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©Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2008) 7, 1-7 http://www.jssm.org

Review article

The metabolic demands of kayaking: A review

Jacob S. Michael

, Kieron B. Rooney and Richard Smith

School of Exercise and Sport Science, Faculty of Health Sciences, Sydney University, Australia.

Abstract Flat-water kayaking is one of the best-known competitive ca- noeing disciplines in Australia and across the European coun- tries. From a stationary start, paddlers are required to paddle their kayaks with maximal effort along the length of the compet- ing distance. The ultimate criterion of kayak performance is the time taken to paddle a designated competition distance. In flat- water racing, events are contested over 500 and 1000 metres. To approximate the ultimate criterion over these distances, the velocity of the kayak should be measured. Furthermore, other factors that affect performance, such as force, power, technique and aerobic fitness, would all provide a valuable insight to the success of the kayak paddler. Specific research performed exam- ining the physiological demands on kayak paddlers demonstrate high levels of both aerobic power and anaerobic capacity. It is the purpose if this review to present the published physiological data relating to men’s and women’s kayaking. With a number of recent publications, a need for an updated review is necessary. The present review summarises recent data on anthropometrics, physiological characteristics of successful and unsuccessful kayak athletes and methods of physiological testing. Due to the fact that more data have been reported for male competitors than for their female counterparts, the demands of kayaking on male athletes will be the main focus for this review. The review also suggests areas for future research into flatwater kayaking per- formance. Understanding the physiological requirements of kayaking can assist coaches and athletes in a number of ways. During competition or training, such information is helpful in the selection of appropriate protocols and metabolic indices to monitor an athlete’s performance improvements and assess an athlete’s suitability for a particular race distance. Furthermore, it may aid the coach in the development of more specific training programs for their athletes.

Key words: Kayak, ergometer, anthropometry, oxygen demand, aerobic power, lactate.


Energy demand during competitive kayaking Flatwater kayaking is a sport that places exceptional de- mands on the upper body and trunk musculature (Tesch, 1983). Previous research papers (Bishop, 2000; Fry and Morton, 1991; Gray et al., 1995; Tesch, 1983) suggest that flatwater kayak paddlers possess high values for maximal aerobic and anaerobic capacities and upper-body muscle strength.

Kayak paddlers spend the majority of their race at or around peak VO2 (Bishop, 2000) and obtain the major- ity of the required energy from the aerobic system (Bishop, 2000; Fernandez et al., 1995). Zamparo et al. (1999) concluded that the fraction of average power pro- vided by oxidative processes increased with the distance

covered, whereas that provided by anaerobic sources decreased. In brief, the aerobic contribution, expressed as a fraction of VO2 max, was shown to be 73% for the 500m and 85% for the 1000m (lasting approximately 1min 45 and 3min 45 respectively). These data support that of an earlier study performed in six elite kayak pad- dlers (Tesch et al., 1976). The importance of the anaero- bic contribution, however, cannot be discounted. Studies such as Bishop (2000) and Fernandez et al. (1995) suggest that Olympic kayak paddlers not only need a high aerobic power, but the anaerobic contribution is also very impor- tant for successful performance.

Anthropometric characteristics of kayakers Anthropometric data available for male and female, elite sprint canoe/kayak paddlers suggest a homogenous shape and size (Ackland et al., 2003). Ackland et al. (2003), assessed 50 male and 20 female sprint canoe/kayakers who competed at the Sydney Olympic Games (2000) representing 9 countries (Table 1). Sydney Olympic pad- dlers compared to paddlers represented at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, were approximately five kilograms heavier on average. However, with comparable skin fold values for the two groups, it was suggested by Ackland et al. (2003) that the subjects in the present sample have a higher proportion of lean body mass. It was therefore speculated by Ackland et al. (2003) that the morphology of elite paddlers have altered during the past 25 years and shifted toward a heavier but more lean physique. The winning times for the k1 500m and k1 1000m events from the two Olympic games (1976 vs. 2000) show a vast im- provement and give some indication of the developmental trends and support the suggestion of improved physical capacity over the two distances. Over the 500m distance, the times went from winning in 1:46.41 in 1976 to the present winning time of 1:37.919, and over the 1000m event, from 3:48.20 to 3:25.898. Arguably, the techno- logical advancements in boat and paddle design should also be considered as it was suggested by Robinson et al. (2002) that the time differences presented have been closely related to these technological advancements, as well as changes in the paddlers themselves.

Ackland et al. (2003) noted that sprint kayak pad- dlers possess unique characteristics not commonly ob- served in the general population. These include a lean body composition with proportionately large upper body girths and narrow hips (for males). The mean somatotype recorded by Ackland et al. (2003) (1.6 – 5.7 – 2.2 for males, 2.4 – 4.7 – 2.0 for females) demonstrated that kayak paddlers are best described as mesomorphs.

Despite the suggestion put forward by Ackland et al. (2003) that elite sprint kayak paddlers physical

Received: 15 October 2007 / Accepted: 22 January 2008 / Published (online): 01 March 2008

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