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If your flexibility is limited and sitting in a kayak is problematic, your training should prioritize mobility work.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mastering a sport – the formation of athletic flow – requires practice. The brain needs to adapt to specific motions, environments and skills inherent to the activity.

Water sports, unlike land-based sports, such as running or basketball, are relatively inaccessible. Practising is a challenge; most of us don't have lakes in our backyards. Thus, a tailored gym routine becomes that much more important. While no workout can completely replace participation time, there is no point wasting your gym workouts; mitigate the inaccessibility by adapting your training regimen to match the demands of the sport.

Base your gym routine around the answers to these key questions.

What is the dominant reflex profile required?

All sports require a combination of two primary reflex categories: righting and equilibrium. Righting reflexes are used to balance on fixed surfaces. Equilibrium reactions are used primarily on moving surfaces.

To decipher your sport's "reflex profile," parse out what proportion of these reflex categories are required, how quickly you have to react and in which position.

Most water sports require a dominance of equilibrium reflexes, but standing while reacting almost instantaneously to varying stimuli (e.g. surfing) requires a different reflex profile than the repetitive motion inherent to canoeing or kayaking. Choose exercises that match the balance, reactionary and positional demands of the sport.

If your sport requires standing on an unstable surface (e.g. stand-up paddleboarding), try squats on a balance board.

If your sport involves seated repetitive work on a moderately stable surface (e.g. kayaking or canoeing), try a balance V hold on a Bosu. Sit on the flat side of the Bosu. Lean back slightly, core engaged and shoulders back. Rotate your torso side to side.

For sports that require balancing on an unstable surface and transitioning from kneeling to standing (e.g. surfing), practise getting down and up off the floor and having to react to something. Try up/up/down/down: Start kneeling. Place your right and then left foot on the floor to end in a squat position. As you stand, a partner tosses you a medicine ball. Throw the ball back as you retrace your steps to kneel again. To progress the exercise, attempt it on the dome side of a Bosu.

Remember that balance exercises don't replace traditional strength exercises. All athletes need a strong overall base. Do multijoint functional exercise such as squats and lunges, and include sport-specific balance exercises.

What duration of work is needed?

Fashion your cardio workouts around the intensity and duration of your sport.

If you need speed over short distances – maybe to race family across the lake – prepare with high-intensity, short cardio intervals. Warm up. Then do five to 10 sets of one-minute "all out" followed by one minute of recovery.

If you plan to complete full-day canoe trips and need endurance, try long tempo intervals. Warm up. Alternate nine minutes of solid work with one minute of regular work for two to five sets.

Most sports require a mixture of endurance and short bursts of intensity; we may be out water skiing or paddleboarding for long periods but only manage short bursts of actual intense work – especially when learning. Prepare with combo intervals. Warm up. Do 30 minutes of regular work and every third minute go "all out."

What aspect of the sport offers opportunity for growth?

If you have canoed before but never over long distances, focus on building endurance. If your flexibility is limited and sitting in a kayak is problematic, prioritize mobility work. If you traditionally strain one particular muscle (e.g. your lower back), strengthen it.

Identify, then strengthen your weak links; work to decrease existing lacuna between skills and movement patterns needed and your current ability (or lack thereof).

For many of us, breathing is our weak link. Less-than-ideal breathing patterns will not only decrease your stamina during a workout, it will decrease your body's ability to recover and your overall energy. Practise ideal breathing – known as "three-dimensional diaphragmatic breathing" – in the position needed for your sport. Place one hand on your stomach and wrap the other around the side of your waist/lower back. Breathe in to expand the air equally into your two hands. Your midsection should expand in three directions. Your chest should not rise, or if it does, it should rise last.

To prep for canoeing or kayaking, practise breathing in a seated or V-hold position. Start seated and lean back 10 degrees, chest out. To prep for standing sports, try co-ordinating your breath with motions such as squats and lunges – eventually on an unstable surface.

Two final thoughts: First, once you are regularly doing the sport, incorporate exercises that counterbalance any strain the sport puts on the body. For example, if your sport requires you to sit, stretch your hip flexors. Finally, be sun safe and stay hydrated.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness

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