As easy as it is to rant about the importance of technique in canoeing, there is still a distinct advantage for the paddlers who are able to efficiently move their own bodyweight. There are so many different ways of training your body to be efficient and powerful, but I personally do my strength and conditioning in the free weights gym in Stirling. I love these sessions, as they give me something to measure. Unlike canoeing, I can track my improvement down to an exact percentage every week. This is incredibly satisfying, as guided by an expert strength and conditioning coach, I can plan for weeks at a time the changes and improvement that my body needs to become stronger and more flexible. Now, I didn't always love the gym. Actually I used to hate it. It brought changes in my physique that were unfamiliar and strange - my shoulders bulked up, my stomach hardened into ridges and (worst of all!) my quads and hamstrings bunched into balls of muscle that looked enormous to me. Particularly for a girl in high school, it was very hard at first to deal with playful comments from classmates. I resented the thickening of my forearms, and at first being able to pull up more than my own bodyweight was something to be ashamed of. A lot of the girls I speak to in schools about nutrition and lifestyle are afraid of becoming big and 'mannish'. A lot of them genuinely shrank from the idea of accomplishing a sporting achievement in school. I tried to share with them the moment when my outlook on my own body changed, because it makes me sad to think of anyone being ashamed of the muscle they should be proud of having worked for. Walking into the gym for the first time in Stirling, excruciatingly aware of my muscular arms in my weightlifting top, I made my way to the back of the gym, where the Olympic weights are kept. Few people noticed me, and myself and my coach began to go through the exercises that became routine. Getting to the pull ups, I began to notice attention coming from the sides of the gym, mainly from the large group of football girls and mens tennis players who were warming up for their sessions. My face reddened, there could only be one reason - the veins were standing out on my shoulders, my forearms and lateral muscles were swollen with lactic acid - in short, not my most ladylike state. However the tension was destroyed, rendered completely non existent upon the female strength and conditioning coach bounding in, to begin her session training the tennis players. 'Who's this!' She exclaimed, looking me hard in the eyes and gesturing. 'Have you ever seen a stronger, more beautiful little girl?' Her words warmed me to the core, not just because of my female affiliation with flattery - but because she used those two words like they were the same - strong and beautiful. All the girls I train with, coach, spend time with or just know from brief association - its worth it. Being fit and strong IS beautiful. It's hard to accept your body changing seemingly against your will, but once you can see how healthy you are, and how much people envy your dedication and hard work, be proud and go harder. Trust me, you won't find any person on earth who will say no to a six pack!
One of my weaknesses as an athlete is living a little too closely to the idea that working harder gets improvement. Because slalom is a sport where physical fitness can only benefit you to a certain extent, this idea isn't as productive as I would like it to be. To improve substantially at canoeing, you still need to get in hundreds of hours on the water, but they have to be smart - you have to train clever.
On Friday my coach Neil Caffrey added a new dimension to my training for me to think about, using a short course of six gates. They were simple gates, for the technique I usually use, which involves a lot of fancy twisting and turning and ducking under the poles. The point emphasised by this session was the necessity of turning strokes. It turns out I need a lot fewer than I thought - in fact the whole session revolved around not using ANY turning strokes between the upstream gates at all. Actually stopping myself from using strokes like bow rudders or sweeps was incredibly frustrating, as by reflex I use them constantly. Neil said it reflects the level of confidence a paddler has in their ability, because by finding it hard to refrain from using turning strokes I was demonstrating my lack of knowledge. Knowledge of what would happen if I just kept paddling between the gates. Which of course is a lot quicker, when every stroke is directed at pushing your weight forwards, instead of changing direction.
The trick to this session is to plan ahead more than usual. It's very easy in slalom to decide to come wide on every single gate, giving yourself plenty of time to manoeuvre and focus on the next gate. Irritatingly enough this isn't the fastest method - by quite a margin. By practising this course hundreds of times during the session, myself and my teammates began to understand that you can plan down to a very fine degree where to come wide on the gates. Getting it consistently was the problem! It felt a lot like I would put down one good run, where I understood perfectly where my strokes were going to be, and was ready for them before the gates. Then the next run down I would flail and splash and hit every single pole on the course. Neil told me that because we race, we automatically want to become faster - so when I put in a good run, my next mental step was to try and speed up. This demonstrated to me the need for practising consistently, instead of just hammering out faster and faster runs.
Throughout my slalom career, more than a few people have told me that it is a 'thinking person's sport'. The more I progress with my training, the more I can agree. It feels like the more I learn, the wider my perception becomes, and I realise how much more there is to understand.
Amber Maslen is 25 years old, and been racing canoe slalom since she was 15. Currently on the Scottish Performance Squad.