For many people, 2016 was not a great year. David Bowie died, Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Donald Trump. It was also a disappointing year for me on the slalom circuit.  I failed to achieve my goal of improving my Premier division ranking to below my age (54) and instead dropped nine places, now ranked 67.

There’s a fine line between reviewing and making excuses. I trained well in the winter, but didn’t translate this into consistent performances in the first half of the season. I was also ill during the HPP race in May and had my worst performance in years.  Then, as in 2015, the summer was full of non-paddling activities; family holidays and two weeks in Rio working at the Paralympics – very enjoyable and worthwhile but not the same as quality time in the boat. As a result, I wasn’t well prepared for the autumn races and my performances reflected this.

My focus for 2017 is the World Masters Games, which take place in Auckland in late April. I want to put down competitive runs that I feel proud of, so clearly something needed to change if I’m going to have any chance being as fast and consistent as I aspire to be. I started thinking hard about my approach over the summer and here are the changes I’ve come up with:

More coached and timed sessions – the CO-OP

Last winter I put a lot of emphasis on improving my technique, and although I made progress I didn’t do enough to consolidate this at speed and under pressure.  A solution is to raise the quality and intensity of training, and do more timed competitive sessions. Six of us have formed a training group we call the Lea Valley Co-op. (Short for a co-operative, a form of mutually beneficial organisation that used to be popular in Britain. Largely replaced by private enterprise with disastrous results).  The group falls naturally into two sub teams; Huw Swetnam, Ciaran Lee Edwards and Zac Franklin who are all ranked nationally in the top 6 and who will be serious contenders at the GB selection races. Then there’s Luke Smyth, Connor Lennihan and me, all ranked midfield and lower in Premier (to be fair, its only me who’s lower than mid-field ;) ). Each of us coaches one session a week for the other group, which means we each get access to up to 3 coached and /or videoed sessions and it’s rare to do a session alone, so there’s learning and competition on the water too. So far it’s working well, and there’s mutual gain that’s helping everyone improve.

As an example, last Saturday Ciaran coached me on a technical session, then I quickly got changed and coached him on exactly the same gate sequences. We both felt the benefit of knowing the moves well from the bank and on the water, and it was rich learning for us both.

Smarter training

I read Edith Ginn’s very useful guide to the physiology of canoe and kayak training over the summer.  This both reminded me of things I used to know about physiology, and made me think deeply and afresh about the best way to prepare.  I like the principle of addressing the limiting physical performance factor – which in slalom (as in all speed endurance sports) is the build-up of lactic acid that limits muscular power. She provides a compelling rationale for how to do this so I’m now periodising my physical training far more than I used to, with a clear endurance phase from October to December, then increasing the intensity from January to March.  I’ve bought a Polar Heart Rate Monitor so I can keep a better track of how I’m varying the intensity of my training to make sure I get the most appropriate benefit from each session.

More specific training

I’ve invested in a Kayak Pro compact ergometer so that I can do better quality, highly specific conditioning training at home. This has been brilliant over the winter and has effectively doubled the time I spend paddling each week. There’s no travel cost or traffic to battle to get on the water, I can train at any time that suits, and it’s possible to do an effective session in 45 minutes.  Importantly, it means that when I am on the water I can focus on whitewater technique and speed rather than basic conditioning. As I’ve got fitter I’m also noticing that I can manage a greater volume and quality of my whitewater training.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

 I’ve tried to show how I’m doing things differently this year. We’ll see how the changes pan out and whether I achieve the gains I want. It strikes me that no matter what endeavours you are pursuing, it’s important to reflect, review and experiment. Simply repeating the same things and hoping for a different result is surely either crazy or lazy.

Have fun out there, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere wrap up warm!