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Carter Johnson on Training for Ultra Marathon Paddling Races

Submitted by on January 17, 2007 – 5:13 am 2 Comments

This post is a first one from a mini series on training for long distance paddle races. By long distance I mean events like 260 mile Texas Water Safari, Missouri River 340, Colorado River 100, 300 mile WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, or 460 mile Yukon River Quest. I asked several racers with a potentially different perspective to share their experience.

Let’s start from training tips prepared by Carter Johnson. Carter is a surfski and kayak racer who successfully paddled in several ultra marathon events including Colorado River 100, Everglades Challenge and Yukon River Quest. He is a holder of the Guinness 24 Hour Flat Water Paddling Record.

Guiness record

Guiness record

Guiness record

1. First and foremost, I believe training is very personal. There are many factors in our individual physical makeup as well as our personal lives that will greatly affect how and when we can train. I am 4 years new to this and am learning every day. My advice below is what I have learned from people and what I found works for me. It may be very different for you.

2. Talk to more seasoned racers and paddle with them every chance you get. These people are good for a reason and often have a lot to share. Talk to anybody you can, fast or slow who knows the course. Study the course on Google maps. Watertribe Everglades Challenge

3. If at all possible, train in similar conditions with a similarly weighted boat as your race.

4. Long slow paddles are critical (i.e., 6 to 10 hours continuous) at least a few times to make sure you know your points of failure and to sort out your food. But if they are all you do, you are guaranteed to finish your race with a LONG and SLOW time. I normally do no more than 1 or 2 max per race.

5. I like to break my 6+ hour workouts into three 2+ hour sessions thru out the day, where each of the sessions is at max speed for the 2 hours. With just a few hours rest in between, you can recover, have a good meal and make the most out of your next 2 hour session. I personally find that after 3 hours, I fall into my slower duration pace which is not making me faster. By splitting it up, you can build the same endurance, minimize injuries and gain speed.

6. Make a weekly calendar. If you are like me, you will find they are impossible to follow and your body or life will often suggest otherwise, but the guideline is good and will hopefully make sure you are covering all your basis.

7. I typically only do 3 days a week and avoid back to back days at all costs. I know many of you have read the Barton Mold or looked at some Olympic sprinter workout logs and see the 7 days a week, 3 workouts per day… FORGET ABOUT ALL THIS. You simply need time to recover from a 6 hour day with long intervals.
And face it, we also hold jobs and are not in the Olympics. If you do not recover between workouts, you will be making your self slower and slower then eventually breakdown all together.

8. If you do not have a base yet, spend 2 months simply paddling in conditions similar to your race. Do not worry about speed. Do each day for 1.5 hours if possible. Do this for several months. Throw some weights into the mix and cross train too on foot, bike or ski if possible.

9. Once you have your base (with typically 3 months left till race day), here is how I generally break up my 3 days per week. NOTE: when I say MAX pace, it is the fastest speed you can consistently hold for the duration of your interval. If you can hold that speed for longer than your interval, then it was not at your max, i.e.,
– max for 10 seconds may be 10mph and you could not hold this speed for any longer…
– max for 1 minute may be 8mph
– max for 1 hour may be 7mph and so forth

  • 1 day of AT work. About 1.5 hour work out total. 15 to 30 minute sprints at 80% to 100% max pace. Long rests in between at first. Shorten your rest periods each month.
  • 1 day of sprints. 10 seconds to 2 minutes intervals at 100% max pace. Good recovery in between. Shorten your recovery each month.
  • 1 day of Endurance. May start with 2 1.5 hours sessions. Your first onesshould be at only 80% max speed. Make your last workout at 100%. You should finish with nothing left in you. Possibly work up to 3 2.5 hour sessions.

10. About 2 months out, substitute your endurance day for 1 long paddle. You will need to figure out what to eat, wear, drink, how to manage in your boat, see if you have any chafing or blistering issues.

11. 3 weeks out, substitute your duration workout for 1 more continuous long paddle. Make sure you have all your logistics figured out to a science. If something is not working, do not be afraid to change it. That is primarily what these long workouts are for.

Carter Johnson at the start to 2004 Colorado River 1000

12. After your last long paddle, 3 weeks out, Get rid of the distance from your workouts. Substitute it with just a 1.5 hour cruise, iron out any gear issues. Keep your sprints and AT though.

13. 2 weeks out, back off all intensity, just go out and cruz for fun and stay liquid. Work on gear and transitions

14. 1 week out, get good sleep, eat well, and possibly only do 1 or 2 very light paddles.

15. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ADAPT – if your body is done, then it is done. Substitute your workout with a cruise or skip it all together. Wait till your next one. Do not make up your daily workouts if you have to miss due to fatigue – Take the rest and come back stronger.

16. Chalk up your first race, or even your first race on a new course as experience. Surviving your first ultra or a new course is a big win!

17. Here is a list of things that take you by surprise in your first event.

  • Hamburger hands (I now use Hydropel and gloves)
  • At 3am, your stomach and mind simply does not want food. It still needs it though or you will crash hard and not come back. Often slow down so much that you go hypothermic even in warm weather. (I now do liquid foods during these hours)
  • Urination – Yep, this one is not pretty, nor will I give any advice other than you need to figure it out. Little John portable urinal
  • Severe stomach issues, vomiting… (I now take pepto pills every 2 hours from the get go)
  • Forgetting to eat and bonking (every 30 minutes, a bite of something)
  • Starting off at a 5 mile pace for a 3 day race (Just don’t do it!!)
  • Body chafing (Lube up extensively with Hydropel and Aquafir cream on butt, waist and neck. Cover your nipples with duck tape).
  • Wanting to quit (If you think you need to quit. First, get out of your boat, Take 2 hours down, breath, eat a big meal, Put on dry clothes. Think about why you are here in the first place, or what ever it is that motivates you. These items are life changing)
  • Advil – no more than 2 every 5 hours else you may actually swell up.

Best of luck to all,


Tips on Training Series:
13 Tips on Training for Endurance Paddling Races from West Hansen
Dawn Stewart “SandyBottom” on Training for Paddle Racing – A Cruiser Approach
Heather Nelson on Training for the 460 Miles of the Yukon River Quest

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  • Marie Delaney says:

    Hi Mr. Peter Carter Johnson. I stumbled across this website. Marie Elaine Delaney (now Gebhart)

  • Marek says:

    I’ve been using Hydropel for years and still have some left. However, it seems that Hydropel has been discontinued. Have you found any good replacement for that product?

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