Kayaking - More than just riding the white-water rapids

Kayaking means different things to different people. For most, the word kayaking brings to mind the image of a small boat hurtling through gushing bursts of a rocky river; piloted by an extreme sports addict wearing a helmet, steering the vessel with the agility of a gazelle, and using a paddle with lightning speed.


However, white-water kayaking is only one type of kayaking available to people looking for a water sport fitness activity. Kayaking can be a peaceful, carefree water tour though idyllic countryside, or it can be fast-paced , or everything in between. As such, kayaking is a sport for all ages, abilities, and preferences; as varied as the paddlers themselves.


Archaeological evidence indicates that kayaks are one of the earliest forms of transport used by modern humans. Initially created thousands of years ago by the Inuit of the northern Arctic regions, they were primarily used for hunting. These early kayaks were made of driftwood or whale bones and covered with animal skin, usually seal skin.


Kayaking spread as explorers came into contact with communities using them and by the mid-1800s some European countries began kayaking for sport. White-water kayaking is reported to have begun in 1931, when a man called Adolf Anderle became the first person to kayak down the Salzachofen Gorge in Austria. Kayak races were introduced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, kayaking was largely a fringe sport until the 1970s, when it became more mainstream and popular as a sport. Today, more than 10 white-water kayaking events are featured in the Olympics.


There are four main types of kayaking and the different styles have specifically designed crafts. These are:


White-Water Kayaking

As the name implies, white-water kayaking is kayaking on rapidly moving water, typically a white-water river. Due to the need for manoeuvrability, white-water kayaks are shorter than the other types of kayaks (8 to 9 feet long). They have rounded hulls, softer chines (the curve between the sides and the bottom), a shallower flare and more rocker. The flare is the angle of the sides, outward from the hull, and the rocker is the amount of curve from bow to stern that sits above the waterline.


The design of the white-water kayak means that less of the craft is in contact with the water, allowing it to performing tricks and rolls. They are highly durable so they can handle the frequent knocks against rocks that occur in white-water rapids.


Sea or Touring Kayaking

Sea or touring kayaking is paddling on open water, i.e. lakes, bays, and the sea/ocean. Consequently, touring kayaks are seaworthy small boats with a covered deck and the ability to incorporate a spray deck (a flexible cover that prevents water getting in). There are two styles of sea kayak; one enables the kayaker to sit inside the hull, the other is a sit-on-top model, more like a canoe.


Sea kayaks are less manoeuvrable than white-water kayaks but can reach higher cruising speeds. As touring kayaks are used for longer journeys they have the capacity to hold cargo, accommodate one to three paddlers and are more comfortable. Sea kayaks range in size from10–12 feet for solo crafts, and 15 feet plus for crafts suitable for two or three paddlers. They have flat hulls, sharp chines and are wide, giving them a greater flare. This makes them less manoeuvrable, but fast on a straight line. They also glide further per stroke, so they're more efficient than their short, sporty relatives and many have rudders to help steer them.


Recreational Kayaking

Recreational kayaking is the entry level of sea or touring kayaking. Rather than on open water, this activity takes place on well-protected waters such as lakes and water sports facilities. Recreational kayaks are usually wide and stable. They are designed for paddlers to have fun on the water and very little experience is required to paddle them. Great fun for all the family!


Surf Kayaking

Surf kayaking takes place in the ocean but uses kayaks similarly shaped to white-water boats. It is just like surfing, but instead of using a surfboard the paddler sits in a kayak.


Surf kayaks are similar to the white-water models. However, a major difference is the rocker. Surf kayaks only have a rocker on the bow side and the stern is flat, resembling a surfboard. Many surf kayaks also have fins.


Beside the kayak (and of course the life vest or personal flotation device) the most vital piece of equipment for kayaking is the paddle. Paddles are required to propel the kayaks, so without one, you will literally be "up the creek without a paddle"!


Paddles vary in blade length and shape, and also vary in the shaft length and shape, as well as what the shaft is made from. Both the height and strength of the paddler, as well as the type of kayaking, will determine which combination of features is suitable. Short paddlers, who are not as strong, are better off with a shorter and lighter paddle. Wider and taller kayaks normally require longer paddles. Wider blades have more contact with the water, providing greater acceleration. However, they also have more resistance, which means more effort is required. A narrower blade will require more strokes, but less effort per stroke.


Cross training to build upper body strength will make paddling easier. Developing your core strength will also improve your ability to both stay upright and paddle. Exercises such as abdominal crunches and press-ups, as well as multi-function gym equipment like Technogym’s Unica, are ideal for building the muscle groups in the upper body required for kayaking.


Kayaking is a great way to keep fit because it provides the excitement and adventure of being on the water in a range of challenging environments. It is also a sports that is predominately an upper body workout; making it ideal for individuals with leg issues (due to mobility or joint problems) that are exacerbated by exercises involving standing, running or jumping.


That said, don’t be fooled into thinking that kayaking isn’t a challenging cardiovascular workout too! It takes a strong pair of lungs and heart to paddle at speeds commonly seen in sea or touring kayaking. Not to mention the speed and dexterity required to negotiate white-water rapids. In the home gym, equipment such as Excite+ Top, provides cross training opportunities for individuals seeking an upper body cardio workout to build their kayaking endurance.


Like all water sports, for health and safety reasons, it is important to get proper instructions (in a safe, calm environment — not the rapids straight away!) before venturing out on to the water so that you learn the basics. For example: how to get in and out of a kayak, basic paddling strokes and safety techniques like how to roll the kayak so you are able to right your vessel or exit from it should it overturn whilst you are in the water.


Other benefits of working with a properly qualified instructor are that you will learn important/more advanced skills and techniques faster. Plus, initially you won’t need to invest in any equipment since the instruction fee usually covers this. Once you’ve been kayaking for a while you will have a better sense of what to buy should you decide to purchase your own kayak and equipment.