Muscles were never really considered too vital in sailing until around 2000. There were of course people who believed that Laser sailors and windsurfers needed to be fit, but generally this was not carried over to other classes. Now, we see fit sailors winning, and less fit sailors rarely doing so. There is a systematic approach that can be taken to physical training, and this begins with the core.
Why do we need to develop muscles for sailing? Starting with hiking boats, an average “fit” person would be pretty spent after around 5-10 minutes of hiking. This isn’t enough for a high wind beat – we need to take the focus off burning thighs and abs, so we can focus on sailing and tactics! For trapeze boats, the agility and strength required to get on and off the wire, combined with the ability to pull ropes hard, especially the hoist, leads to fitness gaining points. Additionally, sailing is a multi-day, multi race event – even if physical demands were moderate (which they often aren’t), fitness is essential to enable us to carry concentration and form through the regatta.
Core muscles are the muscle groups that support our torso and spine, they are the foundation that is responsible for our posture and support our peripheral muscles and movements. We can look at the core muscles as the foundations of a building, with small weak foundations we can maybe build a small house, but if we want to build a skyscraper we need deep thick and strong foundations to support the heavy load of the skyscraper.
Professional sport is very similar to that, we put our body under heavy loads and a lot of pressure, so we need very strong foundations.
Since we cannot really make our bones thicker and stronger (well actually with training they do get somewhat stronger) we need to find a different way to strengthen our skeleton, the main aspect is to keep the spine straight as well as keeping the pelvic area balanced, this is achieved by training our abdominals, lower back, and glutes (also referred to as core muscles).
We have all seen strong people training in the gym with thick biceps and chest who have experienced back issues and can barely walk; a very common reason for that is weak core muscles, when our core is weak our body tends to compensate for the weak muscles by using other muscle groups. This creates a big load and a lot of stress on the muscles used for compensation, as well as heavy load on different areas of the spine and pelvic bones. In other words, it distorts our foundations.
The tension on the muscles may create inflammations (if we are lucky) or a tear in some parts (if we are less lucky), both injuries although may not effect regular people from sitting in the office or talking on the phone will definitely prevent an athlete from completing a physical task necessary for his or hers sports and will definitely reduce their ability to perform at maximum.
Bone tension is the worst aspect of weak core, the compensation may cause the spine to bend and create heavy load on a certain cartridge, over time that cartridge might move or burst, and pressure the spinal cord which in turn creates extreme pain (back pain, knee pain etc.)
The main role of our core muscles is to serve as spinal stabilizer and prevent it from distorting; if a skyscrapers foundation start distorting it will collapse, the same as our body.
On top of the core exercises, such as: sit ups, plank, back extension, good morning, Russian twist (the list goes on), there are various activities and sports that are used to strengthen core muscles. Sports that are focussed around core muscles include many martial arts, yoga, SUP (stand up paddle board), balance ball and many more.
Having a strong core will allow athletes to push the peripheral muscles to the limit, which in turn means that they will be able to lift heavier weights or repeat an action over a longer duration of time without jeopardizing their spinal stability, hence reducing their chances of an injury.
There are no certainties that no injuries will occur as there are many other causal factors that relate to injuries.
At Toplevel Sailing fitness sessions we spend most of the time of the initial stages of a sailors career strengthening the sailor’s core muscles to allow the buildup of the correct foundations and to allow heavier loads on peripheral muscles later on. At any stage of an athletes career we spend a considerable amount of time maintaining core strength and endurance to reduce our sailor’s chances of injuries and allow them to push harder during training and racing.