“Boat speed makes you look like a tactical genius”.
A common saying around boat parks, this holds true for all levels of Laser sailing. Even at the pinnacles of Olympic sailing, the top contenders are consistently at the front because they’re that much faster than everyone else.
But how are they so much faster? One of the keys is being able to hike insanely hard. In a normal Laser race, the upwind legs are going to account for at least 60% of the time spent racing. Assuming you’re the right weight for the rig, you will be full hiking in any wind above ~8 knots. That’s the vast majority of conditions you’ll race in. Add in reaching legs, and a huge amount of your racing time is going to be spent hiking.
Is it any coincidence that Anne Marie Rindom is one of the best sailors in the world?
This makes it the single most important thing you should be training, and the area which is going to have the biggest impact on your results. Many sailors neglect hiking training because it sucks. They think that spending time on the water will make up for not using a hiking bench.
This guide isn’t going to give you a magic bullet which will suddenly make hiking bench training a breeze. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to require discipline, but if you want to quickly rise to the top of your fleet, this is one of the best ways to do it.
Why Can’t I just Hike on the Water?
In a sentence, it’s easy to cheat, and it’s not controllable. Because of the nature of sailing the boat, you will often take ‘mini breaks’ at random times - lulls, tacking, waves etc. Additionally, the requirements of sailing also introduce a cardiovascular component to hiking. This often makes the hiking seem harder than your hiking muscles are actually working.
By using a hiking bench, you are able to accurately target the hiking muscles, and do so with a measurable load. One of the most important factors in improving anything is progressive overload. This is the concept of increasing the load your body faces over time, with the aim of consistently challenging it in order for your body to make the adaptations necessary to become stronger. This is how we become fitter over time.
A visual representation of progressive overload.
When hiking on the water, it’s extremely difficult to measure exactly how hard you were hiking, and how long for.
Building a Hiking Bench
There are multiple ways you can tackle this, but I went down the route of building my own. There are a number of designs you can use on the internet like the Improper Course Hiking Bench or the Deadrock Laser Hiking Bench, but I basically just measured the Laser cockpit, and tried to recreate that using wood I bought from the hardware store.
If you’re looking for a video on to help you build your own hiking bench - I would recommend this one here.
You can also buy a hiking bench like this Windesign Hiking Bench one, which I’ve used in the past when travelling.
Your hiking bench doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to roughly match the dimensions of a Laser cockpit, have a hiking strap which can ideally be set to a length you would use on your boat, and be convenient enough to use often.
Training on the Hiking Bench
So you’ve got your hiking bench, and now you’re wondering how to actually use it. Whenever I would train on the hiking bench, I always used hiking pads and boots, that way you can accurately simulate sailing on the water. This will also allow you to hike longer without your performance being hindered by non-muscular pain.
The other crucial thing is to make sure you’re always hiking with good form.
That means shoulders back, glutes squeezed, core tight, your knees pushing down in to the hiking bench, and your toes pointed. This is probably the most important point I can make. If you’re not using good technique, you might as well not be on the hiking bench at all.
Hiking Bench Routines
Improving your hiking ability can be broadly separated in to two goals.
- Increasing the maximum amount of force you can put in to the boat. Consider this to be synonymous with your hiking ‘strength’.
- Lengthening the amount of time you can hold a fully extended hiking position. This essentially equates to endurance.
A well balanced program will contain exercises to target both aspects, but in general, I would suggest leaning towards targeting strength in the off and pre-season, and shifting towards endurance as you get closer to your peak event.
This is to do with the concept of specificity. As you get closer to your ‘peak’, your training wants to be more closely tied to the demands of your target event. In general, the endurance exercises will be performed unweighted, and you are aiming to build up the strength exercises to be able to perform them with good form, whilst holding additional weight.
- 5-4-3-2-1 that’s 5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute of hiking with 1 minute rest in between. You’re trying to do these in your best possible technique you can hold for the entire interval.
- 10 x 2 minutes with 1 minute rest. This will be around 80% of your maximum
- 10 x 1 minute with 1 minute rest. This will be performed at roughly 90% of your best hiking ability
- Weighted hiking extensions. This is where you hiking in a fully extended position, and raise additional weight above and behind your head - reaching ‘overhead’. Weight should be added to this exercise very, very gradually as it will strain your lower abs like no other, and if your abs are too weak, your lower back will be on the line. Start with a small water bottle. 10 slow reps for 3 sets will be a killer.
"What we fear doing the most is usually what we most need to do"
Finally, the most important thing when that I found when it comes to improving your hiking is consistency. It’s very easy to do a windy week of sailing, and think that you don’t need to use the hiking bench. This is going to kill your progress, and make it easy for you to give up on using it. Not only will consistency help improve your hiking, it will also decrease your chance of injury, as I talked about in my article on Ankle Pain for Laser Sailors. Without consistency, you won’t be able to achieve the progressive overload we discussed earlier.
I would always aim to use the hiking bench 3 times per week, and I would alternate which of these 4 routines I would do each day. If it was a particularly light week on the water, I would often do even more hiking bench to compensate. The aim is that you should consistently (and slowly) add weight/time/difficulty to your workouts.
The Fast Track to the Top
If I had the opportunity to go back in time and talk to 15 year old me about how to get better in the Laser, this is the article I would give him. Improving your hiking fitness is one of the most straightforward ways to sail faster upwind, and get better results. A hiking bench is one of the most cost and time effective training techniques there is. Use it consistently, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier sailing on the water feels.