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January 19, 2018 4 min read

Boost Your Sailing Fitness

We spoke to sponsored sailor George Cousins to get some tips about keeping fit and getting ready for sailing in the spring. He has put together this article for our website.

George Cousins is a freelance sailing coach and personal trainer based in the Solent. He is a former member of the British Sailing Team and now coaches full time. As a qualified strength and conditioning coach and a keen sailor, George specialises in developing the physical performance of sailors, athletes and trainees on and off the water.

Please note, it is your choice to take part in what is suggested below, please ensure you are fit and healthy before taking part.

Take Home Points

  • Improving your hiking fitness will always improve boat speed.
  • For weekend warriors, 2-3 quality fitness sessions each week will have a big impact.
  • Boosting hiking fitness allows you to stay more relaxed in the boat, boost cognitive performance, make better decisions and enjoy your windy sailing more!
  • Thick hiking pads will help to raise the backside out of the water so the boat can sail flat(er)
  • A good toe strap and boot combination will keep you locked into the boat, allowing you to sail with less heel keeping the helm neutral and the rig and foils more efficient.

There is no getting around it; a boat’s upwind speed is directly linked to the amount of leverage the crew can apply. Whatever your ability, having the strength and endurance to move your centre of mass outboard and keep it there will allow you to sail faster. In this series of articles we will look at ways to boost your sailing fitness, starting with Hiking.

Why does hiking hurt?

When we are hiking hard the muscles used are contracting isometrically. This means they are contracting statically to hold us in place in. Specifically the Quadriceps muscle group, the hip flexors and abdominal muscle.  When these muscles are contracted statically, blood flow is reduced so the muscle must continue to work with a limited amount of oxygen available, this is called ‘hypoxia’.

Lactic acid and other waste metabolites are then produced which is what gives that sensation of burning. The ability of the body to clear and buffer lactic acid in these hiking muscles and process it in other parts of the body is what determines how hard and for how long we can hike out. We should aim to be able to hike out hard for the entire beat, working the tiller, playing the mainsheet and using body movements to assist the boat over waves and through chop.

The better our hiking fitness is the easier this will become allowing the sailor to keep their head out of the boat, making better decisions without being impaired cognitively because they are working too hard! An example of this is in professional tennis, the skill level and decision making of the players drops markedly when they are fatigued. Given that sailing is so technical, remaining mentally sharp is imperative.

What land-based training can be done to boost Hiking performance?

  1. Strengthen the quadriceps and abdominal muscles. This is best done on a hiking bench in the gym, by doing sailing specific strength and core exercises, like the Abdominal Plank, Leg Raises and sit up variations where you can add weight and resistance to build strength and endurance.
  2. Building general aerobic capacity. Jogging, cycling, rowing or swimming all at a heart rate of 130-160 beats per minute for 40 minutes or more.
  3. Increase the ability of the hiking muscles to buffer lactic acid – This can be done with repeated bouts of intense exercise, eg sprint for 1 minute, then rest for 1 minute, repeat 7-10 times.

A Sample Weekly Training Program

This program is 3 days per week, keeping the weekend free for sailing. Alternatively, a forth day can be added if you’re unable to get afloat or are very keen!


Steady state Cardio:

Pick your favourite means of cardiovascular exercise and work for 40 minutes at a heart rate of 75% of your maximum. For most this will be a moderate jog. If you cannot measure your heart rate, then, 75% of max heart rate is equivalent to a level of exercise where you will be panting heavily but not so intense that you need to stop and and take break. Progression is important, so each week try to increase the distance you cover, be it in miles or as shown on the Rowing Machine or Static Bike in meters.


Strength training:

Pick sailing specific exercises that focus on building leg strength and upper body pulling strength. Rest as long as is needed between sets and exercises, 2 minutes is typical.

    1. Squat. 3 sets of 10 repetitions, add weight as necessary.
    2. Seated Leg Extension. 3 sets of 15
    3. Press Ups. 3 sets of 8-15 reps.
    4. Seated Row or pull ups. 5 Sets of 10 reps.
    5. Upright Row with dumbbells. 3 Sets of 15 reps.
    6. Leg Press. Set a timer for 2 minutes. Using a Moderate weight, try to get the maximum total number of reps in that time. Each week try to beat your time. After 3 weeks add more weight and start again.
    7. Abdominal Circuit. Side plank, 30 seconds a side. 20 Swiss ball crunches. Plank, 30 seconds. Swiss ball rollouts.


High Intensity interval training:

After a 5 minute warm up, using your preferred form of cardio (sprint on a bike /Rowing Machine or running on a treadmill/on foot). Sprint at 100% effort for 1 minute. Then rest for one minute. Repeat this 9 more times, for a total of 20 minutes. Then do a 3 minute warm down. Try to measure the distance traveled /Wattage/ or calories burned, so you can try and improve the following week.

For a full training program tailored specifically to your needs, ability and schedule contact George who will be happy to help.

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