OC6 Training

Training Zones for Outrigger

The following article is based on an article I wrote back in 1997 for Australian Canoeing Coaching Courses. This summary is based on 25 years of observation and practice, of laboratory and field testing, of application and experimentation, and of achieving results in swimming, kayaking and canoeing. The point of the article is to “dumb down” scientific prescription and determination of “training zones” for coaches in the field. If you have access to scientists and/or to a particular prescription method the important thing is to use the method! Don’t let your paddlers go out and train themselves to go hard slowly! 


There are a lot of different considerations when preparing an athlete to reach their best performance. Some of these include; the task required (the event), timing of the peak, skill factors in both technique and racing, strength, aerobic and anaerobic contributions to the event, general fitness, specific fitness, mental preparation, physical limitations and a whole range of other very complex psychological, technical and physiological factors.

The goal of training is to address all factors that contribute to peak performance. When you train, you should work at various levels of intensity, from easy to hard, from short pieces to long pieces, etc. Most people, regardless of quality of programme, train in only one or two of those zones. Their maximum effort becomes slow and their longer pieces become hard. This results in a reduction in training effect. So how should you decide what the intensity should be and how do you define it?

Scientists can determine the physiological considerations of most events. Training prescription can be made following the various testing methods that scientists have available to them. These methods vary from sports institute to sports institute, from scientist to scientist (depending on the needs of the institute and the perspective of the scientist). The bottom line is that it can all get very confusing for the coach in the field. Also, how does the coach in the field test and monitor their athletes if they don’t have access to the scientists?

Firstly, we must recognize that there are various zones, or levels, to train at. The next problem is how to determine these zones. Using Australian Canoeing’s (NB – probably “old” by now) “Level” system (to remove confusing nomenclature), based on many years of coaching, testing athletes and being an often-tested athlete, I have made the following observations and applied them in the field with workable success.

This description of training zones includes various methods of monitoring the zones:

  • HR (heart rate – beats per minute),
  • SR (stroke rate – strokes per minute),
  • Lactate (mml/L), training effect (purpose),  Bodily sensations observed at each level,
  • And amount of work possible (mostly as observed in an athlete with a good training background).

The Training Zones: 

NB The physical sensations described are as elicited in a well trained athlete with good technique. Also the older the athlete, the less fit the athlete, and if their technique is not well coordinated to use their whole body, the heart rates will be lower at the perceived effort information for each level.

Level 1 – Aerobic/Recovery 

  • Not hard enough to paddle with really good technique.
  • Easy, floating, easy to talk, etc. HR will be about 50 beats below the athlete’s maximum HR. 
  • Lactate will be below 2 mml/L (this is a desirable lactate level for maximizing muscle recovery – at rest lactate tends to sit at around 2mml/L – very light effort actually reduces the resting level!). 
  • There is no need to paddle for longer than about a half-hour – use for removing metabolites from the muscles from previous sessions, for loosening up after hard workouts, or big races.
  • There is no training benefit except for recovery.

Level 2 – Aerobic Training

  • Good technique is possible, easy effort – just strong enough for technique, easy to talk, not puffing, no redness or perspiration, etc.
  • It is an effort level that can be maintained for well over an hour without great fatigue.
  • The HR would be around 30 beats below the athlete’s maximum HR.
  • Lactate would be around 2 mml/L.   
  • Use for base level aerobic training (building capillaries, improving oxygen supply to the tissues, etc), preparation for harder training (building up tendon & ligament preparedness – thus reducing the risk of injury from more intense training), fast removal of lactate after maximal work loads (L4, L5 & L6), technical training.
  • Workouts can be in one piece, but it is much more interesting and better for concentration on technique, to break the workout into smaller sets.

Level 3 – Extensive Aerobic Training/Anaerobic Threshold

  • Good, strong technique with lower rating – going for power in the stroke, just beginning to puff, perspire, facial redness.    
  • This is an effort level that will lead to fatigue in around an hour of work (for an athlete with an extensive training background).  
  • HR would be around 20 beats below the athlete’s maximum.    
  • Lactate would be around 4 mml/L, depending on the individual.   
  • Use for extensive aerobic training – good aerobic adaptation without the intensity of Level 4.    
  • Effort can be in one continuous piece or in repeated efforts with short rest intervals.

Level 4 – Critical Speed/VO2Max/top end of Anaerobic Threshold 

  • Very strong technique with a higher stroke rate, strong puffing, sweating, can’t talk, long efforts feel like maximum effort.
  • Reach exhaustion by 20 – 40 minutes of work (depending on training background).     
  • HR would be around 10 beats below the athlete’s maximum.     
  • Lactate around 5 – 7 mml/L.   
  • Workload needs to be broken up into shorter pieces with rest equivalent to half of the workload (ie 2:1 work:rest ratio).
  • Efforts over about 8 minutes (for well-trained athletes) would begin to decline in quality.   
  • To make the most progress it is important that the “critical speed” is maintained – working this hard, slowly, is very detrimental to long term development!
  • >In other words, don’t flog dead horses, when fatigue sets in stop or reduce the load!

Level 5 – Race Pace/Lactate Tolerance/Peak Lactate Production 

  • Speeds up to race speed (sprint race), maximum effort and stroke rates, a few repeats of race distance or repeats of a shorter distance.
  • Lactate build up, discomfort from lactate, heavy breathing and aware of fast heart rate.
  • Maximum total duration of work at this level is around 6 – 10 minutes (again, depending on training background) – always broken – never a 6 or 10 minute piece  
  • HR may reach maximum on longer efforts or may be irrelevant on shorter efforts.    
  • Lactate level would mostly be above 7 mml/L, depending on the anaerobic ability of the athlete.     
  • Develops anaerobic power and technical coordination at race pace.     
  • Long recovery pieces of Level 2 work are required between efforts or sets of efforts.

Level 6 – Alactic/Short Sprints/ Faster than race pace 

  • Starts, rolling sprints, starts and sprints with resistance, etc.   
  • Not very taxing when only a few efforts are done but can lead to neurological fatigue if too much work is done at this level.
  • Due to the weight of an OC6 be aware of doing too many starts, single person pulls, tyre pulls, etc.
  • Maximizes the ability to recruit muscle fibres and utilize the alactic energy system.   
  • HR is irrelevant.      
  • Lactate may be produced but doesn’t accumulate.

Methods of monitoring training intensity: 

Heart Rate: 

  • Using the Heart Rate (HR) is easy with the purchase of an inexpensive HR monitor, or even by learning to take the pulse over a 6 or 10 second period and calculating beats per minute.   
  • However, most athletes don’t know how to use their HR as a guide effectively. Two major issues arise:

1)The first is that when fatigued the HR does not readily respond to effort – it remains lower – the athlete tries harder and harder, actually falling outside of the prescribed training zone even though the HR is low (effectively training themselves to go as hard as they can, slowly!). In this situation the athlete can definitely do training of an extensive aerobic nature, but not work of a major anaerobic nature. Training hard is fine, but don’t aim for speed.

2) The second area of concern with using HR as a guide for training zones is that the athlete will often go very hard until the HR reaches the desired zone. In extended aerobic sessions it may take 20+ minutes for the HR to come up to the ANT or VO2Max level. Meanwhile they have been working way above their training zone, making the workout much more intense than it should be. This has ramifications on recovery and the ability to perform subsequent workouts.


  • When tested in the sport science laboratory, the scientist will come up with their delineation of training zones based on an extrapolation between HR, power output and blood lactate levels.
  • Therefore the blood lactate level can be used to check on adherence to training zones.
  • Very basically, 2 mml lactate per litre of blood would be considered an aerobic training zone.   
  • Anaerobic Threshold is classically given as around 4 mml/L but varies from athlete to athlete.  
  • VO2Max is about 5 – 7 mml/L.
  • Peak lactate levels would range from about 8 mml/L in one individual to up to 20mml/L in another individual, so Lactate Tolerance training would involve the production of each individual’s peak lactate.    
  • In the field the lactate can be tested with a portable lactate analyzer but this wouldn’t be a normal method of monitoring for most club-based programs.

Stroke Rate:  

  • A well-performed athlete can probably tell you his or her stroke rates at the various levels of training.  
  • Encouraging your athletes to monitor their stroke rate is a great way for them to become more familiar with their own training zones.
  • Of course in an OC6 the rate can be used to establish the “training zone” of the boat but each individual in the crew will be in a slightly different place, depending upon their individual capacities in comparison to the rest of the crew, and even the seat they are paddling in!   
  • All you need is a stopwatch with seconds (taped to the boat where someone can see it). Simply count the number of strokes over a set time to give the stroke rate (strokes per minute).
  • If the paddler takes 15 strokes in 15 seconds, 4 lots of 15 seconds = 1 minute, therefore 4 x 15 strokes = 60 and their stroke rate is 60 strokes per minute.  
  • When familiar with their zones the athlete can use stroke rate to monitor their effort level while waiting for the HR to catch up.
  • This is most effective for use in OC1 training efforts or double bladed craft training.


  • When tested in a laboratory the paddler has a power output at each level (measured in watts). If tested on the water the paddler will record a speed at each level.    
  • Speed can be measured by the time the paddler takes to complete a particular distance. Eg, time for 2 ks. Or the speed can be measured as velocity (m/sec).
  • Various speeds can be aimed for, or held, by using the stopwatch, or by the use of a GPS that measures velocity.

Body Sensations:  

  • For most people, who don’t have access to sport science facilities, a more general approach to setting and monitoring training zones is required.    
  • Using generalized percentages of effort is not adequate as 80% effort can be at very different physiological places from one athlete to the next.   
  • It would be better to use the body sensation descriptions outlined above and on the accompanying chart.

Using the HR

When using the HR for monitoring, a fairly rough, but also fairly good, guide for the various zones, is to use the “beats below maximum” method, as is used extensively in swimming.

Testing for the maximum HR  

  • A simple way to test for maximum effort is to perform a set of 6 x 1 minutes of maximum effort (paddling), with 30 seconds rest between efforts.
  • This should be performed on an OC1 for best results. Record the HR, especially after 4th to last effort.
  • Record in the manner that will be used for training (HR Monitor or taking the pulse).
  •          Level 1 is around 50 beats below max,
  •          Level 2 about 30 beats below maximum,
  •          Level 3 about 20 beats below maximum,
  •          Level 4 about 10 beats below maximum,
  •         Level 5 up to maximum.

NB Exceptions and other important notes regarding the max heart rate test:

  • Novice paddlers will not be able to apply enough effort to get a true representation of their maximum HR. Encourage them to use body sensations as a guide. You may consider testing by alternative means, eg on an ergo or an arms/legs bike ergo.     
  • Older paddlers may have health problems which makes obtaining a maximum HR inadvisable. If this is the case use the generalization that the maximum HR will be 220 minus the age (e.g. 220 – 43 = 177) and use that as a guide, coupled with body sensations.  
  • For less fit athletes, athletes with less training background, older athletes, at the beginning of the season after a break, etc., please be aware that the heart rate “beats below max” will need to be a bit lower for each level – the efforts will feel harder before the desired heart rate is reached – no need to push for the heart rate!