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Physical Fitness for Sailing
Most of the sailing community will think this month’s item is boring. And; to say the least…… waaaaay   beyond what they need to improve their performance. This simply because they tend to sail in a way where the amount of hours spent on the water is of an almost linear correlation with their performance improvement. So to say it politely it’s probably better to spent your time sailing if you want to improve this.


Courtesy of Allsports Amstelveen

For those who feel they need a starting point to find out whether they need to spent time in a gym or running around, this article may actually be worthwhile, since I want to explain the most basic thoughts on this item that I can think of. For those who have been training and working out during their racing career, this might actually be food for thought. that could bring you back to an effective program of work out planned in your on water training program.

To understand the need for Physical Fitness for Sailing we need to understand a little bit about the physiological effects of movement of our body.

Super compensation and recovery

To keep things simple: If your body, or any component thereof, moves more, or more intense than a so called “stimulus treshold”, it gets damaged. And things that are damaged need fixing.

God, Allah, or who ever designed our human body, built in a self regenerating system which, in contrary to our boats that need sometimes unwanted downtime, is able to repair itself. And it gets even better than that. The body has a tendency to repair itself to a level stronger/higher than it was before we damaged it (something we seem to forget when fixing our boats sometimes!!) This principle is called “Super compensation”. The only problem with this self regenerating system is that it takes time. Or more specifically time to recover. And here comes the clou… During most events from a small club regatta until the Olympics which consist out of more races over more days, most sailors aren’t able to recover enough to their full regeneration, and therefore will be likely to perform worse than the day before. This of course will repeat itself the next day and so on and so on, until the last racing day.
Of course, conditions will always be a variable in this system. If  two heavy weather days on the first two days of the event followed by two days ashore because of not enough wind to sail it’s more likely to be regenerated for day 5 than if you would have been racing with these heavy weather races for 4 days in a row, and than appear at the starting line at day 5.

A little history..

If you look at the olympic campaigns over the last couple of olympiads, you’ll see that more and more time and effort was spent on this aspect of yacht racing performance. Before the Barcelona games we had a winter training in an old gymnastic hall once a week which also had a big social and collective aspect in coaching an Olympic team. Now every serious Olympic sailor has an own fitness trainer and/or a physiotherapist!!

In the beginning of thinking about fitness for sailing, most thoughts were based on increasing capabilities like strength and endurance. This with the idea that if you could strengthen your body before you went out for a sail there was less chance that the demands on your body would reach this “stimulus treshold” and therefore would not need any; or less recovery and you’d perform better. This worked quite well until sailing itself also became more and more physical and we ended up with little “Schwarzeneggers” in the boat!!

“Weight problems”, “loss of specific coordination” were suddenly themes were sailors and coaches had to worry about. The first answer was planning your physical program, doing aerobics and tapering off close to the event. With those thoughts a lot of times people found out that the weather wasn’t easy to plan but still…… Than the enlightened ones found the word …… recovery….. what can we do to help the body to regenerate…. And suddenly we found people stretching, and eating well and went to bed early and they got a massage after their sailing……. And this is were in general we are now. Finding a balance between on one side keeping the body fit and strong so that it doesn’t get too damaged while sailing, and on the other side helping it to recover quickly…

In the following I will list the major things to do on each extreme of this spectrum.

A  “Keeping the treshold high”
 1 Strength training
2 Endurance training
3 Heavy weather sailing
4 “Do as much as you possibly can and a little more than the rest, when training”
5 ..

B “Help the body to regenerate”
1 Endurance training (at home or while training, not while racing)
2 Maintain flexibility
3 Cooling down after racing and training
4 Massage
5 Sleep
6 Food within 30 min after exercise (Carbohydrates and/or Protein)
7 Sleep
8 ..

As you can see endurance training has a double face. Until recently the main idea behind endurance training was “not to loose concentration” or “get without breath” while sailing.. More and more it becomes clear that a body with an high level of general endurance comes with a different balance in the hormonal systems, which will help a lot in recovery quickly after a good day of heavy weather racing.

Doing OK, Coach?

All the aspects mentioned here need their attention, specific planning and programming in an athletes daily live and training but in what mix? A complex sport like sailing is all about making decisions and priorities. For sail and boat development and tuning we use all sorts of objective evaluation systems, but on the physical area an athlete needs to feel and learn how to feel when he’s strong, fit and recovered. We have however some objective tools but in most cases, it takes a huge effort to run a specific physiological test like a simple VO2 max test or a more specific lactate test.  The sailor needs to get out of his training routine and go to some laboratory or sports medical center to get some objective feedback on his training regime. During an event or a training camp the only objective tool used is taking a rest pulse which is a very multi interpretable number, and not such a trustworthy form of measurement. There is great need for an more objective, specific and on the spot tools that will help determining the physical shape in which the body is and whether the training- and recovery regime needs adapting or not…

At “All Sports” in Amsterdam I work as a physical trainer with some of the best athletic-, and fitness trainers in the field. Their knowledge and experience in sport science is incredible. With the help from these trainers and sport-physiologists, Coachworks now has access to the latest (portable) tools like “Omega wave” and “Muscle lab” that are able to determine what is the exact physical shape of an athlete at any given time, on the training site and within a short time. This gives the athlete and trainer a good insight on the effects the training has on the sailors body and to get grip of the training – recovery regime they use.

So back to the basics: think about training (and sailing) as breaking down some systems in your body, give your body time to recover and get stronger…. If there is little time to recover start thinking how to improve the quality of recovery by using some (or all) of the mentioned actions. To find out if you’re training and recovery regime is effective or you can push it further you need testing. Remember, not everyone needs the fancy tools but don’t loose track of the big picture, principles in sailing remain the same whether you’re a club race or close before the Olympics……. The same goes for physical fitness…

Good Winds

Rigo de Nijs

Do you think you have an interesting subject for the next article?, mail Rigo 


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