by Beth Hagman
What do you look for in a cross training activity? Most runners try to find ways to exercise the upper body, focusing on muscles they don't use as much. Some look for low-impact sports like cycling and in-line skating that give their legs a workout without the pounding. Some go for yoga, for the stretching and mental relaxation. Others take up team sports for the social interaction.
The smart ones take up kayaking, and have it all.
Surprisingly, kayaking provides a good workout for the entire body, with particular emphasis on the back and abs. It offers a great aerobic exercise, and the only joints that might give you trouble are your shoulders - and those only if your posture is poor or your technique needs work. Gliding silently, you can get amazingly close to nature, and amazingly far from your everyday stresses. You can be as social as you like -there are kayak clubs in almost any area with enough water to tuck a paddle into. Or you and your buddies can take a lesson or two and start training together.
What You Need
For cross-training purposes, of course, we're talking flatwater kayaking. So you need a body of water reasonably nearby - a lake, a calm river, a bay, an estuary or an ocean. Oceans qualify as flatwater unless you want to surf kayak, which is a different sport altogether.
Next, you need a kayak school or rental place. Most places that rent kayaks also give an orientation - usually a half-hour to an hour to make sure you have the basics down before you paddle off into deeper water. Many sporting goods stores offer free trial days for kayaks, to help you determine the type of kayaking you enjoy most and the kayak that best suits your skills, goals and interests.
Always rent or find a trial day before you get serious about kayaking. Because, if you choose this as your cross-training sport, you're going to have to make an investment in equipment.
Kayaks don't have to be hugely expensive. Polyethylene models are relatively light and cheap, yet durable.
Sit-on-top styles are less intimidating than traditional expedition kayaks, because you don't have to learn the Eskimo roll. With a sit-on-top, if you roll over, you fall out and climb back on. Sit-on-tops are ideal for flatwater kayaking, but they just don't work for whitewater, where you need more protection.
In general, the wider the kayak, the more stable it is; the narrower the kayak, the faster it is. For cross training, you'll want something in-between - forgiving, but efficient.
A good example of a cross-trainer is the Cobra Tourer. It's made for the athletically-inclined kayaker, versatile enough for training, long-distance sightseeing or touring. It has a low profile, which cuts wind resistance, so you can keep your speed up and keep going straight fairly easily. It's not super wide, but an integrated keel provides stability without sacrificing efficiency. A large dive tank well gives you room to store food, dry clothing, and a pair of running shoes for those times when you spot a tempting beach or trail.
If you already have some experience, or if you're willing to spend a bit more time on lessons, a narrower, lighter and faster kayak like the Cobra Eliminator might appeal to you. It's designed for competition training, with a deck shape that enhances correct paddling technique. The adjustable footrest and seat are ergonomically designed.
Cobra is just one of many excellent kayak manufacturers. Talk to your local retailers and ask around online and at kayak clubs for recommendations. The time you spend will at least give you a starting point for finding the kayak that's best for you.
Most kayaks come unadorned, so you'll need foot pedals and a rudder system. A back rest can add comfort, particularly on long workouts, but they're no substitute for good posture. Past that, there are a lot of handy gadgets, hatch covers, life jackets - and my favorite, a kayak cart - that can make your life on the water safer, more comfortable and more fun.
Check your local sporting goods store (REI has an excellent selection) - if they sell kayaks, they'll know where you can test them, where you can get lessons and where you'll want to go once you're ready. There are also sport-specific magazines and some great websites with tons of information - just do a search under KAYAK.
You'll see - with kayaking, you can have everything you ever wanted in a cross-training sport!