Andy Birkett is a textbook upstart, making the more experienced athletes look over their shoulders until he passes them on his way to the finish line.

He isn’t disrespectful of his older competitors, he just disregards the conventional wisdom that says you need years under your race belt before you can upset the podium order.

Birkett defended his Dusi title earlier this year with paddle partner, Jason Graham, making them the first pair in 22 years to win back-to-back K2 Dusi titles. If that wasn’t enough, Birkett also won the non-stop Dusi race – the same one that fellow adventurer Trautman raced – and it was his first time too. Birkett is also a familiar face at the multisport races around the country, featuring high on the leader-board in a number of different challenges. What’s most impressive though, is that from 8pm to 5pm each day he’s studying Environmental Science, adding credits to the BComm he’s already earned. That means this phenomenon is doing his training after hours.

His future goals? Climbing Everest, racing in the Roof of Africa and competing in Xterra-type races.

My first love is actually hiking

“But now my training allows me to spend more time outdoors, which is almost as good. Multisport races are a close second to hiking – I love the diversity of the training and the challenges. Canoeing comes third, but it is still something I really enjoy doing. Being out on the water when the conditions are good is something that’s hard to beat.”

My ability to recover is my strength

“If I had to say what my two strengths are, one would be my ability to recover and the other is my talent for picking up new sports quickly. For example, the first 30 minutes after a long portage are my best as I’m good at transferring from one activity to another (from the run into the paddling). Both advantages definitely come from all the cross training I’ve done.”

I never have the same two training days in a row

“If you don’t mix things up and go outside, your training is not sustainable. There’s more fun to be had outside and if you’re stuck doing the same things it gets very monotonous. If I had to train indoors all the time I wouldn’t last a week. To keep it fun, I ensure my training is as diverse as possible, but also functional. I do trail running, canoeing, swimming, kettlebells and Pilates. For me, core work is incredibly important – I have definitely seen a difference from doing kettlebells and Pilates. I’ve been injury free for two years and my running has improved drastically.”

Paddle Power

Birkett’s trainer, Nicky Irvine, a Biokineticist from EAP Active in Pietermaritzburg, provides the training tools that get him into race-winning shape.

“Our main aim was to use exercises that would mimic the moves he does throughout the race. Most were total body exercises that work his all his muscle groups, his core and his stability in movement. This year we also added cardio to his weight training sessions to provide high-tempo interval training so that he could get used to the changes that occur while he competes. In the Dusi, for example, you’re running up hills, carrying your boat over rocks and paddling through big water. Sitting on a leg press machine pushing heavy weights is not going to transfer as well as explosive movements, such as squat presses or Turkish getups.”

The exercises

1. The clean and jerk with a kettlebell (used as a repeated motion). An advanced form of this move can be performed on a Bosu ball. As a cardio dropset, Birkett does either burpees or a minute of skipping.

2. Turkish getup. This is a dynamic shoulder-stabilising exercise that simulates the balance and control required when paddling.

3. Core work: push-up variations.
A) Do a push-up, then move into a side bridge. Then do another push-up, and a side bridge on the opposite side. That’s one full rep.
B) Start by doing a push-up, then progress into a superman position (one arm and opposite leg of the floor). Hold that for a few seconds before doing another push-up and lifting the opposing arm and leg. That’s one rep.

4. Box step up, holding a barbell overhead. This mimics the movement of carrying your boat above you while negotiating uneven ground and rocks. Straighten your torso once you have stepped up onto the platform and control your descent back to the ground.