Testing for Paddling: Evaluating the Essentials

Canoe and kayaking is a sport that demands a blend of strength, endurance, and technique. Whether you’re a competitive kayaker or a passionate enthusiast, understanding how to evaluate your performance is crucial for continuous improvement. This guide will walk you through the essential tests for assessing paddle performance, covering both aerobic-anaerobic and strength aspects. By the end of this article, you’ll have practical insights into how to integrate these tests into your training routine effectively.

Measuring Aerobic Capacity

VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a key indicator of aerobic fitness. It measures the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. For paddlers, a high VO2 max is essential for sustaining long paddling sessions without fatigue. While not everyone has access to the specialized equipment needed to measure VO2 max directly, there are other effective methods to assess aerobic capacity[1-2].

Ergometer Test: Perform a graded exercise test on an ergometer. Start at 40% of your average wattage from your 1000m time trial, increasing by 10% every 2 minutes until exhaustion. During the test, wear a heart rate monitor, and plot your wattage against your heart rate to determine your aerobic threshold. Note your last completed watt step to track improvements in aerobic fitness.

Field Test: Alternatively, conduct a time-trial test on the water by paddling a set distance as fast as possible. Record your heart rate and the time taken to complete the distance. This can provide a rough estimate of your aerobic capacity.

By incorporating these tests into your training routine, you can effectively monitor and improve your aerobic fitness, essential for optimal performance in paddling.

Assessing Anaerobic Capabilities: 

Anaerobic capacity is just as important, especially for sprint paddlers. It refers to the ability of your muscles to perform high-intensity efforts when oxygen is scarce [2]. Here are two simple tests to evaluate it:

Anaerobic power: To assess your anaerobic power, perform a series of 5-second solid starts on the ergometer. Track your maximal power output during each interval. Calculate the average power across the series and monitor changes over time to gauge improvements in your explosive strength and power.

Anaerobic Capacity: 

To measure anaerobic capacity, conduct a 150m all-out effort either on the ergometer or on the water.

  • Ergometer: Track your average wattage throughout the effort. Additionally, calculate your fatigue index by subtracting your end wattage from the highest wattage achieved during the test.
  • On the Water: Record your finish time or top speed if you’re in stable conditions. This will help you evaluate your ability to sustain high-intensity efforts and monitor changes over time.

Assessing Strength tests

Strength training is vital for canoe and kayaking, particularly for the upper body and core. Regularly testing your strength can help tailor your conditioning program [3-4].

Maximal Strength:

Maximal strength refers to the greatest amount of force that a muscle or group of muscles can generate. Testing for maximal strength is crucial for paddlers to ensure they have the necessary power to propel the canoe or kayak efficiently.

Bench Press: This test assesses upper body pushing strength

Deadlift: Measures overall lower body and core strength,

Bench pull: Tests upper body pulling strength

Warm up thoroughly with lighter weights. Gradually increase the weight to 8,6,5,3,1,1 repetitions at 50%,60%,70%,80%,85%, and 90% of the estimated 1RM. Ensure a spotter or coach is present for safety [3-4].

Explosive Strength:

Explosive strength, or power, refers to the ability to exert a maximal amount of force in the shortest possible time, which is crucial for the powerful strokes needed in sprint paddling [5]. To test your explosive strength, follow these steps:

Exercise Selection: Choose exercises such as the bench press and bench pull, which are relevant to the paddling motion. Single-arm pulling variants can be used as well.  

Use a weight that is approximately 40% of your estimated one-rep max (1RM). Perform 5 repetitions as explosively as possible. Have a partner time you or use video analysis to determine how quickly you complete the 5 reps. Focus on maintaining proper form throughout each repetition. By consistently measuring the speed of your explosive lifts, you can track improvements in your power output, directly translating to more powerful strokes on the water [5].

Analyzing Paddle Technique

Efficient paddle technique is crucial for maximizing speed and endurance while minimizing the risk of injury. Here are a few ways to evaluate and improve your technique:

Video Analysis

Recording your paddling sessions can provide valuable insights into your technique. By analyzing the footage, you can identify and correct flaws to enhance your performance [7].

Recording: Have a coach or a friend record you from various angles while paddling.

  1. Analysis: Use slow-motion playback to examine your stroke mechanics, body position, and timing. Look for common issues such as poor posture, inefficient stroke paths, or inconsistent rhythm. Key elements to focus on include stroke symmetry, paddle angle, arm extension, leg work, and body rotation. Comparing your videos over time can help track improvements and identify persistent issues.

Stroke Rate and Distance Per Stroke

Using a GPS device or a paddle-specific app, measure your stroke rate and the distance covered per stroke. Strive for a balance between a high stroke rate and maximizing the distance per stroke for optimal efficiency [6].

  1. Fixed Distance Test: Paddle a fixed distance, such as a flying 100m, and count your strokes.
  2. Performance Evaluation: Assess if you can maintain or increase your speed while taking fewer strokes. This test helps identify the most efficient stroke rate and technique for covering the distance effectively.

Incorporating these evaluation methods into your training routine will help you refine your technique, improve your strength, and enhance your overall paddling performance. Regular testing and analysis ensure that you can make informed adjustments to your training program, leading to continuous improvement and better results on the water [7].


1: Michael JS, Smith R, Rooney KB. Determinants of kayak paddling performance. Sports Biomechanics 2009 Jun 1,;8(2):167-179.

2: van Someren KA, Howatson G. Prediction of flatwater kayaking performance. International journal of sports physiology and performance 2008;3(2):207-218.

3: Kristiansen, M., Pedersen, A. S. K., Sandvej, G., Jørgensen, P., Jakobsen, J. V., de Zee, M., Hansen, E. A., & Klitgaard, K. K. (2023). Enhanced Maximal Upper-Body Strength Increases Performance in Sprint Kayaking. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 37(4)

4: Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2004). Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 36(4), 674–688. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.mss.0000121945.36635.61

5: Newton, Robert U. MHMS, CSCS1; Kraemer, William J. PhD, CSCS2. Developing Explosive Muscular Power: Implications for a Mixed Methods Training Strategy. Strength and Conditioning 16(5):p 20-31, October 1994.

6: McDonnell LK, Hume PA, Nolte V. A deterministic model based on evidence for the associations between kinematic variables and sprint kayak performance. Sports Biomechanics 2013;12(3):205-220.

About the author – Dr. Kent Klitgaard

Dr. Klitgaard holds a PhD in biomechanics with a specialization in sprint kayaking. He has a solid background in sports science and is currently doing research and coaching. Dr. Klitgaard collaborates with Team Danmark and the Danish national kayaking team. With extensive experience as a coach, he also enjoys sprinting on the water whenever possible. For those seeking personalized guidance, Dr. Klitgaard offers online coaching through Instagram @Kayak_Kent, feel free to reach out to him.

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