver fuel and oxygen to the muscles, increase the muscles ability to use the fuel, increase the rate at which your body gets rid of the lactic acid & carbon dioxide, and increase the level of lactic acid your muscles can tolerate without failing to perform. These objectives are attained by training at intensity levels designed to achieve those specific goals.

The first step is to define your goal. Do you want to win the race, win your class, or just turn in a performance that you can be satisfied with? Next look at your personal situation in terms of how much time you can devote to training. Now redefine your goal or time commitment to achieve something you can be satisfied with. The basic advice for marathon racing is set a pace you can stay with, then stay with it. Training is the same, set a training schedule you can stay with, then stay with it.

Research. The more you know about how your body works and the different theories about training the more likely you are to design a program that is best for you. There is a lot of information about marathon running and this applies to canoe training. Change the exercises to work muscles used for running to those used for paddling. Then the basic training ideas work for paddling.

Nutrition. What fuels your body is a form of sugar ( carbohydrate) & oxygen and the final byproduct is lactic acid & carbon dioxide. The more you know about this process the better you can provide what your body needs. Also if you are carrying a few extra pounds getting rid of that will improve your performance. This is also a factor in whatever you chose for hydration. Some get very involved in this, some don’t.

Heart Rate Monitor= measures your heart rate. Very effective in keeping training rate in the targeted range & helpful in identifying overtraining. Requires some research & study to make maximum effective use. A lot of folks use them, a lot don’t. I found them to be very helpful for training, less for the race.

Strength training. Can make a big difference. Most racers I talk to do resistance training, weights, early in the program. Then they decrease this in favor of seat time training. Most of us find making arrangements for a shuttle are too complicated, so we wind up doing upstream /downstream training. The upstream segment is a type of resistance training. You can take 3 or 4 bunges, stretch them across the bottom of the boat and you will be surprised how much resistance it creates. Doing the same section of river every time gets old fast, but it does allow you to develop some time checks that will measure your progress.

Three core exercises work almost all of the muscles involved in paddling & they are push ups, sit ups, & pull ups. You can use your body weight as the resistance or some type of weights. You can substitute crunches for sit ups, do the push ups from the knees, etc. I do Roman Chair sit ups, add back extensions( if my lower back is stronger I stay comfortable in the boat longer) & do the pull ups on my grandsons swing set.

Following is the schedule I use when I am serious about racing. It accommodates a full time job and family. I was satisfied with the results & I could change it to work for whatever length race I was training for. If it is more than you can do, or more than you want to do, I will offer a less intense schedule after it but don’t expect the same results from both programs.

Saturday= Long Slow Over Distance Training. For the Neches Wilderness Race ( NWR) I do 4 to 6 hours. There are a lot of different ideas about the best training level. For me it seemed that 70 to 75% of my projected race pace worked best.

Sunday= I coach a youth racing team from 3 to 5 pm. Would rest in the morning then go out early enough to get in 30 minutes paddling to work out any soreness from Saturday.

Monday= Core Group exercises if I felt I had rested enough for the paddling muscles to repair themselves. Then 45 min. to an hour of moderate paced aerobic activity. This may have been walking, running, biking, etc.

Tuesday= Short Intervals. An hour of 1 & 3 minute intervals. These are done at the highest pace that you can maintain good paddling form. Continue paddling between intervals until your heart rate gets back to a reasonable level then do another interval. These simulate starts and times when you want to dump a boat off your wake., or pass a boat. It is also easy to take the paddling muscles to failure in these short intervals, producing increased size. You can’t win a race on the start but you can lose one. Intervals allow you to take paddling muscles to failure & will make you faster. Wednesday= same as Monday

Thursday= one hour of Ladder Intervals. 5, 10, 15 min. then 15, 10, 5. Same objective as Tuesday. These increase you bodies ability to tolerate lactic acid. If you are training for a longer race this can be a LSOD session

Friday= Rest or light Monday session. 

You can make significant improvements in race performance with one day a week in the boat. This has to be the LSOD session of 4 to 6 hours. Combine speed play with this session. This involves picking a spot ahead, then going as hard as you can to it ( or select a time interval), then drop back to your LSOD pace. This is combining interval training with the distance session. I think you have to include 2 or 3 aerobic cross training sessions, per week, to the LSOD session. Teams= you don’t have to train with the person you plan to race with. Its better but not absolutely required. Two trained paddlers can be competitive with no experience together. I have raced with partners that I had not paddled with before 3 times. Twice we won the class, than a lady friend & I entered the Men’s Pro. Aluminum Class and finished 5th out of 9 or 10? Takes more of an effort to communicate but two folks that know what they are doing can adapt to each other fairly quickly.

Two sources that I found very worthwhile are

1. A video on marathon canoe racing from Mike & Tanya Fries. It covers the strokes, training, & race tactics. Covers single blade paddles but the strokes are the same with a double blade( except wing paddles).It is available from

2. Serious Training for Endurance Athletes by Bob Sleamaker & Ray Browning. There is a lot that is more recent but these are basic and the theory remains the same.

The most important factor in training is being honest with yourself. Set realistic goals, don’t kid yourself about how disciplined you are being about training, and you will see positive results from your training program.

Noel Kirkwood

ETRR member USA Canoe & Kayak certified Level One Coach

United States Canoe Association certified Canoe Instructor

Marathon Canoe Racer for 15 years

bottom of page