Laser Sailing Basics Review: How Much Muscle Does a Laser Take?

A Laser can be sailed with minimal conditioning and low-grade muscle power, but if you plan on racing, and you want to be competitive, you need to consider investing time in getting more fit. Lasers are raced at all levels of intensity from beginners to quite advanced, but one significant difference separating members in each ability level is their fitness.

Once you’ve chosen the correct Laser rig for your body size and weight, you’ll need to consider how much time and effort you want to devote to building muscle strength and endurance. The answer for Olympians is simple, “I want to develop my maximum ability at almost any cost!” The rest of us will usually need a more balanced division of our time between developing additional fitness, honing our boat handling skills and paying attention to other aspects of our lives. This article attempts to give you an idea of how to judge the amount of work you may need to do to improve your race results.

You will gain a substantial competitive advantage by being able to hold a minimum 85% hike for a full leg of a breezy race. You will gain from a 100% hike at key moments like at the start or when you’re trying to avoid falling into a leeward boat, and also from being able to hold the boat down with 85% plus effort at most other times.

Most racing in the US, and certainly on lakes, is done in light breezes, and even on windier days you will usually be alternating between leaning partway out (a 50 to 60% hike) and hiking full out (100%) as the breeze and waves change, but the goal is to be able to choose an 85%-plus hike as a response to a puff rather than simply having to ease the sheet to accommodate your weak muscles. Hiking this intensely puts demands on quads, abs, lower back, knees, ankles, neck and shoulders. This will be a key focus of your conditioning.

If you choose to not prepare for hiking at this level, you can still race effectively in lighter air, but if you’re light weight for the rig you’re sailing (like my 155 lbs in a standard rig) conditioning becomes increasingly important. I’ve beaten 200 lb sitters in moderate conditions, simply because I was able to max hike when I needed to.

And be careful that you don’t fall into the false “I’m special” assumption. Many new Laser sailors of a Master’s age think they will be competing against the average overweight, unfit person their age. Laser sailing attracts those of us who are interested in being active and reasonably fit.

While you’re out in a hiking position, you will also want to adjust your sail; at times this will require a moderate or more intense level of upper body fitness. For quick responses, and this is very important in a breeze, you will need to hold the mainsheet in your hand all the time. Even when you’re not easing or trimming you will need to hold the sheet against it sliding back through the ratchet block – hand and upper body strength and endurance are required.

Gloves and larger line sizes can help, but the effort is continual and, if you haven’t been conditioning, you’ll likely finish regattas with sore upper arms and stiff fingers. Again, light air doesn’t place these demands, but even occasional puffs add up to a fair amount of work.

In addition, you will be faster if you can adjust your secondary sail controls in response to each change in wind strength and sea condition.  This often means leaning in with a slight torque to your torso and pulling with one hand on a small diameter line. This takes core and hand strength along with upper body strength – easy to do once, hard to maintain throughout a regatta.

And finally, the Laser is responsive to adjusting your body position and torquing motions to help steer. When you begin to look for ways to keep up with the fleet leaders you will want to have the core strength to keep the boat in the grove and minimize ruder actions as you work the course.

Three different types of fitness will help with the demands of sailing a Laser competitively: your base level of muscle strength; your base level of aerobic fitness; and the endurance to have additional reserves left to tap at the end of a long regatta. Another article will look at aerobic training questions.

Basic muscle strength comes from resistance training or lots of sailing. (Sailing into shape isn’t always possible before early season racing and can take two to three sessions per week of moderate to heavy air – not that common in most areas of the US.) Resistance training can be done on your schedule, in all weather.

 You build strength by challenging your muscles to work at a harder effort than they are use to and this process creates tiny tears in the muscles. As the muscles heal they increase in strength. Conditioning increases the challenge to your muscles – adds resistance or weight – at a rate of approximately 10% increase every time you’re able to lift, pull or push a set of the previous weights 8 to ten times while maintaining good form.

By building basic strength in a muscle group you will be asking a stronger muscle to do the work. It will be working at a lower percentage of its maximum strength and will be able to work at the required effort for longer. Build your muscles in preparation for a regatta or a season, and you will be able to maintain your best effort longer.

Also stronger muscles don’t need to clinch as tightly to perform the same level of work as weaker muscles, so they allow more oxygen to get into the muscles and allow longer intense efforts with less fatigue. Much of the pain we feel hiking for long periods comes from the affects of oxygen deprivation in muscles.

Endurance is the ability to sustain an effort for long periods of time and still have some reserves for the last leg of the day. You build endurance in a different way than you build absolute strength. Strength comes from working muscles a few times at their near maximum capacity until they are exhausted – can’t do anymore for awhile. Endurance comes from lots of repetitions at a speed or a weight that can be maintained for an extended period of time. It literally trains your body to burn abundant fuels like fat and conserves precious fuels like carbohydrates.

So how hard do you need to work on improving your strength and endurance? A bit harder than you did last season is a start. Are you just starting to sail a Laser? Then try to be in better shape in April than you are now. I would start with building your abs and quads with bicycle crunches, wall sits, Roman-chair back lifts, leg lifts, etc.

With as little as a once a week workout you’ll pull you’re self up from where you are. Got time to do it twice a week sometimes? Even better, but be sure to leave a day or two recovery time between sessions to allow your muscles to repair and strengthen.

This article isn’t designed to outline a complete workout, but to suggest that you can decide how much time and effort you want to commit to the conditioning side of your sailing in order to improve your racing results. Be careful not to over commit and then quit. A steady small effort will put you in a good place to learn how hard you want to work next year.

What have you tried? How did it work?