Paddles and Packs: The Best “Anti-Cardio” for Athletes


The following was written by John Odden, owner and Head Coach of Empowered Strength

The Story

I have always had a question in my mind since my early college days:

“Why is there such an obsession with running and other cardio nightmares like the stair-stepper, ellipticals, and the dread-mill?”

People mindlessly slog away on these machines for hours on end, in an attempt to burn fat and get “toned,” all while watching TV trying to deal with the boredom and hoping not to get injured. Good riddance.

Back in school, our exercise science curriculum was very aerobic based. Talk of strength training, mobility and other training tools were sparse. It was all about cardiac output, VO2 max, heart rate, yada yada, etc. While these areas are important to learn as part of a foundation of exercise science, personally, I found these modes of exercise to be incredibly boring and unfulfilling. On top of that, I never saw any losses in body fat, preservation of lean muscle mass was desperately lacking, and my entire body just seemed to revolt against the concept of running. To say these methods did not agree with me is an understatement.

So, to achieve a conditioning effect without feeling broken down, less masculine, and generally bored to death, I began searching for the best tools to restore my body after several significant injuries in my early twenties. What I originally found was simply walking for about an hour was very effective for my body composition, stress reduction, and alleviation of my low back pain. During this time, I was also looking to reform my body to a leaner 200lb athlete, while still competing in the Scottish Highland Games. The lightweight class was what I had my aspirations set on after years of abusing my body as a pseudo-heavyweight athlete ranging from 235-255lbs. This was simply too heavy for my frame and my body’s issues reflected that fact. A significant change was needed.

Walking worked amazingly well to achieve this result. During this time, I was also re-discovering my groove as an athlete, so I knew there had to be some benefits to increasing my walking intensity.

But, how could I achieve this without, you know, running?

Thus, after talking to some friends in the industry and scouring the interweb, I discovered an activity called rucking. Rucking is just walking, but with the addition of a little weight, usually in a backpack of sorts. The surprising thing about rucking, is that one really does not need to add insane amounts of weight for it be effective. Just about a tenth of one’s own bodyweight is all that is necessary. It may not seem like much at first, but believe me, that weight begins to stack up after a few thousand steps!

Rucking truly was, and still is, a game changer. Its effects were near-instantaneous. I felt strong. I felt fulfilled. I felt restored. Plus, just 30 minutes or so a few times a week was all that I needed. No longer was beating myself up for hours on a hamster wheel even an option that crossed my mind.

After rucking, I knew I was onto something, especially once I moved to Bend, OR.

As soon as I got here, I knew I had to try stand up paddle boarding.

Besides, who doesn’t love being on the water in the Summer? Plus, I saw that Bend was rated as one of the best places in the country for paddling.

Movement guru and physical therapist Gray Cook himself even mentions paddle boarding as a high value “self-limiting” exercise in his book “Movement”. So, after renting a few times, I bucked up and bought a top of the line local board at Stand on Liquid.

Now, while stand up paddle boarding isn’t exactly cheap, or that convenient, the value is instantly recognizable. It’s appropriately challenging, it doesn’t negatively affect one’s strength and muscle mass, and research has shown that the power of the Great Outdoors also has an instant, lasting therapeutic effect and added training benefit. But, that may be the subject for another article.

Initially, I found paddling on the river quite difficult at first, but after some quick coaching a few YouTube lesions, I had the basics down well enough. Once I was confident with my capabilities, I found great joy and extra gain to be had in paddling up river against the current. It was just like hiking up hill on bumpy terrain, except of course, on the water. But, when it comes to focusing on a rhythm and achieving a true workout feeling, paddling on a calm water is much better

How to Get Started

Now that you’ve heard a bit of my story, you may be wondering how you can get started in some these activities, and how they’ll be of potential benefit to you. Well, read on to find out:


I bought a higher end pack on sale from Columbia for around 60 bucks. The key is to have at least one strap on the chest, ideally another on the hip, as well as real heavy duty shoulder straps for durability’s sake. It’s also quite important to balance the load evenly and keep it high high up on your mid back. In order to accomplish this, I use a couple sweatshirts and a pillow at the bottom to keep things in place. Just about anything will work.

In the same breadth, anything can work for weights. I have used everything from cat litter to weight plates. Seriously. If it weighs something, you can use it.

Weight vests can work well too, although I find the weight distribution shifts around too much and feels too heavy right on my shoulders.

Start light. About 10% of your bodyweight should be perfect.

If you feel you aren’t quite yet up to the task of rucking, walking itself has incredible restorative effects and will eventually get you up to the point of rucking. Remember, I walked up to 5 miles a day for several months during my low back rehab before adding additional weight.

Work up to around 35lbs if you want to maximize results and burn more fat. More than this isn’t likely give you any more benefits, unless you are training for something specific like military work or hunting where a heavier pack is required.

Paddle Boarding

This activity is a bit more costly and less accessible for many, but is well worth it once you get a board and find a spot to paddle.

A basic used board can be had for under $500, either hard shell or inflatable. Hard shells tend to get beat up easily and can be cumbersome to store and load. I have minimal experience with inflatables, but they are surprisingly stable, solid and fairly quick to inflate. My personal board is a 14ft hybrid style board from our local paddleboard maker Stand on Liquid. It’s held up wonderfully these past three years and I couldn’t be happier.

No matter which option you decide to go with, the restorative effects can really get you into a meditative state, once you get past the first few minutes.

Paddling obviously has the edge for working the upper body in a pulling pattern and lights up the core more than you might expect. The learning curve is a bit steeper, but is not incredibly difficult. Most people tend to get the hang of it quicker than they initially thought they would!


Rucking feels great on the hips, knees, and feet.

I’ve heard many accounts of the benefits from “high mileage” athletes like myself. Neither this, nor stand up paddle boarding has ever caused me to feel sluggish or sore. Plus, with paddle boarding, you get to improve your overall tan, so what’s not to like?

For an added restorative effect, attempt to keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth where your palate meets your teeth, and breathe through your nose. Or, at least in through your nose out though the mouth (no mouth breathing!). Trust me, this gets easier over time. But, it also acts as a governor to keep you in an optimal flow state for longer durations, training in a zone for optimal fat burning, while keeping overall stress low.

Last of all, consider this ultimate combo:

Rucking and paddling in one trip!

Haul an inflatable board in your pack up to a perfect destination like a mountain lake or lazy river for the greatest experience of solitude on the water.

But, most of all, have fun with it and be creative. You’ll find a way to make it happen.

Concluding Guidelines:

  • Build up time to up to 1+ hour per session, 3 to 4 times week for optimal results.
  • Keep head up and focus on the horizon (no texting, please).
  • Keep “meditative” breathing going at all times. Slow down if you need to mouth breathe.
  • Finish your sessions feeling accomplished and refreshed, not beat down and bored.
  • Enjoy the journey, not the destination!

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