A casual runner wouldn't just hop into a marathon. There's months of proper training and diet that goes into finishing 26 miles of pavement.
Paddlers and SUPers who seek a similar challenge need look no further than the Chattajack, a 31-mile paddle race through the Tennessee River Gorge — though the training requirement still applies. Founder and director Ben Friberg says the race is perfect for someone looking to get in to competitive and distance paddling, provided they've trained properly and are determined to finish it.
"True paddling is one of the most healthy exercises when done properly. You give yourself a good, solid workout," he says. "However, when done wrong, limbs and joints can go into weird places, and you expose yourself to injury."
Even beyond his role with the race, Friberg is no stranger to distance paddling. His name became national news when, in 2013, he paddled 111 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida, on a SUP. It took years of dedicated effort to reach that level of endurance paddling, he says. And while Cuba to Key West is a far greater challenge than Chattajack's 31 miles, the sentiment behind the training is the same.
"The first thing I'd do as a new paddler is go out and participate in the Thursday night paddle race series here," he says, referencing an informal, meetup-style series that occurs during the summer. "The local paddling community has a wealth of knowledge, and we're happy to share it."
Technique, diet, training regimen — Friberg says it all can be honed and focused for results. Due to differing body builds and boat models, there isn't one surefire method of training or paddling to guarantee success, he says, but talking with experienced people is a great first step in finding a method that works well for you personally.
Over a distance as long as the Chattajack's, improper technique will sink a paddler's chances faster than anything.
"Spend time paddling every day, and learn to have a stroke that works smoothly for you. Think of it like a runner's stride," says Friberg.
While time may matter less for someone looking to take their first multi-day paddle trip versus medal in a race, it's still important. It affects itinerary and packing. For those who have set their sights on the Chattajack, Friberg recommends maintaining a 4-mile-per-hour pace as a target speed — a speed at which competitors would complete the 31-mile course in just under the 8.5-hour cutoff limit.
"Watching your heart rate is important, too," he says. "Figure out what your resting heart rate is, and keep pushing yourself safely." A general rule of thumb is not to exceed 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. To find your max heart rate per minute, subtract your age from 220.
Eventually, Friberg says, paddlers will find themselves going 4 miles per hour without much strain. At that point, they can aim for 4.5 miles per hour, which is a good speed to stay competitive during the race.
"Your power comes from your core, so that's something paddlers need to work on," he says.
In addition, he recommends new or amateur paddlers train in a multitude of conditions. Weather is never a guarantee, and headwinds, sidewinds, rain and fog are all situations paddlers need to be ready for.
More than anything, the best way to prepare for a distance paddle, Friberg says, is to thoughtfully paddle every day, being aware of what you're doing and how you can improve.
"Every time I go out and paddle, I'm constantly learning new things," he says. "It's why you practice."
To learn more about the summer Chattanooga Paddle Race Series, meant to be a fun introduction for new paddlers and a way for experienced paddlers to get out in the community and keep their skills sharp, visit chattpaddleraceseries.weebly.com.
To learn more or sign up for the Chattajack, held annually around the end of October, visit chattajack.com. The race is notorious for selling out early.