Get Fit for Sailing in the Winter Season


By Tom Burden, Last updated: 4/10/2018

Whatever type of boat you sail, whatever your age and level of fitness, all sailors can benefit from an improvement in strength, agility and endurance.

tack1 tack2 gybe Aero Laser

Sailing a high-performance dinghy like a Laser or RS Aero takes a lot of fitness.

From the pro sailor who is racing on a maxi boat in the Transpac Race, to a 15-year-old competing in high school sailing on a CFJ or a seventy-something daysailing an Islander 36, there is a boat that’s right for just about everyone. Getting the most out of your boat—maximizing the fun and safety—requires that we be fit to sail, fit enough so that we can handle the routine actions we perform on our boat.

Of course, one of the best ways to achieve this level of sailing fitness is by actually sailing. Learn to hike out straighter and longer by hiking; grind that winch, jump that spinnaker halyard, carry that 155 genoa up to the foredeck. But for those of us who live in someplace beside Southern California or Florida, this may not be possible in winter months. It’s for you that this Advisor was written.

Getting off the couch

Your first challenge in getting fit for sailing is the motivational one. Because so many great resources are out there on the Internet, I won’t duplicate these motivational articles. Since you’re reading this, you’re already are at least thinking about getting fit. You probably know all about how much better you’ll feel, and all of the substantial health and longevity benefits of fitness. So we’ll start from the agreement that we’re motivated, at least right now.

Define your goals

What type of sailing do you do?

Do you sail a small dinghy, and need to work on flexibility and endurance? A Laser, for example, requires fluid motion, long periods of straight-leg hiking, constant forward, aft, in and out body movements, many fast trimming motions with the upper body, but not a great deal of raw muscle power.

The competitive weight range is pretty narrow too, so most Laser, Radial or 4.7 sailors are aware of this, and where they fall in the range. Often, youth sailors need to increase their weight, and the over-35 Masters competitors need to shed those extra pounds to remain in the 165 to 185 pound sweet spot.

Do you sail a sportboat? Often in a boat like a Melges 24, J70 or Ultimate 20, there are highly-loaded lines like the mainsheet and sheets for the asymmetric spinnaker. These may have only a ratchet block—no winch—to assist in trimming, so a bit of raw power is required. You also stand up and sit down many times during a day of racing, every time you tack or gybe. There’s also a lot of work in setting up a sportboat, like raising a big, heavy mast, cranking a retractable keel up or down, or climbing into your trailered boat. So the fitness requirements are little different than in a small dinghy.

Are you a keelboat sailor? Then you’ll be grinding winches and operating big travelers, roller furlers and reefing systems, anchor windlasses, etc. These may (or may not) work smoothly or be set up in an ergonomically friendly configuration. Especially for older keelboat sailors, operating these highly-loaded devices presents the risk of injury.

As a sailor who competes in all three of these varieties of boats, I’ve worked sporadically on conditioning over the years. Recently, age, some health problems and a sedentary office job have caught up with me, so I decided to really get serious about fitness. It was “use it or lose it” time!

Find a partner

Working out alone can be hard, and many New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned when we make those excuses to skip a workout. That’s why I think finding a partner—your significant other, friend or member of your boat’s crew—makes sticking with your program so much easier. My partner decided to do a triathlon at about the same time I decided to enter the 2016 Singlehanded Transpac in my Cal 40, so we headed for the gym together. I didn’t want to let her down, so I tried hard to not miss a workout.

Get help

How much of a fitness expert are you?

If you’re like me, you may have read a few books, like Michael Blackburn’s excellent "Sailing Fitness and Training," but that doesn’t make us experts. After years of faking it, I finally got smart and visited a personal trainer. What a breakthrough! I told her what I wanted to do, she asked me some questions about my general fitness level, my medical status, and the fitness needs specific to sailing.

I told her my goals: that I wanted to stay strong during a two-week solo race to Hawaii and not wear down. That I wanted to make sail changes during the race based on making the boat go fast, without thinking, “I’m so tired!” That I needed to lift heavy sails up the companionway. That I wanted to compete as equally as possible against younger sailors, and to push the boat hard.

Debby Ginner, my trainer, first told me that pushups (about my least favorite exercise) are about the best core workout you can do. She then showed me a selection of exercises to strengthen my core muscle groups. I joined an excellent local fitness club, with a weight room, pool, sauna and jacuzzi. Becoming a member of a gym was another new experiment, after years of working out in my living room. Another breakthrough!

I’ve been discussing strength training and core conditioning, but all the experts also advise you to work on cardiovascular fitness. That includes exercises to increase your heart rate, such as walking, climbing stairs, riding a bike or running.

Make it fun

There's an old saying that “80 percent of success is showing up.” This is especially true for getting into shape. It’s not very important whether you do a tough CrossFit-style workout every day (or ever).

It is not really a big deal what kind of a workout you do, just as long as you get out there and do your workout every day—just show up.