SUP Technique – the most commonly seen “mistakes” and their fixes

There’s been lots of people asking for more information on things like setting the blade, loading body weight on the blade at the catch, engaging big muscles in the stroke and exiting effectively.  I thought it might be appropriate to do a series of posts about the most common questions, the most common mistakes that people make and the parts of the stroke where there seems to be the most confusion.  So, this is the first installment – an introduction to the series and a taste of what’s to come over the next several weeks.

I’ve decided to take the following approach:

  1. Identify the issue
  2. Explain the issue and why it is a problem
  3. Identifying it in your own stroke.  (how to recognize whether or not it’s a concern for you)
  4. Identifying it in others.  (how to recognize whether or not it’s a concern in someone else that you might be helping, coaching or doing a video analysis for)
  5. Strategies for correcting the issue

I’ll start at the front of the stroke with the blade entering and gathering water and finish there as well, going through an entire stroke cycle of catch, pull/loading, unloading/exit, and recovery.

The 5 fundamentals

Those that have worked with me before know that I’m not big on trying to teach someone to paddle like someone else, even if that someone else is one of the top pros.  We’re all different with bodies that come in different shapes and sizes and have entirely different sets of strengths and weaknesses.  If you accept that, you pretty quickly realize that it makes no sense to paddle like someone else.  You should be paddling as effectively as you possibly can for your own unique physical characteristics.  That said, there are 5 pretty much non-debatable fundamental objectives we should all be trying to achieve in the stroke, whether we’re a novice or the top pro.  How we each address these 5 fundamentals depends on our own unique set of physical characteristics and our strengths and weaknesses.  It’s like we each have our own unique tool kit that we can use to paddle effectively.  This is where we all end up paddling differently and where there’s a real opportunity to develop your own individual technique.  

I’ve spoken about these 5 fundamentals frequently in clinics, in videos on our Paddle Monster app, and have blogged about them before on www.larrycain.ca, but let’s review them here as an introduction to what’s to come in future posts.

1.  Pull yourself past the paddle rather than the paddle through the water

This is perhaps the most important fundamental of all.  We should never be trying to “pull our blade through the water” when paddling.  Instead we should be trying to set or “fix” our blade in the water in front of us and pull ourselves to the paddle.  Once we’ve pulled ourselves close to the paddle we should actually be trying to push ourselves past it at the exit as we take it out of the water.  

This is what moves a board forward, and the greater the degree to which we can do this, the more “connection” we have and the further we will go each stroke.  Doing this in a sustainable way with an adequately high stroke rate is the key to going sustainably fast.  

Everything we look at in coming posts with regards to technique will be, first and foremost, viewed through this lens – how effectively are we able to secure the blade and pull ourselves past the paddle?

2.  Use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles

Paddling is a very physical activity in that the paddler is the “engine” that drives the stroke and supplies the power required to pull his or herself past the paddle.  The more horsepower we can put into that, the more power we should be able to develop.  As a result, we want to engage the biggest, strongest muscles possible in the task of pulling ourselves past the paddle as they’ll supply far more power than smaller, weaker muscles.  Furthermore, big muscles capable of producing the greatest force end up working at a much lower percentage of their maximum during the stroke than smaller muscles do.  This means they can continue to produce the power to pull ourselves past the paddle more sustainably than smaller muscles.  

You’re probably, as you read this, considering which are the big muscles and which are the smaller ones.  When we’re talking about big muscles we’re talking about our those in our legs – our hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes, those that cross our hips – which is the most heavily muscled joint in the human body, and the muscles of our core.  To some degree we’re also considering the big, force producing muscles of the upper body, however to a large degree they act as stabilizers and connectors tying the load we have gathered on our paddle blade to the big muscles mentioned above.  Our arms are small muscles and should be viewed as little more than connectors linking the big muscles to that load.  

When we’re looking at technique issues we’ll be considering how they impact the ability to engage big muscles.  Do they limit their use or enhance it?

3.  Use your body weight

The use of body weight is important for a couple of reasons.  First, by using our body weight and the effect of gravity on it we can add to the force exerted against the load on our paddle blade by our muscles.  This serves to both increase the total force exerted and ease the load on our muscles.  We can use our body weight to make our stroke more powerful or more sustainable (or both).

The second way using body weight is important is that by loading body weigh onto our paddle we’re taking weight off of our board.  This allows the board sit slightly higher in the water which means it will have less wetted surface and therefore less resistance to forward motion.  I always try to visualize my board skipping across the surface of the water rather than plowing through it.  Getting body weight off the board and onto your paddle as soon as possible during the stroke helps make this vision, to a small degree, a bit more of a reality.  And that makes you faster and your stroke less fatiguing.  

Again, when we’re considering technical issues in coming posts, we’ll be looking at them while considering the use of body weight.  Does the issue limit our ability to use our body weight effectively?  If so, what can we do differently to unleash our body weight with optimal effectiveness every stroke?

4.  Do as much as you can with a positive blade angle

Use of an accelerometer shows that the board accelerates the entire time the blade is in the water providing that you’re working more quickly against the water held on your blade than the board is moving.  That said, it also shows that peak acceleration occurs at the point where the blade is vertical, which coincidentally is usually where the blade is deepest in the water, most heavily loaded with body weight and where big muscles have just been engaged the most.  

From the moment the blade tip enters the water and you begin gathering water on the blade the board begins rapidly accelerating.  It is through this phase of the stroke, where the blade angle is positive through to where the blade reaches peak acceleration when vertical where the stroke is most effective.  It’s also where we can most effectively engage big muscles and body weight.  Hence, we should try to accomplish as much as we can in this “blade positive” phase, saving paddle angle if we can through the pull.

When the blade angle passes through vertical into a negative angle, the accelerometer shows that the board’s acceleration is rapidly diminishing.  The longer we leave it in the water the less acceleration occurs.  At some point we need to get the blade out of the water and this zone of diminishing acceleration and begin a new stroke, taking advantage of all the acceleration that comes from a positive blade angle.  

When discussing technical issues in coming posts we’ll look at blade angle.  Is blade angle being lost too quickly?  Is the paddle fully loaded when positive?  Is the paddler trying to do too much with a negative angle?

5.  Maximize the board’s run between strokes

Obviously, if you can maximize the degree to which the board carries speed between strokes you’ll be going faster than if you allow too much speed to bleed off between strokes.  

While there are things like running a level board and keeping the rails from biting that help maintain speed when the blade is not in the water, the single biggest factor for maximizing the speed the board carries between strokes comes from the exit and the degree to which you’re able to push yourself past the paddle as the blade exits the water.  

When it comes to technical issues related to the second half of the stroke or the unloading phase, we’ll be looking critically at the exit and the difference between accelerating off the back of the stroke by pushing off the paddle when it still has water held on the blade and the alternative, which actually breaks the forward run of the board to a small degree.  

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So, stay tuned over the next several weeks while we go through the stroke and look at just about every technical issue you can think of.  At some point I’ll create some videos using the app “Coach’s Eye” which illustrate these issues, how to identify them, and what to do to correct them.

Happy paddling,

Larry

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