The Speedstroke GYM – by Erik Borgnes


I recently made the switch from the older KayakPro Speedstroke Classic to KayakPro’s newer model called the Speedstroke GYM. The GYM is the second major kayak ergometer introduced by KayakPro, owned by ex-Olympian and World Champion Grayson Bourne. The older Speedstroke Classic was first offered in 2001 and the Speedstroke GYM in May 2009. Both models have seen minor updates over the years concerning the seat, fan housing, and pulleys on the Speedstroke Classic, and the support legs and the seat attachment on the Speedstroke GYM. And, as someone who has spent fully 1/4 to 1/3 of their total paddling “career” on a kayak ergometer, it might come as no surprise that I have a lot to say about what makes a good ergometer and why every paddler can benefit from using an ergometer like the GYM.

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Why own an indoor kayak ergometer?

There are several reasons why it might be a good idea for a ski paddler to own a kayak ergometer. The obvious reason, of course, is that if you should happen to live where I do, where the water freezes into ice 18” (45 cm) thick for 4 months each year, then there is no other choice if you want to paddle and train year round.

Another reason to own a kayak ergometer is for teaching and training paddlers. I strongly believe that technique learned or changed on an ergometer like either Speedstroke is both applicable and specific to on-water paddling. For example, on the GYM, you can slow the paddle stroke down, and dissect and consider each movement, timing of each movement independently and in sequence with the other movements, and each movement vector – all without the distractions of having to focus on balance in the boat, waves, other boats, feather angle, etc., and one can paddle in front of a coach, a mirror, or video camera. You can change something and focus on only that change without having any distractions. The only change that you make on water is then to balance the boat and to orient the feather and the hands into a precise catch and exit. Imprint the changes on the ergometer and apply them to the water.

According to Grayson Bourne, K1 sprinters are utilizing the KayakPro Gym’s E Monitor Pro 2 software to design the race plan that works best for their physiology. For example, a paddler can get a power curve for each and every stroke in a 500 or a 1000, find out exactly when power starts to drop, institute changes to their power output, and see improved times – all with a repeatable, accurate, ergometer test and without interference from weather or waves.

Other paddlers that do have access to water year-round will also benefit from owning a kayak ergometer like the GYM. If you are an 8-5 rat like me, then for several months each year, you might face darkness during your morning or evening training sessions. While paddling in the dark is an option, it is so much easier, safer, and convenient to sit on a kayak ergometer for 45 minutes or an hour. Furthermore, those with responsibilities around the home, such as young children and/or honey-do lists will find it much more time efficient to paddle on the ergometer as opposed to dealing with the transportation, loading, unloading, dressing, undressing aspects of taking your boat out on to the water.

Here is another common scenario: A paddler looks pretty good technique-wise on the water but is not able to generate as much boat speed as expected. Is it because of low power output or because of technique? Put that paddler on the Speedstroke GYM and measure their power output. The muscle sequencing on the GYM will be similar to on-water technique so it should be a good direct comparison. If they can turn a respectable time on the GYM, then we know that, while they look good, they are not able to translate that power efficiently into forward motion on the water. This then spotlights where their training focus needs to be. Conversely, if their power output on the GYM is not so great, then maybe they just need to focus more on strength and fitness.

Construction of the Speedstroke GYM

The GYM is well designed and constructed. The main frame is a combination of aluminum and steel. There are two main sections to the horizontal frame with one fitting inside the other one. The junction is secured with hard anodized aluminum plates and large diameter through hole allen bolts. The front and rear supports are sturdy and have a wide base of support. The seat shape is wider and flatter than most K1 seats and should fit most paddlers well. The seat is mounted on hard anodized aluminum plates which attach to the frame and allow for three different seat heights. The lowest of these is a close approximation to most racing surfskis on the market today. The footplate is full and angled forwards slightly giving a comfortable foot position. The pull bar is padded, adjustable, and very solid. Footplate position is micro-adjustable via a sturdy nylon belt. The fan/flywheel is housed in robust aluminum. I did not take this apart to examine the interior. The shaft is a 3-piece coated aluminum shaft with a middle male piece and bilateral female pieces that all screw together with standard barrel screw adjusters.

Design of the GYM

For a kayak ergometer to be effective as an on-water replacement, it needs to closely simulate on-water paddling, and this can only be accomplished if the ergometer is long. This places the fan/flywheel pulleys far in front of the paddler and causes the paddle ropes to be near horizontal throughout the stroke allowing for an immediate catch once the top arm transitions from moving forwards to moving down and back. On shorter kayak ergometers, the catch phase of the stroke is seriously compromised if the paddler uses a normal high hand technique because the top arm must drop down and have already moved backwards before the ropes start spinning the pulleys and the resistance wheel.

The Speedstroke GYM is 114” long ( about 10 inches longer than the Speedstroke Classic). The space required is somewhat dependent on the size of the paddler, but it will need about 64” of width and about 72” of ceiling height. It weighs about 50 lbs. The Speedstroke GYM doesn’t fold or stuff into a closet, but it shouldn’t take up too much floor space if it is pushed against a wall while not in use.

The Speedstroke GYM is the first kayak ergometer that has a resistance level / drag which is measurable. What I mean by this is that it is possible to measure how much resistance is opposing the spinning fan/flywheel. The amount of resistance is then fed into the computer automatically, and that, along with the programmable paddler weight, determines the speed and distance that is subsequently displayed on the monitor/computer. Here is how it works: On the fan/flywheel is a lever that toggles from 0 to 9 and this lever can be set at overlapping positions in between. Zero gives the least resistance and 9 gives the most resistance. The paddler first selects whichever level that he or she wants. Step two involves paddling at a moderate pace for about 5 seconds to get the fan/flywheel to reach a speed of over 700 revolutions per minute. This number is displayed on the computer monitor in the pace / 500 m box. Once a speed of over 700 is displayed, the paddler stops paddling and lets the fan/flywheel coast to a stop. During that “coast,” sensors monitor the rate of fan/flywheel deceleration at up to 100 times per second. The amount of resistance detected is immediately displayed in the stroke rate box as a number. At a resistance level of 9, I see 83 or 84 displayed, and at a resistance level of 0, I see about 45. Why measure the amount of resistance? Since the fan/flywheel pushes air, and since air pressure changes with both altitude and temperature, one would need to be able to measure the fan/flywheel resistance in order to get times for distances that are accurate across time and space. This then allows for an true comparison of one paddler’s time in one locale to his or her own time on another day, and also to that of another paddler who also uses a Speedstroke GYM anyplace in the world. Without this ability to measure the resistance, it would also not be possible to have fair match racing or online racing. This type of fan/flywheel technology with the decelerometer sensors is also being used by the folks at Concept rowers, so it should be reliable.

So what is it like to use? What does it feel like? How hard is it, really?

To use the GYM, you need to push the on/off button on the computer monitor; input a distance; input your weight (you only need to input these two if either have changed from the last session); do the “700 spin down” to calibrate the computer monitor if you want an accurate speed reading; push display; and then push begin. That whole process takes about 5 seconds if you do not calibrate the computer monitor, and about 15 seconds if you do.

Paddler position is about right. Both surfski paddlers and higher seat K1 paddlers will be able to simulate their on-water paddling positions pretty closely.

The paddle shaft is stout and stiff and is pretty good, and most paddlers will be perfectly happy with it. It is slightly weighted towards its center as opposed to on the ends like a real paddle. Its adjustability is a great feature, and allows new users to find a length optimal for them. But, to be hyper-critical, the shaft just doesn’t feel as nice on the bare hands as carbon does and I think that KayakPro might consider offering a 1 piece carbon shaft as an add-on option that the user could decide to purchase once they settle on a favorite length.

The Speedstroke GYM’s frame houses a stretched out bungee cord that runs from the fan/flywheel pulleys to the rear support legs, to the front support legs, to the mid frame underneath the computer monitor, back to the front support legs, back to the rear support legs, and then to the rope pulleys on the other side of the fan/flywheel. After the initial setup and a few sessions, it felt to me like the paddle was under too much tension being pulled towards the fan/flywheel. While this tension keeps the system “tight” and responsive, I didn’t care too much for the feel, so I lengthened the rope that fixes the mid-frame pulley in position to get some more slack in the system. Now, many sessions later, I’m happy with the new tension, and the responsiveness of the catch and the rest of the stroke seems unchanged. I subsequently discussed this issue with Grayson Bourne, and he made the decision to increase the length of this rope on newer Speedstroke Gyms.

Paddling with the lever at setting “9”, feels pretty similar to paddling a K1 or ski with a bungee around the hull. Paddling at setting “0” feels about like you’re paddling on a double’s wake at moderate speed.

How hard is it? Well, let me just tell you about an early experience of mine: The day after I put the GYM together, I tried level 9 with a 68″ (too long!) shaft, and attempted some intervals to see what ol’ “Doc Hudson” could do. The first time trial attempt was 5 km which should have taken about 22 minutes. I made it about 12 minutes into it when I absolutely exploded. If you had made a cartoon out of that attempt, you would have drawn a mushroom cloud wafting up the stairs from where I was in the basement. Ok, Fail #1. A bit tough on the ego, but I’d be ok. I next tried a 1500 meter time trial. Same settings. I figured that this one would be easier, after all, how hard can it be to paddle hard for 6 minutes? But, just to be safe, I went upstairs and told my wife that if she heard a “thud” sound, you know, like a body flopping onto a concrete floor, then she might come check on me – at least during the next commercial. I think that I got to about minute 4 before I almost fell off the machine from hypoxia. Mushroom cloud #2. Well now. Zero for two. That leaves me with the 500 meter event. I can hold my breath for two minutes, I mean . . . come on. Same settings . . . I set off on a 1 min 40 pace for the first minute – and mushroom cloud #3 floated up at about 1 min 30 seconds. Such was my introduction to the Speedstroke GYM. Since those three “stress tests”, I have settled on a shorter shaft length of 63” and a resistance level for time trials of about 7, and am going pretty well.

In the future, I think that some sort of instability built into the seat might be nice to have even if the instability of the seat does not truly mimic the feel of a boat on the water. KayakPro might think to offer this at some point as an add-on option to allow Speedstroke GYM users to keep activating their core proprioceptors and for some paddlers to work on improving their balance skills in the off season. I’ll note that during the six years that I used the Speedstroke Classic with a fixed stable seat, I never developed any bad habits on the ergometer that detracted from my on-water paddling. Also, the last time I checked, there were no kayak ergometers currently on the market that offer an unstable seat as standard.

Computer Monitor

When I first looked at the computer monitor, I have to admit that my heart sank a bit – the buttons weren’t labeled in abbreviations familiar to me. But, after reading the directions (imagine that . . .) I have found the computer monitor very simple to understand and use.

The standard computer on the Speedstroke GYM displays five number sets simultaneously. On the top line is “meters to go”. This, the paddler sets just before beginning paddling. As a ski paddler, this number is opposite of what we usually view – we usually watch distance already paddled on the gps. However, I find distance to go and distance paddled secondary information as I usually pace off of elapsed time and speed/pace.

The second row gives either “pace per 500 meters” / kcal burned / or watts, and the paddler can decide which one to view before each session. I have thus far only viewed “pace per 500 meters” as I’m not interested in kcal and the watts number is too far removed from pace/speed for me to find valuable right now. So what’s my 500 meter pace at various intensities? Before using the GYM, I had no freaking idea, and I initially found this number difficult to work with. However, after having performed several time trials from 500 meters to 10 km at maximal or near maximal effort, I now know precisely what my 500 meter pace is. Like most ski paddlers, I use mph / kph on the gps, but at this point on the ergometer, I don’t mind using “pace per 500 meters” to follow my current speed.

The third row shows elapsed time. The time begins once the fan is set into motion above a minimum speed (to allow you to get into the “ready” position) and then runs continuously.

The lower left display shows the stroke rate, and the lower right display shows the current heart rate. Stroke rate? While I didn’t use stroke rate previously, and while I could do without knowing it, I have found it useful. On water, I approach a stroke rate of about 88-90 during a 2 minute or 4 minute interval, and I stay at about 74-80 at marathon race pace. On the Speedstroke GYM, I am using the same stroke rate which, I guess, is neither here nor there, although I have to think that it’s probably a good thing. During my high effort long time trials, I find viewing stroke rate quite helpful as stroke rate changes usually precede a heart rate change, i.e. if my stroke rate climbs from 82 to 86 then I know that if I don’t drop back down to 82, my heart rate will increase. I am also able to see when increases in stroke rate and subsequently heart rate do not result in an increase in speed and thus become wasted energy.

Heart rate is obviously very helpful to know sometimes in training. Having the number on the same easy to read display as the other data is great as I can respond to changes almost immediately. On my old Speedstroke Classic, which did not have the heart rate on the display, I ran into difficulties with the Polar HRM’s ability to reach from the chest transmitter all the way beyond my feet to the display area. My initial solution was to fasten the HRM receiver to a bent coat hanger that projected towards me from the foot pull bar. After that setup proved to be unreliable, I resorted to duct taping the HRM receiver to my right thigh. While that worked, it wasn’t optimal to be continually looking up and down at the monitor and the HRM receiver. On the Speedstroke Gym, a heart rate receiver is cleverly hidden underneath the seat so transmitter “reach” is not an issue. While KayakPro sells heart rate transmitters to use, many low tech, non-coded transmitters also work with the Speedstroke Gym.

Software

The Gym’s optional software for training and racing is also extremely useful for paddlers of all skill levels. Already in use is a software product named i-race Express that allows multiple Speedstroke GYMs in the same room to connect and race against one another on a laned regatta type course with the ability to see the race animated on a screen. This software was used at the recent British and French indoor kayak championships and allowed both athletes and spectators to view the virtual races on computer screens.

In the works are updated versions of the i-race Express software as well as the Virtua-race software that allow for online racing and online group training sessions. The Virtua-race gives the user a first or third person view, of a 3D course to paddle through. For both of these software products, the Speedstroke GYM owner would need to buy the software product, download it onto his or her pc, position that pc in front of the GYM, then plug the GYM into the pc with the built in cord that comes attached to the GYM. User options for the i-race Express and the Virtua-race include racing head to head with up to 31 other boats online, racing other computer controlled boats that have a programmable pace, or simply time-trialing solo on a course that gives you a picture to look at as well as the basic numeric data.

Another software product available called E Monitor Pro 2 displays and records the following parameters: Distance, Stroke number, Stroke rate, Stroke length, Heart rate, Speed, Watts, Ave Watts, Drag, and Graphic Power curves. According to the KayakPro.com website, “It is possible also to record, compare and overlay past performances of your own and of other Athletes and their previous performances- this can be critical in developing race plans and race strategies and to compare yourself with other athletes.” I can see how having information on left side vs. right side power and stroke length would be valuable to know and near impossible to evaluate otherwise. It would also be valuable to be able to track power output at selected heart rates or blood lactate levels over time. Also, if you change boats, change paddle type or paddle length, vary training, etc. and your on-water results become either better or worse, how would you know if it is related to equipment or not? What if you become slower relative to your training partners(s) – did you get slower or did they get faster? With the Speedstroke GYM and this software, an individual or a coach could accurately monitor fitness and take that out of the equation.

Comparison to the KayakPro Speedstroke Classic

I was an early adopter of the KayakPro Speedstroke Classic in 2001 and have used it consistently since then. It still works perfectly well, too. With my estimated 800-1000 hours on it, all I have replaced is the ropes, at a cost of 30-40 USD, two times. Over the years, I pimped it out with some add-ons. Specifically, I made a cover for the fan/flywheel casing that lowers resistance by decreasing the amount of air that can enter the fan casing. I used this when doing overspeed training and during warm downs. Next, I poked a hole through a tennis ball, strung that on a bungee, and rigged it such that it would become a frictional resistance against the flywheel. I also lengthened the rope about 2 feet more than standard. I converted the small K1 style footplate to a full one. Lastly, I added an unstable seat that that was mounted on a hinge.

The Speedstroke Classic is a great machine. However, the Speedstroke GYM is a huge leap forwards. Specifically, while the catch on the Speedstroke Classic is very good and has only minimal rope shuttering / vibration, the catch with the Gym is more immediate and “smooth as butter”. Also, the older SpeedStroke Classic isn’t built as solidly (though it certainly seemed solid before I tried the GYM), it doesn’t have an adjustable height seat, its fan/flywheel is not easily adjustable for resistance, and with the computer monitor and fan/flywheel not able to be calibrated, comparison of times, accurately measuring fitness, and online racing is not possible.

Pluses

1. The Speedstroke GYM is exceptionally robust. I think that this GYM will outlast me. The only question will be which one of my children will inherit it.

2. The Gym provides excellent simulation of the kayak stroke technique. You will develop and hone proper technique on this ergometer.

3. The rope pulley system is exceptionally smooth. The catch is immediate and solid, just like a kayak or surfski on the water..

4 Computer – Having so much data on a compact display is great. I also like that because of the ability to calibrate the computer monitor, I can take technique and balance and weather out of the equation and accurately measure how much power I can produce today, mid season, next year, and next decade.

5 Software – The possibility of online training and racing is a Godsend to those of us who are not able to train routinely with a club during daylight hours. Also, because there are three software products already available for the GYM, because KayakPro has developed relationships with the British Canoe Union, the French Canoe Kayak Association, The Canadian Canoe Association, the Hungarian Canoe Federation, and will supply the ergometers for the USA indoor paddling championships, they have momentum and international recognition. The Speedstroke GYM is also used by many of the world’s best ICF paddlers, so some day it might be possible for me to race Tim Brabants or Eirik Veraas Larsen online for a virtual beer. . . and make them pay up in Dubai . . .

Minuses

1. Cost. While the cost seems rather high for what might be thought of as off- season supplementary training equipment, the price is competitive with other proper kayak ergometers on the market. The price is also less than that of a new racing ski here in the USA and the Speedstroke GYM should last indefinitely whereas many of us change skis every couple of years. From my past experience with Kayak ergometers, you sort of get what you pay for. Also, it usually ends up being less expensive to buy one top of the line machine initially, than to buy an inexpensive machine first, followed soon afterwards by another like the Speedstroke GYM.

Conclusion

Over the past decade, I have owned and/or tried four other kayak ergometers, and the Speedstroke GYM is hands-down the best one as a stand alone unit. Add in the software and the online racing capability, racing scoreboards, and it really becomes a kayak ergometer different from any other with its own developing community. This means that potential ergometer buyers will need to seriously consider whether or not they want to participate in these before they purchase a different brand of kayak ergometer.

Who should own one? Coaches, clubs, and just about anyone who trains seriously and isn’t able to get on the water as often as they would like to because of weather or commitments from work or family. ~Erik

[Editor: Our thanks to our friends over at www.surfski.info for permission to publish Erik's review.]

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