The key to compete in sailing

As with almost any sport, being tough and resistant to injury should be the prime factor when devising a specific fitness programme. However, there are certain physical attributes that stand out specific to sailing.

The ability to think clearly while performing at the extremes of physical capability is necessary when sailing.   -  AP

In addition to the high level of skill required to compete in sailing, to be successful one needs, among other things, good muscle strength, endurance, balance and coordination. However, which of these are more important?

As with almost any sport, being tough and resistant to injury should be the prime factor when devising a specific fitness programme. However, there are certain physical attributes that stand out specific to sailing.

The order of importance depends on the sailing discipline and the sailor’s current strengths and weaknesses, which should be assessed thoroughly prior to starting a programme to ensure each physical attribute is being progressed in accordance with the results of the assessment to bring out the best and to avoid injuries.

Top things you must do for sailing fitness

Adaptability: First set a general training plan, then adapt it constantly. Books on training for sport say to set a periodised training plan a few months or even a whole year in advance, then follow it. However, that’s just not good enough to get the best out of yourself at each and every session, particularly in sailing, where wind strength has such a big impact on the physical intensity of training. Sometimes you might want to do a hard session but the wind isn’t there. To compensate, you can add on a little fitness work post-sailing or do another gym session the next morning. Sometimes, you turn up to training in a not-so-good condition (e.g., lingering fatigue), so then you might reduce the volume and/or intensity of the session. Have a good idea of what you want to achieve today and this week, check the weather forecast and be prepared to modify your training plans as needed.

Good recovery: Using a contrast bath between hot and cold water immersion helps in the recovery process. An active or passive recovery process can be applied depending on individuals needs and the comfort zone.

Lower back strength and stability:

Sailors suffer major injuries to their backs more than any other part of the body. So, include exercises for your lower back and deep abdominal muscles every day. Working on the core and the allied musculature in a functional way for adaptability is the key to avoiding injuries and performing better.

Shoulder stability: Include shoulder strength and stability as part of the workout and warm-up, using varied angles and ranges with either tubing or dumbbells, etc. Both pushing and pulling movements need to be included for muscle synergy (anterior and posterior chain). Often, sailing requires sudden, strong movements of the arms over a large range of motion and angles, and these can cause injuries to the shoulder joints.

Hip flexor flexibility: Hip flexor stretches can help improve posture and also reduce strain on the lower back, helping the muscles recover better. Alongside working on your abdominal muscles, work on your hip flexors. Most of the time during sailing, the hip flexors are in a shortened position, so there is need to recover that at the end of the day with some specific hip flexor stretches.

Nutrition: Nutrition is often ignored by many, especially those training frequently and hard, which is when it becomes very important — to perform optimally you must be fuelled and hydrated appropriately. The amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat and supplements in an athlete’s diet varies depends on current body composition, fitness levels and the time frame for competition, and it has to individualised to each sailor. Blood analysis helps in understanding trace elements and nutrients to be added to the diet regime.

Use technology: Keep quality records of your fitness/recovery/load-monitoring/skill time. There are various mobile as well as high-end tools available to track and retrieve data for inference. It is very important to use scientific data to get the best out of one’s capability. It becomes an important tool in tracking injuries/mindset/recovery/fitness levels and also the mental aspect of it. Technology should be used prudently to infer the best desired data.

Unstable equilibrium training: It is not the same as practising on the water, but at least try to mimic the movement indoors when the options are nil due to various reasons such as bad weather, a too-hot climate, the venue not being available, etc. Using a Swiss ball/BOSU ball as a hiking bench to train the legs. If you need to do some hiking but there isn’t enough wind, Swiss ball leg extensions can be a fantastic substitute. Do 20 reps, rest for five seconds, then do 20 reps and continue to approx 100 reps overall.

Good strength and conditioning programme: This is an important factor for robustness/injury prevention. Strength should be developed with postural balance in mind. Sailing athletes are often “pull” dominant, meaning the muscular structures that initiate any pulling motions are often over developed relative to “push” dominant muscles, which can produce numerous muscular imbalances and decrease efficiency and increase injuries. Good postural balance and a stability programme are paramount to improving performance.

The duration of each session is dependent on how frequently the sailor can train for competition, with a periodised programme and pre-training physical screening results. Sessions can last between 45 and 90 minutes, and there should be three-nine sessions per week.

A serious athlete should allocate time to train and have an absolute minimum of three sessions per week.

In our experience, the most specific exercises we have found to be pivotal to sailing performance are single-arm push/pull variants, for lower back and midsection strength, shoulder stability and grip endurance.

Agility: This is a highly overlooked component of sailing fitness. An example would be the balance and agility required to move from different positions on a boat at higher speeds. It is best to practise on the boat during training sessions.

Endurance base: Athletes are required to tolerate repeated efforts over a varied time frame depending on the sailing discipline. The most basic example would be grinding; obviously, strength is important for this too, but being able to sustain this action over an extended period requires endurance and an efficient aerobic system.

Aerobic capacity sessions should be completed on either the same day after strength sessions, later in the day or on separate days. Heart rate variability training or high-intensity interval training using grinders, bikes, an upper-body ergometer and a rowing machine can be used to near their VO2 max capacity (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise).

Smart decision-making under stress: The ability to think clearly while performing at the extremes of physical capability is necessary when sailing. Some teams use Navy Seals to train sailors to make quicksilver decisions under extreme physical demands. Some teams hire professional freedivers to develop calmness in stressful situations.

At times, sailors have to make split-second decisions, and usually when you make mistakes, it’s when one is tired or stressed. That’s exactly what these boats do to you, and the consequences if you make a mistake are like a Formula One driver going into a wall.

It just comes down to making smart decisions when you’re exhausted or stressed, so training and conditioning for these circumstances would help improve overall functionality on the sailors to unearth the best in them.

Sample workout:

  • Swiss ball plank
  • BOSU ball lunge
  • Hiking row
  • Prone Swiss ball extension
  • Squats
  • Rowing