Nutrition & Hydration for Endurance Paddling

Author: [ Joe O' ]   Contact Author: Joe O'Sun Sep 02 19:37:51 UTC 2007

If you want to paddle long distances, you need to be sure and have enough fuel in the tank to get the job done!

Getting out on the water and logging in those kilometers is great and long

distance training will go along ways in helping you attain those goals. Equally important however, and often times over-looked, is proper nutrition & hydration. Proper nutrition and hydration are the most limiting factors in long distance endurance paddling.

Basically, the human body stores enough fuel, in the form of glycogen, to last for a couple of hours of hard physical effort such as in distance paddling. After a couple of hours or so, depending on intensity, performance quickly drops without proper nutrition. Equally important of course is proper hydration, which is absolutely crucial to success.

For that one big day on the water, or to getting ready for a long, multi-day tour or expedition, here are a few tips to help you go longer, faster and in more comfort:

The Day Before:

Of utmost importance is what you eat the day before that long paddle. This is the time to load up, eating meals high in carbohydrates such as pasta, whole grains, vegetables, fruit etc. These meals will load up your body?s reserves with much needed muscle glycogen for the long hours on the water the next day. Don?t scrimp on today?s meals, this is the time to dig in and have that extra helping. You?ll be glad you did!

Breakfast Time:

Your last big meal before hitting the water. I like to load up on my breakfast, eating at least 2 hours before hitting the water if possible. If you are in the midst of a multi-day expedition however, you may or may not have the option of a full 2 hours before launch. If I?m launching shortly after eating, I?ll tone it down somewhat. If I have the luxury of time on my side though, I like to load up! High-energy breakfast cereals work well, especially if adding some fruit on the side and maybe a bagel loaded up with jam or cheese for an extra boost. If I?m pressed for time and need to launch shortly after eating, I?ll tend to have the same sort of meal choices, just in a smaller quantity, supplementing it with snacks while on the water beginning a little sooner than if I?d had the bigger meal a bit earlier.


Proper hydration is absolutely critical to getting a good performance on the water. The day before the big outing, be sure and drink several glasses of water throughout the day, being sure to go into the next day well hydrated. Failure to do so is only inviting trouble after a few hours on the water. Also, just before hitting the water, a good idea is to consume an energy drink of some sort in the hour or so prior to launching.

During the day:

A few tips for on the water. Drink BEFORE you start feeling thirsty! Plan on taking sips of water or your energy drink approximately every 15 minutes while on the water.

After every 30 minutes or so, have a light snack, something like a energy bar or gel, maybe a bit fruit or even a handful of trailmix or something to that effect. Eat small quantities while on the water, keeping a steady flow of nutrients flowing through your bloodstream without overloading your digestive system while underway. Obviously, on a long outing, you will be taking breaks along the way on land. This is where it is time for a decent lunch, loading up on foods to help carry you through the remainder of your day. A bagel or two loaded up with peanut butter or jams will go a long ways in knocking off that next session on the water so load up!

If you are paddling a canoe, rig up a container within easy reach and keep your food supply close to hand. If it is not easily accessible, you may wait far to long to eat and by then it is too late. Keep it close so it is easy to grab a quick snack at anytime. If you are paddling a sea kayak, the models with the small 3rd hatch make things easy as you can store your snacks within easy reach inside the 3rd compartment immediately behind the cockpit and within reach while paddling. If your kayak does not have the 3rd hatch option, a small deck bag is an option for easy storage of items needed while underway. Myself however, I prefer having as little on my deck as possible and much prefer the type of sea kayak with the 3rd hatch.

For hydration, make sure you have a system in place, giving you plenty of fluids available and that they are easily accessible. Either a Camelback type arrangement or something similar attached to the canoe or kayak, whatever works well for you and is always within easy reach.

At the end of the day (and getting ready for tomorrow):

Now that your day is done, it is time to resupply your energy stores. Grab your energy drink once you are off the water, drink up and replace those lost fluids. Even if you have been sipping fluids all day, you will still tend to experience fluid losses during a long effort so drink up, especially if you will be back out there again tomorrow, knocking off another big day.

The first half hour or so after putting in a big effort is a crucial time for getting some glycogen back into your body. Try and consume somewhere between 60 and 80 grams of carbohydrates within that first 30 minutes or so and follow it up with a large meal consisting of high energy foods such as pasta, wild rice, whole grains and fruits & vegetables.

If you are so inclined, don?t be afraid of a glass or two of red wine to go with that evening meal, you earned it!

Remember, the longer you wait to refuel after putting in that big effort, the less effective it will be. To perform well again the next day, it is crucial to re-hydrate and eat high energy foods as soon as possible so don?t delay!

On longer multi-day expeditions, it is especially important to pay close attention to your energy and fluid needs. During the evenings while in camp on an expedition, I will be sipping on an energy drink throughout the evening and will also include a couple of small snacks to supplement my evening meal.

On a recent sea kayaking expedition around Vancouver Island, putting in 1165 kilometers in just over 23 days, I must have lost at least 10 lbs despite eating huge quantities of food throughout the entire expedition. The longer and harder you push yourself, the greater the toll it puts on your bodies needs. Eat accordingly to ensure a good performance!

A separate article will be posted soon about nutrition and hydration pertaining to an ultra-marathon paddling race and the special needs of events such as the 740 kilometer long Yukon River Quest. Check back soon!
Joe OBlenis .

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