Home Workout Plan For Sailors

Home Workout Plan For Sailors | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

June 15, 2022

It may seem like sailing is enough exercise by itself, but it’s vital that a home workout plan for sailors is in place to improve performance and reduce injury.

Sailing requires unique skill and strength in order to be done effectively. A comprehensive exercise program involving total body strengthening, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance should be completed by every sailor. Whether you are a competitive olympic sailor or a weekend warrior, you need to keep your body in top shape.

A high level activity such as sailing requires proficiency in multiple dimensions of fitness. In a study of competitive sailors, it was found that cardiac output, or the demand of the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body, was doubled when measured while the sailors in the study were performing a hiking maneuver. This is a very significant change in demand on the heart, and the average person who isn’t physically prepared for this level of demand could be subject to a heart attack or stroke. Needless to say, a cardiac event happening at sea could result in a very unfortunate death of the sailor. Besides cardiovascular demand, sailors also require a high level of flexibility and muscular strength (technically muscular endurance is the more appropriate term here, for those of you that are sticklers for proper terminology. But for all intents and purposes, we will use the terms muscular strength and muscular endurance interchangeably in this article).

This article was prepared and written by Bennett Richardson, an orthopedic physical therapist. I have treated many competitive athletes over the years, including sailors. In some unfortunate situations, I have worked with those who have had devastating injuries due to improper physical preparation. Where appropriate, I will cite articles and other experts in this article. If you see a claim in the article that is not cited, assume it is my own opinion based on my personal experience in the healthcare field. As with any article found online, know that this information is strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to replace an in person evaluation by a trained healthcare profession such as your doctor.


Table of contents

What is the Best Exercise Program for Sailors?

There is no one-size-fits-all exercise program for everyone. However, there are some general principles that can apply to all sailors. These principles are based on the specific demands of the sport which apply each of the different dimensions of exercise. Let’s break down some cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercise programs as they relate to the demands of sailing.

Cardiovascular Exercise for Sailing

The cardiovascular needs for a sailor are quite unique. There are components of the ATP-PCR system, the glycolytic system, and the aerobic system that all come into play during different parts of the sailing experience. Put simply, each of these systems work as follows:

  • ATP-PCR. This system is used for very high intensity, short term movements.
  • Glycolytic. The glycolytic system is for medium term work, both in terms of intensity and time.
  • Aerobic. The aerobic system is tapped into for long term, generally lower intensity efforts.

While nearly every sport relies on each of these systems to varying degrees, sailing requires that you tap into each of these systems frequently. This forces your heart to respond in very different ways each time you switch energy systems. If your cardiovascular system is not prepared for the demands of switching between these systems frequently, you risk heart and other system complications during a sailing expedition. A heart that is not ready for these changes in demand is said to have poor heart rate variability, which has been found to be a risk factor for heart disease.

There are many ways to train these energy systems, but a few general ways are:

  • High Intensity Interval Training.  HIIT training consists of performing very short (30 seconds or less) bursts of extremely high effort exercise, followed by longer (Double the work time or longer) rest periods. This is one of the best ways to train your ATP-PCR system. A specific example would be pedaling an exercise bike as hard as you can for 10 seconds, resting or pedaling very slowly for 30 seconds, and repeating the whole process 5 times.
  • Medium Intensity Interval Training. Like its higher intensity counterpart, medium intensity interval training consists of short bursts that are slightly longer (40-90 seconds) followed by similar length rest breaks. A specific example would be running on a treadmill for 45 seconds at a moderate intensity then walking comfortably for 45 seconds and repeating the process 5 times.
  • Low Intensity Steady State Training. LISS training is what most people think of when cardio is mentioned. This type of training consists of long term exercise at a much lower intensity, such as a 3 mile walk or jog at a comfortable pace.

Table 1 will break down each system as it relates to sailing and how to train each system so that you are prepared for the demands of sailing.

Strength Training for Sailors

In addition to cardiovascular demands, sailing requires significant strength demands as well. Sailors have to perform a variety of movements including but not limited to pushing, pulling, and squating.

The best strength training prescription for a sailor is going to be one that incorporates movements for the entire body and focuses both on lower repetition/higher weight movements and higher repetition/lower weight movements. Each of these styles of training will emphasize muscle strength and muscle endurance respectively.

Strength training exercises need not be complicated or even require the use of a gym. Many exercises can be done with common household objects such as a backpack or gallon jug of water.

There are quite literally millions of strength training exercises that you could substitute for any of the following, but these are a handful of exercises that will incorporate all of the major muscles used while sailing:

  • Bent Over Rows. This exercise will work the back and bicep muscles. This is perfect for pulling movements required while on the boat. To perform this exercise, hold a weight in one hand and bend over at the waist, while supporting yourself with your other hand. Pull the weight up slowly toward your chest and then slowly lower back toward the starting position. Repeat as many times as you can until your muscles start to fatigue, aiming for 10-12 reps. Repeat 3 sets.
  • Push ups. Push ups will counter the muscles used during the row, and are perfect for any sailing movements that require you to push an object. Starting with hands and toes on the ground with arms extended, slowly lower chest toward floor then push body back to starting position. Repeat 10-12 repetitions for 3 sets. These can be made harder by placing feet on a couch or stairs, and easier by placing hands on couch or stairs.
  • Lunges. Lunges are an excellent exercise for building leg strength and improving balance. To perform: in standing, step one foot forward and slowly bend front knee until back knee comes close to, but does not touch the ground. Return to starting position and repeat 10-12 times on each leg for 3 sets.

Flexibility Exercise for Sailors

Flexibility is perhaps the most neglected component of fitness for all active individuals. While there has been much debate about whether or not lack of flexibility is correlated with increased injury risk, it stands to reason that a greater range of motion (combined with strength throughout that range of motion) can improve performance in sport or activity.

The great part about flexibility training is that it can be done anywhere and without equipment. You can do your stretches at night while you watch TV, or you can perform them in the morning while the coffee is brewing. Whenever you do them, it is advisable to perform flexibility exercise everyday, or at least 5 days a week.

There are many different recommendations from different researchers on stretching technique, but there is agreement that flexibility exercise should be performed by athletes and active individuals. Some stretches that benefit sailors specifically are as follows:

  • Seated Hamstring Stretch. Sitting with your back straight and both legs straight out in front of you, with toes pointed toward the ceiling, bend forward until a stretch is felt in the back of the thighs. Hold stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.
  • Overhead Triceps and Lat Stretch. Reach right arm overhead and bend at elbow. With left hand, grasp right elbow and gently pull downwards until stretch is felt in back of right arm (triceps). Then to add a lat stretch, bend toward the left side. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side.
  • Hip Flexor Stretch. Lying on bed or couch, allow the right leg to hang off the edge or side of the surface until a stretch is felt in the front of the thigh. Hold stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side.
  • Wrist Extension Stretch. Reach your right arm forward in front of you with your palm facing floor. Grasp right hand with left hand and slightly bend wrist backward until a stretch is felt in your right forearm. Hold stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side.
  • Wrist Flexion Stretch. Reach your right arm forward in front of you with your palm facing the ceiling. With your left hand, grasp your right hand and pull your right wrist backward until a stretch is felt in the back of the right arm. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side.
  • Pec and Shoulder Stretch. In standing, reach both hands behind you and interlace fingers. Push hands down toward the floor until stretch is felt in your pec muscles and the front of your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side.

Putting it All Together

We’ve discussed cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility exercise. Now the question is: how much is enough?

This answer is going to differ slightly for everyone based on sailing frequency, current exercise status, body structure and a variety of other reasons. However, the following table will give general recommendations for a plan to follow in order to remain healthy and strong long into your sailing career. The main thing to keep in mind is that you should be moving frequently throughout a full range of motion and making your various body systems work in ways that they will be required to work while you are sailing.

Remember that all of the information provided is simply educational and should not be considered medical advice. You should consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare practitioner for an individualized program. If this looks like a huge time commitment, remember too that you can always combine exercise types into the same day. For example, you could perform flexibility, cardiovascular and strength training into the same days and sessions to save time.

Home Workout Plan For Sailors
Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett is a physical therapist in the Pittsburgh, PA region who specializes in the areas of orthopedics, ergonomics, and weight loss. Bennett graduated from Slippery Rock University’s DPT program in 2017. He also obtained his BS from SRU in 2014 in Exercise Science with a Gerontology minor. In his work, Bennett has had the unique opportunity to rehabilitate many novice and experienced sailors. The advice he provides is always research-based.

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