Energy Systems Contribution to Elite Kayak Racing

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research released this new study online today ahead of its print publication. “Energy System Contribution to Olympic Distances in Flat Water Kayaking (500 and 1,000 m) in Highly Trained Subjects” by Zouhal et. al. adds to the volume of evidence that short-duration, high-intensity athletic efforts require greater and earlier involvement of the aerobic system than previously characterized by commonly-accepted energy systems models.

In the study, seven elite male kayakers raced 500 m and 1,000 m on flat water under competition conditions. Here are the results:

  • The 500 m, where average total race time was 108 seconds, derived ~78% of its energy from the aerobic system and ~21% from the anaerobic system(s).
  • The 1,000 m, where average race time was 224 seconds, derived ~87% of its energy from the aerobic system and ~13% from the anaerobic system(s).
  • In both distances, the aerobic system reached the crossover point (i.e. provided more than 50% of the energy supplied) and continued to increase in dominance after approx. 30 seconds of race effort.
  • In both distances, by approximately 45-60 seconds of race effort, the aerobic system was responsible for ~90% or more of the energy supplied.

These findings are compatible with numerous similar studies in running, cyling, and swimming. Together, this body of evidence supports the notion that high-intensity training efforts can have great benefit for endurance athletes precisely because such efforts are highly (and mostly) aerobic at distances and durations much shorter than commonly understood.


  1. Neil says:

    Many of the reasons that Long Steady Distance (LSD) training is prescribed are for metabolic and biomechanical adaptations that are not easily met by high intensity aerobic training. I agree that high intensity aerobic training (threshold training) is the most important training intensity for “elite” performance improvement in any kayak event longer than 200m. High intensity aerobic threshold training elicits a much higher rate of MCT-4 transporter expression and creates lactate buffering mechanisms which will be the determining factor in performance.

    These arguements in favour of high intensity aerobic training are not new. But people are are in danger of misinterpretting this argument as an attack on LSD training. A huge amount of training prescription has to do with the interpretation of physiological test results and the subsequent prioritistation of training needs. I’ll give you an example:

    -A rower comes into the lab. His body fats are 18%. At the early stages of the test we are already seeing increases in blood lactate. His heart rate response is high. In addition, his stroke rate is high and stroke force profiles show a lack of effective force development on the catch. He only makes 300W and has a VO2max of less than

    My interpretation of his results are: 1) He is carrying too much body fat. 2) He has poor biomechanical efficiency and stroke technique. 3) He has little or no cardiovascular adaptations to aerobic training.

    Now theoretically, high intensity aerobic threshold training will elicit the biggest performance adaptations in his chosen sport. But we’re building a house on quick-sand! Without a solid aerobic foundation laid down through months and months of LSD work, he’s on a road to nowhere. He will be doing junk miles…

    So why prescribe LSD training? Firstly, it is the most effective exercise intensity for burning fat. This is quantified by assessing the Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER). RER is the ratio of CO2 to O2 in our expired air. That ratio usually lies somewhere between 0.7 and 1.0 and tells us a lot about the mix of fuels we are burning. An RER of 0.7 tells us that we are burning 100% fat (we never actually see this). An RER of 1.0 means we’re burning 100% carbohydrate. An RER of greater than 1.0 means we’re burning 100% carbohydrate without using O2 (i.e-anaerobic metabolism). LSD training works at low RER values and is therefore the most effective intensity for fat metabolism. In a sport like kayaking where power to weight ratio is so important, any uneccesary body fat is simply slowing you down. This is true in most sports, but in aquatic events (rowing, kayaking) where the force/velocity relationship is non-linear, its effect is more damaging. In addition, enhancing fat metabolism as a means for fuelling exercise is one of the best ways of improving endurance for longer distance events such as marathon or ocean kayak racing.

    The second and for me MOST important reason for prescribing LSD training is that it is the most effective intensity for developing and improving stroke biomechanics and technique. You’re forced to work at an exercise intensity where the easiest way to go faster is by improving your stroke mechanics. Stroke length, effective force on the catch, glide time, rotation, all these things become the means to improvement. Every stroke counts and with LSD training you hammer home effective neural recruitment strategies for task performance through thousands and thousands of efficient, technically correct strokes. The old saying “it takes 10,000 hours to excell at a given sport” is based on the time taken to perfect a complex skill. Unless you have perfected your stroke mechanics through hours and hours of quality, low intensity training, you’re on a road to nowhere. All the high intensity training in the world won’t fix the root problem! Its the reason why Hungarian kayak coaches will routinely send their 12 or 14 yr old kids out for 75km paddles. Its the reason why even at elite level, they will not start threshold training until their athletes have clocked 1500km of LSD (starting from November).

    I was recently lucky enough to study a top level Olympic kayaker’s VO2max data over 15 years of training to the point where he is now one of the favourites for the 1000m London 2012. I have tested several kayakers with equal or higher VO2max values. So why is he a world champion and my guys aren’t?

    Take a look at this video for the answer:

    We also have evidence at the other end of the spectrum! My brother Ciaran, smokes 20 a day, is overweight and couldn’t run to the shops if you put a gun to his head. But he will hop in a racing kayak and beat pretty much anyone in my club over 250m. He started paddling at 10 and did a huge volume of LSD before he even hit puberty. He was ranked Number 1 U14 in europe in 500m (Bochum junior regatta). He was and still is a lazy SOB who hated high intensity training, but because he was technically brilliant, he could and always will perform well in a K1. Our sport is not like cycling where you just hop on and the crank primarily dictates your technique. Kayak racing is one of the most technically demanding sports there is. Far more technically demanding that rowing, due to the number of degrees of freedom in the movement. Biomechanics is more often than not, the difference between winning and losing in a kayak race.

    If you don’t believe me, then listen to current 1000m world champion Adam Van Kouverden describe what it takes to win:

    “Whoever has the best strokes in the last minute of the race. Its just about qualite strokes late in the race” -A VanK.

    So to synopsise, is LSD training a waste of time? Never! But its level of importance shifts with the athlete’s level of physiological and biomechanical development. For Adam Van Kouverden or Anders Gustafsson, LSD is less important because they have body fats of 6-8%, have already developed the cardiovascular and metabolic adaptations but most importantly, have highly effective K1 technique. As a result, they spend far more of their training cycle working on threshold training than LSD. But for a club level kayaker or a young junior, who is still learning and adapting to the technique of K1 racing, it may be the most important training they can do. Its all about assessing where you are in the scheme of things and then developing a training programme around that. But i wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss LSD training across all levels of ability…

    • Neil says:

      Thanks for your comments. A few thoughts in response:

      Your comment that “Without a solid aerobic foundation laid down through months and months of LSD work, he’s on a road to nowhere” perpetuates the traditional view that high-intensity and general aerobic development/foundation are mutually exclusive. Volumes of modern data including this kayaking study show this view is mistaken. At minimum, the evidence tells us that LSD is not the only way to build an aerobic foundation.

      Your claim that “[LSD] is the most effective exercise intensity for burning fat” classically ignores the difference between relative and total fat utilization. Low intensity may burn more relative fat, but high intensity burns more total fat. The Journal of Obesity dealt with this recently. It may be true that long slow training (compared with high-intensity) encourages a higher utilization of fat at all intensities. But according to some experts, diet is more effective than training at altering fat metabolism. And from a performance standpoint, other than affecting weight/power ratio, it’s not clear that improving fat metabolism is required for faster performances.

      Finally, we agree that technique development is usually paramount for endurance performance (usually relating to economy and sustainability). And we agree skill should be learned first, initially at low intensity. But let’s not confuse skill development with conditioning. Both approaches to conditioning provide opportunities to reinforce good and bad technique. But just as no amount of intensity will fix poor technique, neither will any amount of volume.

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