Though the cold of canoeing in the winters was not something I looked forward to in my early years in the sport, the rain, with it’s association of rivers being in spate, certainly was. Nowadays, however, I find myself spending much of the winter in the middle of the desert in one of the driest countries on earth. The city of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates has become the latest winter training destination for national canoe slalom teams.
The recently built water park, Wadi Adventure, stands at the the foot of a rocky mountain range, the spectacular Jebel Hafeet, and is surrounded by, well, mostly sand. With three pumped artificial white water channels, a high ropes course, a flying fox & an enormous surf wave pool it’s an impressive place.
Previous to coming here, most of the canoe slalom teams would descend upon Sydney, Australia in the first few months of the year. But with only four hours time change, a flight about a third of the length & preferable weather usually in the mid to high twenties, it’s an easy decision to go to the U.A.E. instead. It was so busy with the european teams at one point in February that training slots were running every hour from 7am until 8pm with only two one hour gaps in the day for white water rafting.
I’m just back from my third of three training camps out in the middle east this off-season, having spent about seven weeks there cumulatively. If I’m honest, I find it a fairly soulless place, but with being able to stay on site and very little by way of distractions it makes for an excellent, highly focused training environment, even if I am very glad to be back home again, after an exhausting three weeks. With a day off in the middle of the camp, a chance to try surfing in the wave pool and the Italian team inviting me round to teach me how to make gnocchi an evening it wasn’t all hard graft though.
With our international race season running from May through September, the remainder of the year is the chance to train hardest and the real opportunity to make gains and improvements, without having to ease off and taper for competitions. For this reason I love the winters, love the chance to evaluate what I can do better and having the time to work hard to improve at it. Approaching the season, knowing you’ve put everything you could into getting yourself in the best possible shape for the upcoming competitions is a great feeling.
With so many of the world’s top canoeists training in Al Ain, it’s interesting to see the variety in approach to training. It seems that I have a somewhat different training philosophy to most other athletes. Where many spend time lifting weights in the gym, cross-training, undertaking physical training on the flat water and long aerobic training sessions, I put my time and energy, day-in-day-out, into honing my technical skills on the white water. I train at as high a volume as I can whilst maintaining high quality and good technique. Though an unusual approach, I feel it works best for me, and I have no doubts that, despite the ever over-riding focus on skill, my very high volume of hard work on the white water gets me in excellent physical shape in terms of strength and fitness as well.
After taking the double win at the World Championships last year, becoming the second man in the history of the sport to do so, to say it’s going to be hard to improve upon is a fair understatement, but I’m not really focussed too heavily on results in that sense. Of course the dream is to win the World Championships again and to go on to win the Olympics in Rio. I know I’m capable of it, but all I need to focus on is to keep training to the best of my ability and be the best I can be. If I do this, I know I’ll be giving myself the best possible chance of continuing to achieve at World and Olympic level. And what more can I do.