Get Yourself Tested

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

So, you’re ready to get into the gym. Now what? My recommendation is perhaps not all that common but, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense:

Get Yourself Tested.

Testing is the process athletes undergo to assess various aspects of their physical capacity; and it’s not because they have nothing better to do with their time. It’s because it helps them train smarter. So, what is it? What’s involved?

The reality is that it varies greatly from sport to sport. Any NFL fans out there? If not, check out the NFL Combine. The Combine is an annual meet of invite-only college football prospects, where they perform a battery of physical tests in front of NFL scouts. What kind of tests do they do? Sprinting, jumping, throwing, catching as well as basic height, weight and wingspan measurements. Should freestyle kayakers be doing the same tests? Perhaps some of them, but definitely not all. The kernel of wisdom I’m trying to convey here is that whatever tests you do, they need to be relevant. At least some of them, need to be sport-specific.

This might sound obvious but it is an extremely important point. It’s not typical for the athlete themselves to design their own testing protocols. So, who does it? Perhaps a sports scientist or, in my case, a strength and conditioning coach. Whoever it is, they need to know freestyle kayaking. Most of the time, this means you need to teach them about it. Show them videos. Explain the demands of the sport. The more they know about it, the better able they will be to design an appropriate testing protocol. I use the word protocol deliberately. These tests must be exacting and standardised. They will be repeated over months and years to monitor progress and allow recalibration of training programs. They need to be reproducible and repeatable to be comparable.

So, what kind of tests are appropriate for us? Well, let’s consider a few of the physical traits that the ‘perfect freestyle kayaker’ would have:

· The ability to produce high levels of force in a short period of time for both forward and backward strokes.

The ‘perfect freestyle kayaker’ would never flush. If they came close, one or two powerful strokes would put them back in the pit. Of course, that ‘6th sense’ of knowing when you’re about to flush before you do helps a great deal with this. But having large reserves of power goes a long way to consistently retaining the feature as well.

· The ability to drive the end-over-end rotation of a boat (during a front loop for example) by ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ the hips.

This ‘hip hinge’ movement is central to so many freestyle tricks. At the most basic end of the spectrum, we see it in a Front Loop. At the other extreme, Jedi Flips merged with Back Loop Mcnastys require this movement to happen a number of times in quick succession. Think about the McNasty for a moment. For this to go huge and clean, we need a few different elements to be present. If we drew them as a pie chart, undoubtedly ‘technique’ would occupy the biggest slice. But being able to generate high levels of power during this ‘hip hinge’ motion would surely be there too.

· The ability to withstand high levels of force through the shoulders when they’re in all sorts of weird positions.

When we do a Phonics Monkey or a Tricky Woo etc, we can use the paddle blade as an anchor in the water. To do this without the risk of injury, our shoulders need to be extremely stable through their entire range of motion. Not only that, but at times we will ask the shoulders to actively participate in force production when they are in less than ideal positions. They need to not just be sturdy and robust, but powerful at the same time. Ok, ok, I can hear all the freestyle aficionados crying in the distance: “If you have great technique, you’ll keep your shoulders protected in safe, more stable positions”. Of course, this is the ideal. We want to develop our technique too. But, like it or not, there will come a time when you end up in an awkward shape. It is times like these that we need bulletproof shoulders.

· The ability to stabilise the boat when sitting in a foamy, aerated mess.

You can have the most powerful forward stroke in the world, but it isn’t much good to you if you’re off-balance, about to capsize. The ability to hold the boat steady in a rowdy hole or wave requires well-developed endurance and stability of our core muscles. Without this, you won’t get very far in freestyle.

So, taking all these physical traits into account, we realise that we need to measure the rate of force production in the muscles that control forward and backward strokes and that ‘hip-hinge’ action. We might also want to measure the endurance and stability of our core muscles in different planes of space.

Rate of force production is neatly measured by something called a ‘force velocity profile’. I’m not sure I have the knowledge or words to properly explain that here, but maybe in time. As an athlete, it’s a SUPER FUN test to do. It generates metric tonnes of sweet, sweet data that display nicely on a graph like this one:

It would be awesome to do force-velocity testing with the athlete sat in their actual boat, using their own paddle and taking real paddle strokes. This would be the epitome of sport-specificity. In the absence of such swanky facilities, a simple bench press and bench row can serve as a useful proxy. But, get creative! There are lots of cool ways to more closely simulate the forward/backward stroke of a freestyle kayaker in a testing environment.

Other things you might want to test for would include:

· Joint Mobility

Get a physiotherapist to check you out. They will look for muscle weaknesses and limitations in range of joint and spinal mobility. Perhaps you have an underlying injury you were ignoring or simply weren’t aware of? A physiotherapist will pick this up; definitely useful information before you hit the gym.

· Weight

Strength training, like all training, provides a stimulus for change to your body (and your mind incidentally). Monitoring trends in weight over long periods of time can be a useful, indirect measure of what kind of change is happening. I’ll say it again; trends, long periods of time.

· Body fat Do you need to look like a Greek God or have cheese grater abs like Lucien Schreiber to be a ninja in a freestyle kayak? No, certainly not. But in the age of carbon boats and paddles, where people literally spend thousands trying to shave off a few kilos, perhaps measuring body fat is worth a look. All I’ll say is, skin fold callipers are the method of choice. Get someone who knows how to use them properly.

By the time you’ve done all these wonderful tests, you’ll have a lot of information. This brings me to another tenet of any good testing regimen; the results need to be interpreted by an expert. Information loses its value if it is not actionable. Whatever results you end up with, they need to feed in to a larger process. They need to inform what you are going to do next. For this to happen, make sure whoever is doing your testing and/or strength programming knows their stuff.

“All this sounds like an awful lot of work, Rory. Why should I bother?”

That’s a great question. The short answer is, because science is fun. The long answer is, because it allows you to identify and address weaknesses in a reliable and objective manner. If you’re trying to make progress rapidly, does it make sense to intensively train what you’re already really good at? Nope. Testing brings to light what would otherwise be a shot in the dark. It accurately identifies what we’re good at and what we’re not so good at. Sure, without testing, you might get lucky and hit upon your weaknesses by sheer chance alone. With testing however, you know your training programs are bespoke. You know what you’re doing is progressing the areas that are weakest. You know you’re on the fastest route to reaching the next level, whatever that might be for you.

So far, we have only discussed tests as they apply to strength training, to physical traits a kayaker might desire. However, can we test technical aspects of our kayaking performance too? Well, there’s an interesting idea. A thought for another day, I think. For now, I’ll leave you with the words of Eric Thomas, the homeless dude turned motivational speaker:

“It’s time to take a test, to test your will, your endurance… to test your limits”

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