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 Tips & Tricks

High demands

Generally speaking canoeing, kayaking and rowing are flat-water sports characterized by very slender, streamlined boats that move at high speeds on [ideally] flat-water conditions.

At the national and international level, race events can range from as little as 30 seconds for canoe and kayak to up to 8 minutes for rowing.

Although race times are relatively short it certainly does not reflect how much volume and intensity goes into training for these sports.

In fact, elite athletes participating in flat-water sports typically require high power output and therefore must take many strokes to be able to produce such power.


Stroke after stroke after stroke…

stroke after stroke - water sportsAll that volume and intensity does some amazing things in the human body.


Athletes participating in flat-water sport are highly trained in all three energy systems outlined in the table below.

Energy system



Energy Source

Anaerobic alactic

Very high

About 10 seconds

Creatine phosphate

+ Stored ATP

Anaerobic lactic


up to 2 minutes

Entirely carbohydrate (glycogen)



2 min and beyond

Mixture of fat and carbohydrate (glycogen)


So, what does this mean for nutritional intake?

The more you understand the demands of your training program the more you can understand your individual nutritional needs.

If you have long-term goals you can look at your nutritional requirements on a grand scale and plan accordingly.

Start by coupling training with nutrition periodization.

Periodization is a concept that training takes place in phases over the year. This is based on the fact that it is impossible to maintain peak fitness year-round.

The phases are:

  • General preparation phase

  • Specific preparation phase

  • Competition phase

  • Recovery or transition phase

Figuring out in which phase you find yourself can not only set yourself up for success but it can give you an edge over your competition.

Now, let's dive into specific nutrition goals using an example…

Meet Megan.

She is a 22 year-old rowing athlete in the general preparation phase of training.

At 190cm tall and weighs 80kg she trains 15 times a week, which includes:

  • 3 weight training sessions,

  • 2 core strengthening sessions,

  • 3 high intensity training sessions and

  • 7 volume training sessions with some lasting up to 2.5 hours

First things first, Megan needs energy and lots of it!

Based on her age, height and weight Megan might need to consume up to 4000 kcal/day depending on the training day. On rest days of course she wouldn’t need as much.

For example, Megan met with the team Dietitian and was advised to eat every 2-4 hours in order to meet her daily caloric needs. The strategy helps meet her energy needs for the day while aiming to reduce the amount of fatigue she usually feels by the end of the week.

In addition, she wears a heart rate monitor to estimate how many calories she is burning off everyday and keeps a food diary from time to time so she can check if she is eating enough to support her training.

Consume adequate energy to ensure optimal performance.

When it comes to energy requirements indirect calorimetry yields the most accurate results. Of course depending on the resources you have available to you an energy calculator is the next best thing.

Calorie Tip : Research suggests that for elite athletes energy calculators or equations such as the Harris-Benedict equation often underestimate the needs of both males and females

Combat fatigue with Carbohydrate.

In order for the water-sport athlete to refuel effectively a substantial amount of carbohydrate needs to be consumed. In fact, the primary recovery strategy for the canoe/kayak or rowing athlete should be to recover glycogen stores.

Notice that glycogen is required as fuel for both anaerobic and aerobic energy metabolism seen in the energy systems table above.

In simple terms, glycogen is your carbohydrate storage that serves as a form of energy.

These stores will be reduced from long or hard training sessions or when there is less than 8 hours between workouts.

Therefore effective refueling begins with carbohydrate for the elite.

Carb Tip : The more carbohydrate you consume, the more discomfort you may feel in your gut. To avoid this add more carb-dense, low-fiber choices to your diet such as sport drinks

During Megan’s first training session she aims to drink at least a liter of Gatorade followed by an Elevate Me® bar before lunch to get started on refueling before she has lunch and for her next session later that day.


Protein is involved in almost every structural and functional component in the body. For the elite flat-water athlete protein requirements can be has high as 1.5 – 1.7 g/kg body weight. Using this guideline, Megan needs about 120g or more each day.

Timing is also an important factor to ensure that the demands of canoe/kayak and rowing are met. It is just as important as getting enough total protein throughout the day.

A good strategy for elite athletes is to evenly distribute protein intake across the day. This ties into Megan’s previously mentioned goal to eat every 2-4 hours.

Megan uses protein powder to ensure she is meeting her daily needs for protein. Most days she drinks a smoothie with frozen fruit, milk and 1 scoop of whey protein isolate within 30 minutes of completing her hardest workout of the day.

Protein tip : Pumpkin seeds have the highest protein content of all nuts and seeds. Eating trail-mix with pumpkin seeds can help distribute protein intake throughout the day

Fat is necessary

Although carbohydrate is the most important fuel for the canoe/kayak and rowing athlete, fat also serves a key role.

In the highly trained, muscles can store a small amount of fat which is used as fuel during prolonged training session. The table above outlines that fat is used as a fuel to support aerobic activity during long training sessions.

Not only that, fat is useful for making hormones and helps with the digestion of vitamins such as A, D, E and K.  

Fat tip : Fatty fish like salmon contain powerful antioxidants beneficial to recovery. Look for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) content and aim for consuming around 1g / day.


nutrition water sports kayak

Photo credits : Austin J. Cameron

Hydration status is not only important for performance during training, but also for proper recovery. Rehydration should be a priority just as important and carbohydrate intake.

A general rule of thumb is to drink about 500mL of water for each hour of rigorous training. This is on top of the daily recommendation to drink 2 liters per day.

Megan weighs herself once a week before and after a hard training practice. She uses the difference in body weight to calculate around how much she needs to replenish.

Hydration tip : The elite athlete should not rely on thirst signals as a strategy for hydration. Creating and committing to an organized drink schedule especially in the summer is vital.

It’s all about balance!

nutrition water sports kayak

Nutrition and sleep go hand-in-hand. Being disciplined to get to bed on time is crucial to athletic performance. Elite athletes work harder than the average active person and therefore need more sleep. Aim for 8-9 hours each night.  

Getting enough rest takes commitment just like training.

Take home points

  • Find out what type of training phase you are in; general preparation phase, specific preparation phase, competition phase, or recovery or transition phase

  • Understand/calculate your daily caloric needs

  • Eat good quality carbohydrates, protein and fats

  • Eat frequently, ideally every 2-4 hours

  • Hydrate! 3 liters a day is a good start!

  • Sleep at least 8-9 hours a night

Author : Jaclyn Halko (@halkonutrition) is a world champion in lightweight rowing and has her own nutrition consulting practice specifically for elite athletes. She also had a successful crowdfunding campaign on MAKEACHAMP. Contact her through her website at halkonutrition.com.

jaclyn rowing


List of references:

American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine, Rodriguez, N. R., Di Marco, N. M., Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sport Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 93, 691-6.

Burke, L. M., Collier, G. R., Davis, P. G., Fricker, P. A., Sanigorski, A. J., & Hargreaves, M. (1996). Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: Effect of the frequency of carbohydrate feedings. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64(1), 115-119.

Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2006). Clinical sports nutrition (3rd ed.). Sydney ; New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bergstrom, J., Hermansen, L., Hultman, E., & Saltin, B. (1967). Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 71(2), 140-150.

Carlsohn, A., Scharhag-Rosenberger, F., Cassel, M., Mayer, F. (2011). Resting metabolic rate in elite rowers and canoeists: difference between indirect calorimetry and predicition. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 58(3), 239-244.

Coyle, E. F., Jeukendrup, A. E., Oseto, M. C., Hodgkinson, B. J., & Zderic, T. W. (2001). Low-fat diet alters intramuscular substrates and reduces lipolysis and fat oxidation during exercise. American Journal of Physiology.Endocrinology and Metabolism, 280(3), E391-8.

Stellingwerff, T., Maughan, R. J., & Burke, L. M. (2011). Nutrition for power sports: Middle-distance running, track cycling, rowing, canoeing/kayaking, and swimming. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1, S79-89.

Thompson, J., & Manore, M. M. (1996). Predicted and measured resting metabolic rate of male and female endurance athletes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96(1), 30-34.