Think of the kayak motion akin to that of an Olympic lift, but instead of standing, the athlete is seated—and on water inside a tipsy boats. With such a kinetic motion, Team USA kayaker Maggie Hogan knows the importance of power, but also the need for technical efficiency.
“Everyday is technique,” says 37-year-old Hogan. “It is such an important thing for us.”
With a multiplicity of training needs, Hogan mixes in a gym sessions, multiple water sessions and runs every week. A typical day can include a paddle in the morning, a run after, another paddle in the afternoon and a gym workout.
“I’m in the middle of a hard week,” she says leading up to the U.S. canoe/kayak sprint national team trials April 29 and 30 in Gainesville, Ga., the first of two legs she needs to win in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “I’m hanging on for dear life right now.”
Hogan competes in the 200 and 500-meter distances. The 200 is a sheer sprint, where the 500 (Hogan’s specialty) is that middle ground—similar to the 800 meter run in track and field—that blurs the line between sprint and endurance. To make Rio in either of the two events she needs to win both the U.S. competition in April at the 1996 Olympics course in Georgia and then the Continental qualifier at the same course on May 19. “The winner goes, so I’m just prepping for these races,” she says. “Yeah, no pressure. You can’t really peak more than twice in a year and May is do or die, so I’m really going to focus on that. If I don’t make it past there, there is no rest of the season.”
Getting ready for the 500 is tricky, Hogan admits, as she balances the need for strength and technique. Competing in the tipsiest boats in the world—Hogan has seen countless world-class Olympic athletes unable to get five strokes off the dock without spilling into the water to win a $100 bet at the U.S. Olympic Center Training Facility in Chula Vista, Calif.—training is about “mastering the technique before applying power and strength.”
One way Hogan is honing her technique is by working with USA canoe/kayak high performance director Michele Eray and using a new tool from Motionize, which acts as a virtual coach for kayakers. The devices uses an array of motion sensors and proprietary algorithms to track stroke length, distance per stroke, speed and pace, paddle depth and more while giving real-time feedback with an onboard dashboard.
“Up until now a coach can only look at one side at a time,” Hogan says. “To see what you are doing from all points of view in real time has really helped me tweak. Let’s say on the left stroke you are grabbing the water at a certain point at the boat every time and exiting at a certain point every time. The paddle blades are like wing blades, if they are dragging behind they are creating a lift and creating friction in my stroke. If Michele is on the left-hand side and sees I’m existing a little late, with Motionize we can see both sides and change it and see the difference live on the screen. Before, I would think I’m [making the adjustment] but didn’t know for sure. Now I can see stroke length and distance per stroke in real time and maximize them.”
Eray says the quicker she can get feedback to the athlete, the quicker the athlete can change habits. “The more tools you have the better you can ply your trade,” she says. Initially Eray expected the distance of stroke to be the most important measure of how strong a stroke was, but being able to see the catch point of the water and exit point allows her to really hone in a stroke’s efficiency.
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Technique is a huge focus for Hogan, but technique without strength doesn’t contain power. On the water, Hogan will train with a weighted boat, forcing her to put technique in the forefront. But training exists out of the water too.
Her season starts with aerobic work, but it isn’t long before she is mixing in at least five gym sessions each week, two water sessions nearly every day and at least three runs each week.
In the gym she has a strength block and a power block, working on both at the same time with a circuit, a mix of six cardio-type exercises that she does for 30 seconds, 45 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds and then 120 seconds. “It doesn’t sound like much,” she says, “but it is sneaky and by the time you are done you can barely bring a fork to your mouth.”
Included in her workouts are plenty of pulling exercises, such as pull-ups and bench press, along with shoulder and hip stability work.
“Our sport is a kinetic-chain sport,” Hogan says. “You put the blade in the water, press against the foot brakes, then rotate your body with leg and upper body movement. You try to keep your arms out of it because they are such small muscles in comparison [to hips and shoulders]. It is like an Olympic lift in a seated position.”
With so much time in the gym and in the boat, Hogan says she must enjoy the entire journey lest it become tedious. As she readies for Rio, her goals will remain more process-oriented. She’s working to change technique and correct miniscule details, such as not throwing so much water with her left stroke and finding a better catch point. She plans goals for every type of workout to keep it engaging and interesting and Eray constantly introduces new things to keep the 10-year veteran on her toes.
"Because our sport is so technical, it can take seven to 10 years to make an athlete so you need to spice it up a little and make it exciting," Hogan says. "You have to enjoy the challenge of it to stay in the sport."
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.