Training for The Green Race: A Conversation with Two-Time Champion Andrew Holcombe

Green Race competitors before the race.
Green Race competitors before the race. Courtesy of Andrew Holcombe
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The much anticipated and ubiquitously hyped Green Race, one of the most extreme creeking competitions in the world, is fast approaching. If you are thinking of competing this November—or you're simply hoping to become a faster, stronger, and more confident whitewater paddler—now is the time to get serious about training. We sat down with 2-time Green Race champion and kayaking great Andrew Holcombe to discuss his training regiment and philosophical approach to the competition. Read it through, print it out, and get ready to paddle backwards and upstream.

Get on the Green

There's definitely something to be said with just getting on the Green River Narrows as many times as you can, and being super familiar with the river. That opens it up and de-stresses the rapids, so you can focus on what are actually the fastest lines, and then commit yourself to paddling hard the whole race. That's tough to do, because the biggest rapids are at the end. You need to be able to max out—or come close to it—and still be able to hit the lines on the bigger rapids.

Focus on Attainments

Doing attainments is the best thing you can do on the water. Location is really important: you don't simply choose the hardest attainment, you want something that replicates different sections of the race. There are three levels to include in your training:

45 seconds- 1 minute attainments 
Set of 10 with 30 seconds of rest between
This is your power zone designed to get you to your top speed. You need a constant current to paddle against, but it can be flat water. You're not looking for a technical aspect, you're looking at power.

2-2.5 minute attainments
Set of 8 with 45 seconds of rest between
These are designed for sustaining power.  Find the stroke rate that you can maintain for the whole 2.5 minutes.

5 minute attainments
Set of 6 with 2.5 minutes of rest between them.
These are best if you are attaining through a rapid, so you can start to simulate patterns of maximum power and sustainable power.

Choose a different level to work on each day, 5-6 times a week. I would do 2 days of the first level, 2 days of the second, and 1 day of the third every week. With each set, do one or two backwards. This will even out your muscle groups out and makes you super strong.

Long paddles

Holcombe powering through the class V rapids on the Narrows.
Holcombe powering through the class V rapids on the Narrows. Courtesy of Andrew Holcombe

Throw in a longer paddle about every two weeks or so. It doesn't have to be a hard river- it has to be 45 minutes at a sustained stroke rate. That's a good aerobic/endurance workout to keep in the mix.

Off-Water Training

Off the water, I would do pyramids of pull-ups, 3-4 times a week. I worked with an 8 lb medicine ball and did the  UNC Tar Heel's  ab workout for 20 minutes. I'd do that 4-5 times a week, in addition to the on-water workouts. Of course it ebbs and flows, you can't always do the full combo every week. But when I was very very focused, that's what I was able to do.

Take a Holistic Approach

Holcombe entering the Go Left or Die rapid on the Green River Narrows.
Holcombe entering the Go Left or Die rapid on the Green River Narrows. Courtesy of Andrew Holcombe

When I was doing all that training, I was also mountain biking, running and paddling for fun. It's important to have a holistic approach where you're doing more than just paddling so you don't burn out, and you don't overdevelop any one muscle area- that can lead to injuries. If you're only doing a really specific thing over and over again, you're not strengthening the small muscles.

In my opinion, the best benefit of yoga is that it strengthens your little stabilizer muscles, which helps to prevent injuries.  A lot of (my wife) Anna's yoga classes are centered around kayak-specific things, and that's something that a lot of people would benefit from, not just for racing but for paddling in general. Even a 5-10 minute practice each day helps keep you in line and balanced. Kayaking will really throw your systems out of whack because it's often fairly bizarre muscle groups that you're working with.

Focus on Your Own Paddling

Andrew Holcombe, left, after finishing the 2014 Green River Race.
Andrew Holcombe, left, after finishing the 2014 Green River Race. Melina Coogan

When I was competing well, I wasn't worried about what anyone else was doing. It wasn't that I didn't know they were there, but you have to realize that you can't control what they do. I only worried about what I was doing. That sounds super simple, but it's actually really hard.

The races that I went into feeling like "I got this, I should place in the top three, I should win this," I never did very well. When I just went in and raced, when my focus was solely on my own paddling and total belief in what I've been doing to train, that's when I did well.

Now that I'm a little older, I'd add in more breath work and meditation. Those things have been creeping into my life lately.

Recommended Reading

The Tao of Leadership.  It's about how to be present in a time of stressfulness, which is essentially what racing is all about. I also recommend The Way of the Peaceful Warrior - that's a great competition book.

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