Kayak Racing 101: Go Fast or Go Slow Trying


Don’t we all love to cheer on the greatest show in sports from the river left side of Gorilla every year? Haven’t most of us wasted precious time at work watching Sickline coverage or highlights from the North Fork Championship? There’s something about a little competition that feels good pulsing through our veins. While most of us aren’t going to find ourselves sliding down that ramp into the Payette or blazing through the Notch to the tune of a dozen cowbells anytime soon—but good for you, dear reader, if you aspire to!—there’s no reason why you can’t seek out a little healthy competition in your corner of the whitewater world. Competitions can be excellent motivators for fitness, improvement, and goal setting.

The Tennessee Valley Canoe Club puts on a race down the Middle Ocoee every fall, and this was the first year I was able to set the time aside to make it happen. I learned a few lessons along the way, including the virtue of longboats and the magic and pain of (trying) to go fast in whitewater. If you’re searching for something to light a fire under you, seek out a chance to go fast and use the list below to help you get to the finish line with style.

Photo: Chris Anderson

Find a race that caters to your strengths. Let’s be honest, while the allure of the Southeast’s Green Race is great, it is not a beginner-friendly race in the least. Luckily, there are plenty of more accessible downriver events for paddlers not wanting to, or who don’t have the ability to, go fast down Class V. I chose the Middle Ocoee for my first race because it’s a section I know extremely well and feel comfortable with a variety of outcomes. If that stretch of river you know like the back of your hand doesn’t have a race, consider taking a step down from the top end of your skill level when selecting a first-time race venue. Even downriver in Class II can be challenging, exhilarating, and a great place to start.

Many paddling festivals have race events that range from flatwater and mild current to head-to-head and time trials on steeper rivers. Events like the Alabama Cup Races, the Saluda Iceman, or even the Cheat Race are accessible to paddlers with a wide variety of comfort, skill and strengths. Kayaking is also making its way into multi-sport adventure races where you can bite off multiple disciplines at once or participate in a relay team, like Captain Thurmond’s Challenge on the New River in West Virginia, the Silverback Race at the Green River Games, or the King of the James in Richmond, Virginia.

Photo: Chris Wing

Don’t just talk about training—actually train. I had high aspirations of flatwater workouts, attainments, and practice laps on the Ocoee for the race day and, well…it didn’t happen. I was able to paddle my long boat a few times on a beginner stretch of river near my house, but ultimately, my first time paddling my longboat on the Ocoee ended up being during the race itself. And that was my first and most important mistake.

In retrospect, those attainment workouts—yep, turn that boat back upstream and see how far you can go—and especially a few practice laps, would have gone a long way in familiarizing me not only with the fast, smooth lines on the river but with my boat itself. If you’re just out for a fun cruise during the race, you might not feel the need to overexert yourself with copious preparation workouts before you get to the start line, but I at least recommend paddling the way you plan on paddling during the race. And, if you’ve got goals for yourself, make sure your training leading up to your big day is congruent with your goals and vice versa.

If you’re really looking to train, starting with flatwater sprints and aforementioned attainments will set you up for some success. You may also do well with basic slalom circuit training in flatwater or mild current (this can help improve your efficiency in maneuvering whatever boat you plan to race), and you can set your own course using fishing buoys from a generic sporting goods store. Such training can be difficult, however, so I recommend setting a plan for yourself before hitting the water. For example paddle for 30 minutes, or complete one race lap, or push through five attainment circuits, etc. Setting a training goal mentally prepares you so you don’t get overly frustrated when the workout gets tough.

Be realistic. As soon as I left the start line on the Ocoee, I discovered controlling my long boat in pushier current was much more challenging than I’d expected and I regretted not putting in the practice time. But in the midst of a race, you can’t waste time on self-pity. I had to quickly adjust my expectations for the day and just have fun. It’s great to have a set of goals (think Goal A, Goal B, etc.), which might include something really attainable like finishing strong and range to hit an actual time or place finish. Shifting my expectations for the day even in the moment allowed me to stay present and connected to how I was feeling, and enjoy the process.

I had originally set a timed goal for myself after reviewing the results of last year’s race; that was my ‘A’ goal. My ‘B’ goal was to keep my boat straight, use as few ‘negative’ strokes as possible, and stay out of eddies. Turns out, those aren’t fast. A few minutes into the race, I had to simplify my goals: maintain a hard, constant speed and have fun. When it was all over, my A and B goals allowed room for introspection while I ended up achieving my C goal and I felt pretty good about what I had done given my limited preparation.

Photo: Chris Anderson

Find a squad. I had quite a few friends racing for the first time, and it felt good to know that we were all about to enter unchartered territory. We swapped nerves, strategies, and encouragement while waiting at the start line and it felt good to have a crew waiting at the finish in celebration. There’s a lot to be learned from seasoned competitors, especially if you’re trying to break-in to the competition scene and improve. However, finding a buddy or group of people that are like-minded in expectations is a bonus of comradery, whether that’s racing for fun or training hard for a particular result.

Leave room for learning. While I had initial expectations for myself in my first race, I quickly realized this experience was going to be more about learning than performing. I learned that preparation matters, and there’s a lot I can do to improve my paddling and racing technique to better my results next year. Racing is a new discipline of kayaking for me, and completing my first competition left me feeling motivated to work on the skills and strategies I lacked because of my inexperience or inefficiency.

In the end, just have fun. The bottom line, though, if it’s not fun, why do it? Sometimes pushing, even scaring, ourselves a little results in that ‘Type B’ kind of fun that’s only enjoyable after the fact, but it’s important that some form of enjoyment is achievable for us before, during, and after…otherwise, what’s the point? I loved the energy at the start, the adrenaline as I entered each rapid, and the thrill of spotting the finish line. Plus, an opportunity to hang out with a diverse cross-section of the paddling community is never a bad time. Set goals, have expectations, sure, but don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the river at the same time.

Don’t forget to thank your volunteers.
Organizing a race is no small feat, and organizing kayakers to race might be even more challenging. Be nice to the organizers, safety crew, and timers; more often than not, they’re doing this for the love of it—the river, a good cause, and the community itself. Many times, these folks wouldn’t mind the chance to race themselves, so keep your attitude positive and thank the folks that work hard to give you the opportunity to feel like a rockstar as they cheer you through the race course.

Special thanks to Tennessee Valley Canoe Club for putting on a seamless, wicked fun whitewater race and raising more than $5,000 for Team River Runner in the process. See you next year!