Racing Fitness for Couch Potatoes by Ken Clarke

Thank you, Ken, for disclosing some of your secrets for success! And Clara Shipman for the fab picture you took of the stormy Friday Night Race in Toronto's Inner Harbour last week.

Please send pics of your sailing venue - it would be great to share shots of Albacores mastering the breeze on Lac Deschênes, the Gatineau River, the Atlantic Ocean, Parry Sound or Clear Lake.

We are almost half-way through the sailing season but don’t be discouraged from starting a sailing fitness program. After all, sailing fitness is a year-round commitment and you still have plenty of time to get into shape……for next season.

“Year-round commitment” sounds arduous, so why bother, particularly in Toronto where, it seems, half the time, we are sitting in semi-drifting conditions? Here are three good reasons:

1. Survival

Unless we are fully confident that we can self-rescue in the prevailing conditions, we shouldn’t leave the dock. But, many do. Improved fitness increases our chances to self-rescue in difficult and unforeseen circumstances – potentially a life saver.

2. Injury prevention

Sailors commonly complain of injuries to knees, back, neck and shoulders and sometimes to wrists and hands. Strengthening key areas of the body can help limit such injuries, including chronic neck problems incurred during those horribly long light-air races.

3. Moving up the fleet

A survey of the top twenty finishers at the 2003 Kingston Internationals indicated crews of boats placing 1-10 were generally fitter than those placing 11-20. With notable exceptions, the top placed crews had worked harder to get into shape for the event.

Photo cred: Michael Croudson

If you are super fit, or ideologically opposed to getting off the couch, you can stop reading now. But if you haven’t been working on your sailing fitness, recognize there is some sense in the above rationale, and would like to move from feeling “definitely not fit enough” to “physically confident to compete well in most conditions”, read on – these notes and suggestions are for you. Of course, first you ought to understand your physical limitations and seek qualified professional advice, if you have any doubts about your medical condition.

With the world seemingly moving faster, living in the moment in order to undertake a fitness program needs more than good intentions; we need a strategy. My personal strategy is to turn those things important to me into “habits”. Having tried to break bad ones we know how powerful habits are. Habits tend to push aside distractions rather than the other way around. Forget good intentions, follow the Nike slogan, and “Just do it”.

I’m a big fan of working in group classes. Particularly aerobics, spinning, pilates, body pump (with some reservations) and yoga/stretch. Leave extreme Boot Camp style classes alone until you’ve already attained a fair level of fitness.

Classes have real advantages – all you have to do is turn up, follow instructions and, just do it: there is a regular time and place to work into your schedule; professional instruction will help cover the range of appropriate exercises safely, from warm-up through to cool-down; the energy generated by the group helps motivate; and they can be fun. There are good and not-so-good fitness classes. Don’t waste your time with mediocre instruction – ask around and go first-class.

If you just cannot work classes into your schedule, a personal trainer is an option. He or she can tailor a program to suit your specific needs for sailing; show you how to do exercises properly and safely; and possibly, keep you motivated during tough patches. You don’t have to have someone watch you all the time, you can arrange to check-in for a review and program update every couple of months or so.

Even if you can’t commit to either classes or a personal trainer, I’d still recommend joining a gym. Apart from access to equipment, the act of going to a specific location is itself a step toward making fitness a habit.

If you really, really must work on your own, I hope you’ll find the notes below helpful in pointing you in the right direction. They are under the following headings: Balance; Endurance and High-intensity Interval Training ; Strength; and Warm-up/ Stretch. I’m not qualified to prescribe or describe specific exercises, but I’ve referenced YouTube videos that should help.


A Derek Shenstone Story:

I miss Derek. Before the Friday Night Races, when others were enjoying a pre-race beer, or “mellowing out” behind the sail lockers, Derek would often treat me to a scoop of strawberry ice cream from his private stash in the Mooredale freezer. One day he asked, “If there is one piece of advice you would offer me to help me move up the fleet, what would it be?” I told Derek I had often observed him falling around in the boat and suggested he work on improving balance. I outlined ways of doing that including explaining what a wobble board is and how he might make one himself. 

Early the next season I had just rounded the first windward mark in 7th or 8th place in the chaos of the FNR when I noticed Derek helming the Albacore immediately ahead of me. I yelled something to the effect, “How did you make it to the front end of fleet?”. He shouted back, “I made myself a wobble board”. Even in his mid-seventies Derek never counted himself too old to learn or try something new. 

Those who do a lot of skiing, skating, or practice activities such as martial arts, probably have excellent balance and weight transference skills. Everyone else needs to work on their balance, particularly those over 50. Even with the fantastic sense of balance Raines Koby must possess, to be a World Champion sail boarder, Raines still finds it useful to beat up to Centennial Pier and run downwind all the way back to the clubhouse, constantly gybing from tack to tack while steering by transferring his weight.

Raines and Abby working out – photo cred: Robert Macdonald

If you search “working on balance” on YouTube you’ll find a host of helpful exercises.

Also try working on balance while sitting. Sit on one of those very large air-filled vinyl balls with feet off the floor while doing some upper body resistance training. You will feel your core muscles working like crazy to keep you balanced – great to improve your ability to maintain a steady platform sitting on the gunnel when sailing through choppy water.

Endurance and High-intensity Interval Training

Consider the concept of “soldier fit”, i.e. developing the endurance and stamina to sit in a truck or plane for hours but still be up for doing battle when called upon – rather like hanging around on the water for hours waiting for the wind to come up, or the race committee to sort itself before finally starting a race.

If your knees won’t allow that 10K run, try hiking up hills for at least an hour, cycling distances at least 40 kilometres, or swimming for an hour (always a useful skill for sailors) to build and maintain endurance. Cross-training is definitely a plus.

If that all sounds way over the top for you, the following might be illuminating and encouraging: YouTube search: “High Intensity Training – Horizon: the Truth About Exercise”, “Get Fit in 60 seconds – Brit Lab” and “Continuous Endurance training vs. High-intensity Interval training” and other commentaries around them. Whether or not you buy that high intensity interval training can actually replace endurance training, it will definitely help you improve your high energy responses for Rule 42: compliant pumping and working the boat in typical surfing and planing conditions.

You will find many other tips and ideas by searching YouTube “endurance training”.

Photo cred: Robert Macdonald

Let’s face it, you don’t have to be Supergirl/man to race an Albacore, but toning up muscles will help prevent injuries and you really do need to be able to pull yourself back into that boat after a capsize.

I think of toning-up for Albacore racing in two parts: (1) hiking muscles, and (2) everything else.

Maybe, after all, crews really do need the core strength of a super hero to satisfy the unreasonable hiking demands of skippers. You can’t stop at pure abdominal exercises, you need to strengthen the obliques and the whole connected core system to keep your body free of injury while trying to satisfy the skipper’s insane demands. This is where good pilates instruction can be so helpful. Sadly there’s a lot of mediocre, and even harmful, pilates instruction. I hesitate to suggest any specific YouTube videos but I would strongly recommend you seek professional direction on what will work for your needs, particularly to protect your back.

There are many YouTube and other instructional video programs for toning up the rest of your body. I suggest you stay away from the extreme ones – you don’t need to be a body builder. Moderate free weights are probably most relevant to train for the unstable environment of sailing. Find programs that suit you and in which you have confidence. My reservations about body pump classes also go for personal weight training, if you try to move up to heavier weights or more repetitions too fast, and it is easily done, the potential chronic injuries will be counter-productive. Remember the fundamentals: build up reps and weights/resistance very slowly; warm up first; go back several steps if you have a lay-off; don’t rush, focus on form; exercise opposing muscle groups to maintain balance (oh dear, working on rope pulling muscles doesn’t excuse us from push-ups); start with the bigger muscles and, after working each muscle group, give it a day off.


Its an excellent idea to sail out to the race course with muscles warmed-up and the blood flowing faster through the body, particularly in cold conditions. Last year, the teens who participate in the after-school Jiu Jitsu classes my son teaches, invited me to share their warm-up session. Although the little b………..s completed 10 burpees before I finished my 6th, I immediately became a burpee fan. Search YouTube “Burpees for beginners” to learn how to do them properly – they are great for warm up, cardio and strength building.

Regular stretching will improve flexibility, which will help you move around the boat better – perhaps even allow you to effortlessly retrieve that lens which just popped out of your very expensive sunglasses before it disappears out the bailer. I like Astanga Yoga because it includes flexibility, balance, strength, cardio and endurance components.

It will never replace beer, but targeted stretching after sailing will help loosen up those muscles that have taken abuse on the race course, especially thighs, hips, back, shoulders and neck. It will help you feel a lot better about going back on the water and doing it all over again the next day. Check out the wide range of yoga and stretch instruction on YouTube.


Photo cred: Laura Hetherington

One thought on “Racing Fitness for Couch Potatoes by Ken Clarke”

  1. I love the story about Derek – for the memory of him, and for the truth in how, if we’re open enough, we can always manage to improve.

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