Should I do My Workout in the Flats or on the Ocean?

I’ve been asked this question in the forum a couple of times over the last few weeks and it’s made me think a little more about the conditions I’m choosing to paddle in myself lately.  That’s made me realize it might not be a bad topic for a blog post, as where you choose to do your work can have a big impact on how effective it is in contributing to your development as a SUP paddler.

Before getting into great detail, I have a few rules that I always abide by when it comes to paddling conditions:

  1. Paddle only where it is safe. 
  2. Conditions are always bigger, rougher and more challenging than they appear from shore.  Remember this when assessing conditions and your ability to handle them.
  3. Do your technical work (drills, etc.) in the flats

Learn to walk before you try to run

I’m absolutely convinced that if you want to learn to paddle well and maximize the efficiency of your stroke you should be doing your learning in flat water.  This is especially true for middle-aged paddlers with no background on the ocean.  The ocean, even on its flattest days, is a challenging place for a novice with little open water experience to paddle.  Going out there before you’ve learned some basics and practiced them to the point where you’re ready for the challenge of bigger water means you’re very likely going to more concerned about staying on your board that actually paddling well.  That’s not going to help you get better. 

A much better approach is to learn how to paddle well in the flats first.  Work on all aspects of your stroke in water that allows you to paddle with confidence, rather than leaving you consumed with just trying to stay on your board.  Do your drills in the flats, particularly the static (non-moving) ones.  Learn to load weight on your paddle in the flats by getting outside the rails of your board and on top of your paddle. 

If you don’t feel like you can throw all your body weight on to your paddle in the flats and trust that it will support you, then you’re not really ready to do work in the rough water.  Take some time to learn how to really load your blade with confidence in the flats.  You’ll be thankful you did when you start paddling in the ocean.

Does that mean that you should never try paddling in the ocean until you’re an expert in the flats?  No, absolutely not.  Pick days to paddle on the ocean when the it is fairly calm and try to paddle with a good, consistent rhythm and good weight on your blade like you do in the flats.  This is how to learn to take the technique that you’ve been refining in the flat water into the ocean.  Gradually, by degree you’ll feel better and better in the ocean and be able to handle progressively more challenging conditions while still paddling well.  However if you’re too tentative to push it a bit and extend yourself in those conditions, you can’t expect to get better in them.  You might end up becoming a very good flat-water paddler, but you won’t ever be competent in the ocean. 

Know what you want to accomplish in your workout and assess the conditions

Where I paddle I’m fairly lucky for most of the year in that I have options for where to do my paddling.   I can choose to paddle in rougher water on Lake Ontario or I can stay on the river and paddle in water than is incredibly sheltered and flat.  Sometimes the lake is flat too, so it doesn’t matter where I train.  In the winter the river is frozen so I pretty well have to deal with the conditions on the lake or not go at all.

For me, the trick to getting an optimal workout is two-fold.  First, I need to know what I want to accomplish in the workout.  If it is very technical and all drills I’ll probably be staying on the river unless the lake is ultra flat.  If the work needs to be done on a marked course I’ll probably stay on the river as well. 

If, on the other hand, the objective is just to work hard in a given training zone for a given period of time while paddling well, I’ll have a look at the lake and assess the conditions to see if I can meet those objectives in them.  This can be the tricky part.

I’ve learned over the years that conditions are almost always bigger and rougher than they look from shore, so I have to take that into account when deciding where I’ll train.  I also have to have a good idea of how conditions might change while I’m out there.  If I don’t look into the forecast and the winds die, then it shouldn’t affect my ability to do some quality work.  But if the winds pick up or change direction that can have a big impact on the size and direction of the waves, which in turn may affect the degree to which I can paddle effectively. 

I always suggest erring on the side of caution.  This should be obvious from a safety perspective, but also from an “ability to paddle effectively” perspective.  I’m all about trying to achieve my objectives each time I go out.  I’m lucky.  Where I paddle I can afford to make a mistake in assessing conditions.  I can paddle down to the lake and venture out, quickly realize I misread conditions, and just turn around and go back in.  Most people aren’t so lucky.  Once they’re committed they’re often stuck with the decision they made.

I always ask myself a few questions:

  • Are the conditions safe?  Are they suitable for my skill level?  Do they require a buddy?  Are they likely to become unsafe while I’m out?  Is the headwind too strong to paddle into?  If these questions, honestly answered, leave any doubt about the conditions then you shouldn’t be out there.  Find some flat water to paddle on or don’t go out.
  • Assuming you’ve deemed conditions to be safe, now ask yourself whether or not you can accomplish the objectives of the workout effectively.   Do you think you’re going to be making a greater effort in staying on your board than in paddling?  Are you confident you can work within the required training zone in the conditions?  Are you confident you can properly weight your blade and paddle with an effective rhythm? If you have any doubts about your ability to paddle effectively and meet the objectives of the workout, then ideally you should be staying on the flats.

At a certain point you should be able to go out in some pretty rough stuff and be able to hammer away in pretty much any direction.  I’ve got to a point where paddling upwind or in side chop isn’t a whole lot different than paddling in the flats.  It’s slower and it might be harder to paddle with stellar technique, but I’ve developed my skills to the point where my ability to work within a prescribed training zone is pretty much unaffected. 

Paddling downwind is a little different.  I find my heart rate can go pretty high paddling downwind if I’m being aggressive.  If I’m paddling less aggressively my heart rate can be pretty low.  Staying within the training zone might be a little harder, but I don’t usually get too worried about that as developing downwind skills is vitally important. 

The key is to recognize the limits of your ability relative to the conditions.  If conditions are too intense and you can’t do things properly, then stay on flat water.  Over time, you’ll be able to venture out in increasingly rough conditions and train effectively, meeting the objectives of your workout.

It’s not just about your fitness, it’s about developing your skills

I honestly believe that you can get to a point where you can do a pretty intense program based on intervals and training zones paddling in rough water every day.  Do I recommend that?  Not totally.  I still think that everyone benefits from doing some work in flat water, as it’s the best place to really perfect technique and tidy up technical flaws.  It’s also where you get the best feedback about how you’re moving your board, whether it’s from a GPS or from visual and auditory cues.  I think even if you’re at a very accomplished level it’s best to mix things up a bit, and remember, if you’re doing drills the best place to do most of them is in the flats.

That said, our sport is ultimately about rough water.  Even if you consider yourself a flat-water racer and are only planning on racing flat-water races, you need to be competent in messy, choppy water if you’re going to do well.  Whether it’s paddling in all the slop behind a group of boards at the start of a race, or paddling into a strong wind like we saw at Chattajack this year, you’re going to encounter conditions in flat-water races that you won’t be prepared to handle if you always hide from challenging conditions in training.

If you’re not super confident about paddling in open water, start small.  Find the messiest, choppiest area of your river or small lake and do some of or your entire workout going through that rough patch.  If that affects your ability to paddle properly, go to a slightly more sheltered spot instead.  Gradually seek out the rougher water as your ability improves. 

If your scheduled workout is pretty low intensity and the lake or ocean isn’t too rough, go out and see what you can do.  Even if you can’t paddle properly and fall off your board a lot, your heart rate will probably be within the prescribed training zone.  More importantly, you’ll be pushing the envelop of your skills and taking positive steps to make them better. 

Whether your ultimate goal is to be really good in the ocean or to just blast through harsh conditions in a flat-water race, you won’t ever develop the skills required if you don’t put yourself out there and take your lumps.  You’ve got to practice in conditions you can expect to see in races.  Start by understanding your program and the objectives of each workout, and then identify the opportunities to develop these skills.

So what do I recommend?

Unfortunately I can’t just suggest particular workouts to do in rough water or in the flats.  Everyone is at a different level, has different goals and different training environments which makes it awfully hard for someone to offer sound, specific, advice from a distance. 

What I can do is recommend an approach to determining where to do your workout:

  • Set goals for each workout.  Know what you want to accomplish both in terms of the physical training and your technical development. 
  • Become familiar with the current limits of your skills in rough water
  • Assess the conditions before you go paddling.  This is a must from a safety perspective, but also from the perspective of ensuring an effective workout.  Can you achieve your workout’s goals in the conditions in question?
  • Search for opportunities to push your skill development and stretch the limits of your abilities.  Look for conditions that challenge them slightly.  Whether it is the size of the waves, the direction of the waves or the strength and direction of the wind, give yourself a chance to be successful.  Being a hero, over-reaching and choosing conditions that are too extreme is not only going to provide less learning but it’s dangerous.
  • As you improve, find new, progressively more difficult challenges to stretch and develop your skills.  Seek out tougher conditions.
  • No matter how competent you get in rough water, remember to spend your time in the flats, doing drills, technical paddles and your all out sprints.

Train hard and have fun!

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