Sailing Fitness Top Tips

Sailing Fitness Top Tips

Get the most out of your Strength and Conditioning Programme

By Jamie Gabbidon at Pinnacle Performance

As the start of the sailing season fast approaches, it’s time to step your training programme up a gear, if you haven’t done so already. As race yachts get faster, more advanced and physically more demanding, it’s becoming even more important to make sure you and your crew are strong, fit and healthy for the racing season ahead. In fact, year-round training will ensure you are fit enough to perform throughout the season and perhaps enjoy your time on the water even more. 

Pinnacle Performance are specialists in helping athletes, whatever their health and fitness goal, to get results and progress in their chosen sport. Within sailing specifically, they have trained Volvo Ocean Race crews, Sailing Olympians and National Champions, but they are also passionate about helping amateaur sailing crews to make personal gains, whatever level they are competing at. Even if you are not racing very often and just want to be able to move around the boat a bit better, a structured training programme can work wonders. 

Here, Pinnacle Performance Coach Jamie Gabbidon gives us 5  top tips on how to make the most of your time in the gym to make sure you perform at your best on the water this year…

Evaluate yourself (and be honest)

Whether it be for sailing, another sport or general health and fitness, the programme needs to have an objective and clear purpose if you are to see a significant improvement. Before our clients commence a training programme they will go through a comprehensive assessment which covers;

–       Posture, flexibility and mobility screening

–       Strength and endurance Testing

–       Injury history

–       Exercise history

–       Nutrition and Lifestyle Overview

Without covering these areas, we know that the likelihood of successful training phase will be reduced. It is important to know what an athlete needs for their sport, but more importantly, as an individual.

After a complete assessment, you can create a solid foundation in the initial 1-2 months of training. Known as General Physical Preparation, the objective of this phase is to target muscular imbalances, improve general conditioning through a progressively higher volume of work though with a lower intensity of effort. The most common areas that we emphasise with our sailors are the shoulders, elbows, lower back and knees.

Prioritise your weaknesses, without disregarding your strengths

Once you have a clearer picture of what is required, your training should emphasise the areas that are going to give you the most return in the long run.

  • – Strength training over conditioning or vice versa, depending on whether you need to produce more power or maintain your power output for longer on the boat
  • – Flexibility and mobility to reduce injury risk and move quicker across the deck
  • – Strengthening your lower body if its weak in comparison to your upper body. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and your lower body is your foundation
  • – Developing a specific area of your body that is perceived as weak or vulnerable to injury (lower back, knees, shoulders, core stability etc)

There are many ways in which you can prioritise one of these target areas;

  • – Place it at the start of the session or week when you are fresh and less likely to skip doing it
  • – Increase the frequency in which you train weaker body parts. This is commonly the lower body, various areas of the back and shoulder stabilisers.
  • – Complete full body training sessions for a set period. This is a great way to enhance your overall conditioning, body composition and help your body function better as a unit rather than in isolation. This effectively covers the above 2 points.

All our sailors follow a structured progressive warm up that enhances mobility, flexibility and prehabilitation work to improve the quality of their sessions and recover better between sessions and competition.

An overview of our warm up for clients look like this;

  • – Pulse raiser – any form of cardiovascular activity for 3 -5 min
  • – Soft tissue work – foam rolling and lacrosse ball work targeting the quads, IT Band, upper and lower back, glutes and traps
  • – Dynamic stretching – targeting hamstrings, lower back, groin, hips and shoulders
  • – Banded Activation Work – targeting the glutes and shoulders

Prioritise pull over push movements

This is crucial for sailors, particularly if your Press (e.g Bench Press or Shoulder Press) is better than your pull (Bench Row or Pull Up). Becoming stronger with pulling movements can lead to enhanced scapular stability which is essential to long term shoulder health.

A strong upper, middle (and lower) back can enhance your static and dynamic posture, improve your power and endurance during grinding and winching and ultimately reduce the risk of injury. In my opinion a ratio of 2:1 (even 3:1) in favour of pull movements to push is highly beneficial to many.

Don’t worry about the performance of your pressing movements as you will not lose strength, there is a strong chance you will see an improvement because of the new-found stability and strength in your shoulders. 

Here is a sample of the most common movements that we utilise in our programmes.

  • – Bench row
  • – Pull Ups
  • – Strap / TRX Row
  • – Pull Downs and Seated Rows
  • – Dumbbell Rows 
  • – Row to Neck (A great movement for improving posture and strengthening the upper back and rear shoulder)
  • – Lower Trap Raises (a very commonly weak muscle that is important for shoulder stability)

With these movements we will use an array of different implements, grips, angles, rep ranges and tempos to ensure our athletes are as robust as possible for competition time, reduce overuse injuries and boredom. During the early stages of training, sailors will perform more unilateral (single-arm or single leg) movements to help restore / develop balance on each side of the body. We are generally all stronger on one side but the least we can do is minimise discrepancies and stay on top of it.

Deadlifts have not been included in this selection because they are a LOWER BODY movement. 

In summary, you can never have a back that is too strong!

Focus on quality rather than quantity

How often you train comes down to a variety of factors, but the key ones are your ability to recover from training sessions and the progress you make on your programme. Excluding warming up, cooling down and setting up exercises, 45 to 60 min is a sufficient time to complete a quality training session. If your workouts are taking significantly longer, it is important to make sure you are sticking to your rest periods (less chat, more work) and aim to avoid unnecessary exercises in your session.

The key point with any programme is that the objective of your gym is to ultimately be fitter and stronger for sailing! You’re not a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you are simply using various principles and methods that will enable you to perform better at your sport.

If you are training hard but not making progress, you may be training too often, too hard to often, or performing exercises without the optimal technique. In this instance have a skilled coach assess your technique, there is no shame in dropping your weights to improve your technique.

Think never quantity (load) over quality (technique).

Recover as hard as you train. 

One of the most undervalued principles of training is recovery. Your training programme is only as good as your ability to recover from it. Investing more time in this area will enhance your overall performance, reduce the risk of injury. There are many methods geared towards recovery, here are a few examples;

  • – Stretching – there are many books and online programmes available
  • – Yoga / Pilates and other methods
  • – Foam rolling, Lacrosse ball and other self- massage / soft tissue release methods
  • – Sports Massage / Physiotherapy / Osteopathy and Chiropractic 

The options you utilise will be dependent on time, finances and accessibility. The first 4 options can be performed pretty much anywhere and the soft tissue tools are very cheap options that can be used frequently. I can encourage athletes to see a therapist at least once every 4-6 weeks. 

Even if you are not presenting a problem, using these sessions as a form of MOT can help preventing the occurrence of injuries later down the line. Find at least 10 – 20 min in your day to go through some form of recovery method and this will serve you well down the line, potentially prolonging your career.

Remember that just because something feels better, it doesn’t mean that you should stop doing the exercises that were helping, keep on top of these to reduce the chance of them coming back to haunt you.

Find Out More

Pinnacle Performance has a fantastic new training facility based at Hamble Point Marina. They offer a variety of open gym, personal training and online training memberships. If you want more advice on how to get the most out of your training ahead of the sailing season or are interested in getting some coaching from the Pinnacle Performance team, get in touch via 02380 172520 or email