Looking for a new challenge that’ll also give you an exhilarating full-body workout? Canoeing (or kayaking) could float your boat. Here’s why

You know the type: girls with long, lean muscles and sexy six-packs. Sun-kissed and lithe, they effortlessly sway their grocery baskets – filled to the brim – as though they’re light as feathers. Gymnasts? No. Tennis players? Nope. Marathon runners? Not quite. We’re talking about canoeists. Want in on their core-building, body-trimming, exhilarating action? It’s simple. Pick up a paddle and take the plunge.

Girl power

Robyn Kime has a string of achievements to her name. She won the ladies’ Dusi in 2010 and 2011, and came second in the First River Canoe Marathon last year (she won it in 2010). Abby Adie finished second in the Dusi last year and won the South African ladies’ K1 and K2 river titles in 2010. Both women are passionate about being on the water. “I love canoeing for the sense of accomplishment I get from it,” says Adie. “It’s a real challenge because the rivers are constantly changing and no two are ever the same.”

Kime appreciates the adventure aspect of the sport: “It takes you to beautiful places that you couldn’t experience unless you were in a boat.” Canoeing is gender and age friendly too, which means that men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes can compete equally on the water. “Your result is simply an indication of the effort you put into training,” explains Gregory van Heerden, canoeing coach and high-performance coordinator for Canoeing South Africa. “For example, Robyn and Abby will typically beat more than 70 percent of the men racing against them” The point? With training, commitment and discipline, you too can join the ranks of the river goddesses.

What a workout!

Former Miss South Africa Megan Coleman paddled the 2010 launch of the Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon with a handful of other celebrities by pairing up with previous Dusi winners to compete in a commemorative sprint. Coleman, who used to row at university, says it was tough: “Every muscle in my body was stiff afterwards, which shows you just how hard you have to work.” Canoeing activates your core muscles and builds strength in your upper body. It’s also a great aerobic workout. “Paddling can form an important part of a weight-loss programme in a low-impact environment,” says Van Heerden. “The wide variety of sub disciplines – river races, flat-water marathons, sprint events, canoe polo (a mix of canoeing and water polo), white-water and rafting races – also encourages participants to stay motivated to train throughout the year,” he adds. “It absolutely kills your arms,” warns Coleman. The best training to get you paddling fit? “Running and swimming,” says Craig Mustard, KwaZulu-Natal’s head canoeing coach and Natal Canoe Club captain. “For women, a bit of upper-body work will make paddling easier to get used to.”

Balancing for beginners

“Fortunately, women tend to learn much faster than men as they usually have good balance and the right shaped bottoms to fit firmly in the boats,” says Joburg-based beginners’ coach Jennie Dallas. The good news: “Once you’ve got your balance, it’s easy,” says Kime. Van Heerden suggests novice canoeists get going with the right equipment. “Use a boat designed for a beginner. Start without the seat – it’ll help drop your centre of gravity, making it easier to balance. You can even add a little water to the boat.” This enables the boat to sit deeper in the water and promotes stability. Bear in mind that it’s easier to balance if you have momentum. “Sit on a bicycle without moving and you’ll fall over,” explains Van Heerden. “Get it moving again and balance is a lot easier.” The upshot? “Try to keep the boat moving forward; speed is irrelevant – any momentum will help.” Balance is all in the head (really!). “It’s part of the function of the inner ear, so the more time you spend on the water, the quicker your inner ear will learn to balance your on an uneven surface,” says Van Heerden.

Sign up

Adie suggests you follow a canoe race as a second to see what it involves. “Then join a club, where you’ll meet people to paddle with.” It’s best to start at a club close to you. “Most clubs with a good beginner progamme will have the equipment for you to use or rent for a couple of classes,” says Mustard. “A good-quality life jacket is most important, followed by a paddle suited to your height and a stable boat – you must walk before you can run.” Clubs also offer advice about coaching. Visit www.canoesa.org.za for a list of clubs around the country.

Cool down

“After training and racing, replenish your glycogen, protein and electrolytes within 30 minutes of finishing,” recommends Van Heerden. “This can be done by drinking flavoured milk (a Steri Stumpie, for example). Scientifically proven to be one of the most effective recovery drinks available, it’s also cheap.” Canoeing really is a full-body experience. Technically challenging, physically rewarding, breathtakingly beautiful and easy on the palate (who can resist chocolate milk?), it’s the ability to master the conditions that determines the champion. Ready to stick your paddle in?

Get race ready

To participate in flat-water and river races, beginners must pass proficiency tests carried out by canoe clubs. For details contact your provincial union:

Western Cape: contact Laura van Heerden on 082 700 2742 or visit www.wpcanoe.org.za

KwaZulu-Natal: contact John Oliver on 033 330 7446 or visit www.kncu.co.za

Gauteng: contact Michelle van der Walt on 011 888 7234 or visit www.gcu.co.za

Description: Canoeing activates your core muscles and builds strength in your upper body. It’s also a great aerobic workout.

Canoeing activates your core muscles and builds strength in your upper body. It’s also a great aerobic workout.

Minor Races

Some great confidence-builders

Cape Town

The Twilight 12 river race (12 km) is a fun flat-water event that takes place at Peninsula Canoe Club in Lakeside, Muizenberg, in February.

Eastern Cape

The Little Fish Canoe Race (28 km) takes place in Middleton in the Karoo every March.


The Tugela 21’s (14 km) is a gun event held on the Tugela River near Bergville in early August.


The Belloord Klip races are a series of events that take place on the Klip River from September to December.

Major Races

Events to aspire to

The Hansa Powerade Fish River Marathon (81 km) is a great major for beginners to graduate to. It takes place from 5 to 6 October this year.

The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon (125 km) is a grueling three-day race that starts in Pietermaritzburg and ends in Durban. It takes place in February.

The Berg River Canoe Marathon is a four-day race that covers 250 km. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s happening from 11 July this year.

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