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Old 09-30-2001
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Dan Dickison is on a distinguished road
Fitness for Every Sailor


Except for the noses, doesn't this seem typical of the post-race scene at every regatta you've ever attended?

Admit it. If you're like most weekend warriors on the sailboat racing scene, chances are your pattern of activity during a regatta goes something like this: Day One—race hard and then stand around rinsing down some alcoholic refreshment until its time to eat dinner and do a little more rinsing. Then you go to bed. Day Two—Repeat, rinse again, and so on. From a standpoint of physical conditioning, that behavior isn't too harmful for a brief duration, but over a weeklong regatta, it's nearly the quickest way to wear your body down. I'm speaking from experience here.

One of the best things about being a sailor is that you can pursue this pastime your whole life, well into your advanced years. But one of the worst things about the attendant regatta lifestyle is that there's an overwhelming emphasis on indulgent, even harmful practices that ultimately lessen your ability to perform well and may even cut into that septuagenarian sailing you were looking forward to.

Being in good physical condition is an imperative at the top levels of our sport, just witness any Volvo Ocean Race or America's Cup camp and you'll see that. And being in reasonable condition should be a priority for almost every sailor—racer, cruiser, or daysailor. Imagine suffering a hernia as you try to get the staysail out of the lazarette 100 miles offshore en route to Panama. That's a scenario we'd all do a lot to avoid, or at least we like to think we'd do a lot to avoid it.


When the breeze blows, sailors' fitness as well as their skills gets put to the test. 

I remember crewing at a Farr 40 regatta last summer. On the first day of the event, we had two good heavy air races and then came back to the dock to clean up and debrief. Most of us were fairly spent, and after all the boat chores had been attended to, the beer came out. It tasted great. The majority of the crew hung around to rehash the races and give a brief acknowledgement to whatever topics of the day were on the agenda. But our bow crew—Greg Gendell—a former Whitbread and America's Cup sailor and a self-acclaimed professional in the sport—opted to head back to the hotel and go out for a run. I was impressed. Greg had eschewed the opportunity to have a couple of cold ones with the crew so that he could maintain his training regimen. Clearly, to him, our day of racing was just part of the process, and now he needed to head home and complete his training so that he'd be fit for future action.

Another strong impression I got regarding the importance of fitness came from Volvo Ocean Race skipper Grant Dalton as he prepared for The Race of the Millennium last year aboard Club Med. When they were off the water, the team's trainer had the crew endure alternate sessions of strength conditioning and cardiovascular activity. On one of the running days, I watched as the 42-year-old Dalts out paced crew nearly half his age on every one of the 20 100-yard sprints. Was he trying to impress the members of the media that were looking on I asked him afterward? No, he told me, running was something he'd always done and he felt that he really needed to push himself at that stage, two months before the start of an endurance race around the globe.


Not every sailor requires the speed, strength, and agility that it takes to keep a planing skiff on its feet, but all boats require us to be active to some degree.
Of course very few of us need to achieve the kind of conditioning that VOR sailors or America's Cup crews pursue. For the vast majority of sailors, we simply need to be relatively strong, relatively agile, and have sufficient endurance to see us through a full day of hiking, tacking, and jibing, with enough reserve to go out and do it again the next day. There's a lot of down time in the game of sailing regardless of whether you're talking about cruising or racing, so you don't need to go overboard, so to speak, about this stuff. Instead, take a look at the kind of sailor you are, and try to tailor your fitness to the kind of boat and the style of sailing you have. For example, if you're strictly a cruiser, you'll probably want to achieve a kind of fitness that emphasizes endurance for making those long passages and strength for tucking in those sudden reefs or hauling up that stubborn anchor. Personally, I sail on a broad range of boats, but most have small-diameter lines that have to be pulled often, so one of the things I do is keep a small rubber ball in the car for my 30-minute work commute and I give my fingers a workout on that each way. (It's also a good preventative for road rage.)

After you've made an honest assessment of your physical condition, consider whether you're in the kind of shape you need to be in to sail the boats that you find yourself sailing aboard. If your research says no, you've got two options—change your sailing style (including the kind of boats and the kind of activities) or do something about your level of fitness.

I really can't help you change boats, but I can give you some useful advice about getting more fit. The four building blocks of fitness are endurance, flexibility, strength, and power. (Of course diet is integral to fitness, but that's a matter for another article later on.) Improving just one of these areas isn't really the goal, unless you're an over-bulked body builder who hasn't the flexibility to scratch his or her ear. Ideally you want to create a training regimen that allows you to work on all four areas with equal emphasis. Here's a quick digest to get you started:

"Ideally you want a regimen that allows you to work with equal measure on strength, power, endurance, and flexibility."
Flexibility    Stretching out prior to and after athletic endeavors has long been preached by professional athletic trainers. This practice loosens your muscles, but it also lessens their recoil, which is a feature you want for explosive activities like jumping a halyard or quickly gathering a spinnaker on a takedown. Trainers today promote the idea of dynamic stretching for such explosive activities and sailing is full of them. Doing stretching routines like high-knee steps or arm windmills instead of static stretching before sailing will help you achieve that kind of fitness.

Strength    The best measurement of overall strength, say the professionals, is the conventional pushup because this activity involves many of the major muscle groups. If you're between the ages of 40 and 49 and you can do more than 24 rapid pushups non-stop with good form, you're in good shape. Pushups also make for a good on-board maintenance exercise because they don't require any gadgets, just you and some good old-fashioned exertion. Stomach crunches are also a good exercise for sailors because they strengthen the essential stomach muscles that support our backs, and we're always putting our backs to work on a boat.


Proper physical conditioning can help ensure that you stay active as a sailor well into your senior years.

Endurance    Sailing and marathon running—the embodiment of endurance in sports—don't appear to have much in common, but consider that most races mean that you're out in the elements hiking, grinding winches, and concentrating on performance in pretty much a non-stop fashion for long stretches of time. That requires a certain level of endurance on the part of your body, right? The goal of endurance training is to raise what's called your VO2 max—the number of milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight your body metabolizes in one minute of exercise. Forget the science and keep in mind that you want to train for 60 to 90 minutes three times a week at 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. After that you can kick it up a notch and do what the professionals call interval training, which means that you train harder for a while and not so hard for a while. In sailing parlance, that means doing 10 tacks or jibes in a row and then taking a break before doing it all over again.

Power    Training professionals define power as the nexus of strength and speed, and power comes in handy on any sailboat, particularly ones that spend their time going around racecourses. These same professionals suggest building your reserves of power through a regimen of standing long jumps, hand-clap push ups, and two-footed box jumps. For direct application to what we do on boats, try setting up a hiking bench and using it while you watch the news at night, or get in a habit of taking the stairs in your building two steps at a time. To be able to move in a more explosive manner when necessary is what power is all about, and to get to that point, you have to pursue the types of exercises that are more explosive. You'll know you've got the power when you're able to leap off the rail, dive across the cabinhouse, and be the first person on the opposite rail hiking on the new tack.



Suggested Reading:

Hangin' With Club Med by Dan Dickison

Volvo Ocean Race, Six Months and Counting by Dan Dickison

Personal Flotation Devices

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