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Sprinting on your SUP

With the advent of a variety of sprint events in SUP racing, being able to go really fast for short distances has become more of a priority for many paddlers.  The truth is, being able to sprint has always been important, even when racing was predominantly distance and technical racing.  

Having higher top end speed gives you a “speed reserve” that makes distance paddling at a particular pace easier.  It also means that the “70% of your max speed” pace is faster.  Either way you choose to look at it, being a faster sprinter should be beneficial for distance racing.  

Furthermore, distance racing usually isn’t just settling into a steady pace and paddling alone.  If you really want to be successful distance racing, you need to be able to sprint really well off the start and maintain a really aggressive traveling pace for the first ten to fifteen minutes in order to get into the lead group and/or with the paddlers that are similar to your speed.  Then the race becomes all about alternating periods of drafting and leading until the sprint to the finish.  Speed is your friend in the draft train and, of course, at the finish.

So, with the realization that for even the most recreational racers top end speed is really important, comes the need to learn how to sprint better.  Sprinting isn’t just a case of “paddling faster”.  Instead, it requires a good understanding of how to use your body and your paddle to move the board, and some subtle adjustments to your normal paddling technique and rhythm that allow you to provide the more rapid and dynamic impulses required to move your board at maximum speed with optimal efficiency.  Let’s take a closer look at that. 

Moving your board – the “Six Fundamentals”

Before we get started looking at sprinting technique, it’s worth refreshing our understanding of the “six fundamentals” of how we move a board, or any other paddle craft, through the water.  If you haven’t read “The Six Fundamentals of SUP Technique” you should do so now.  It will help you better understand the discussion of how to best adjust your technique as you try to sprint.  

To save you some time, here is a quick review:

  1. Gather water on your paddle, hold it there, then use that to pull yourself to the paddle and, ultimately, push yourself past it.  This is pretty much self-explanatory.  You’re pulling yourself past the paddle, not pulling your paddle through the water.
  • Use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles.  This suggests that you should use the big muscles in the center of your body – those in your legs, hips and core – to generate the power required to work against the water held on your blade, rather than the smaller muscles in your arms and upper body. Instead, view those muscles as “connectors” and “stabilizers” which link the bigger muscles to the load on your paddle blade. 
  • Use body weight.  Body weight that comes off the board and onto your paddle lessens the load that the board carries.  Thus, the board sits higher in the water with less wetted surface and therefore less resistance to forward movement across the water.  Also, gravity acts on the weight you apply to the paddle, creating a new force applied to the load on the blade that can be added to the force you’re generating with your muscles.  
  • Do as much as you can with positive to vertical blade angle, minimizing work done with negative blade angle.  The acceleration curve for any paddle stroke shows a rapid increase in acceleration from blade entry to a peak when the blade is vertical.  As blade angle becomes negative, the rate of acceleration rapidly decreases.  Thus, it is better to start a new stroke and do work with positive to vertical blade angle rather than let the paddle get too negative where there are diminishing returns.  
  • Maximize the run of the board between strokes.  This is almost entirely dependent on how you exit the water.  Beginning to reload the hips forward before the blade exits the water allows you to push yourself past the paddle, creating a burst of acceleration off of the exit that allows you to carry more speed between strokes.
  • Make your movements as direct as possible.  Direct movements during the pull usually correspond to more forceful and powerful application of forces against water held on the blade.  They also are generally quicker.  More direct movements during the pull and recovery should allow you to paddle with a higher cadence.  

We’ll refer to these fundamentals as we look at a few adjustments you need to make to your stroke to allow you to pull both more dynamically and with a higher cadence.  I’ll describe each adjustment and use video of three top SUP sprinters to illustrate them where applicable.  In each video, I’ll provide an analysis of what the paddler is doing that allows them to sprint so effectively.  In this way you can gain a better understanding of how to sprint from two different perspectives.  

If you’re just learning to incorporate the six fundamentals in your technique at a longer distance traveling pace, you’ll be better off mastering this before attempting to sprint.  Sprinting effectively requires that sound movement patterns first be established at slower speeds.  However, once you’ve got a good handle on incorporating these fundamentals in longer distance paddling, you’ll want to learn how to make the adjustments necessary to sprint.  Obviously, the better you’re able to apply these fundamentals to your technique at your long-distance traveling speed, the faster and more efficiently you’ll be traveling and the better the platform you’ll have from which you can learn how to sprint.  So, let’s take a look at the adjustments you need to make to sprint more effectively.  

Make your stroke more compact

Sprinting requires a higher cadence than distance paddling.  While you can increase your cadence with the same length of stroke that you use when distance paddling up to a point, you’re never going to be able to hit the type of high stroke rates that sprinting requires without shortening your stroke to some extent.  

Top sprint athletes in SUP are using stroke rates well in excess of 100 strokes/min.  While that might be excessive for someone just learning how to sprint or for an older athlete, the goal of everyone that wants to learn how to sprint effectively should be to use a considerably higher cadence than they use when distance paddling, without sacrificing any connection.

Initially, when learning to sprint, you might only be paddling 10 strokes/min faster than you do when distance paddling. In time, you’ll learn to paddle with a much higher cadence than you use for distance paddling, but it’s impossible to that with the same length stroke.

You need to be prepared to make your stroke more compact by catching a little shorter and exiting a little sooner than you do when paddling distance.  Essentially, you’re shortening your stroke at both the front and back ends while creating the same, or an even greater, amount of impulse that moves the board forward. 

Our video examples illustrate top athletes making their stroke more compact as they sprint.  Connor Baxter, Andrey Kraytor and Caroline Kuntzel are all world class sprinters in SUP.  In the video example of each, you can see that their strokes are very compact – they aren’t entering quite as far forward as they would when paddling slower or at a long-distance pace.  Similarly, they’re all getting the paddle out of the water earlier than they would when paddling at a longer distance pace.  

Connor Baxter

Caroline Kuntzel

Andrey Kraytor

While their strokes are all more compact, the important force producing elements in their strokes remain unchanged and they clearly execute the six fundamentals as they paddle.  They get their blades buried quickly and immediately load on their body weight.  The work against the water they have loaded on their blades is driven by the big muscles of their hips, legs, and core, while their upper body muscles are serving more as connectors and stabilizers as they would when paddling a distance race.  They all seem to maximize the time spent with their blades near vertical, while minimizing negative blade angle.  They reload their hips forward in the second half of the stroke as they would distance racing, but much more dynamically, generating greater acceleration off the exit and putting their bodies into position for the next stroke much more quickly.  

Work more quickly against the water on your paddle than the board is moving

If we want to accelerate when we’re paddling, we’ve got to work more quickly against the water we’ve gathered and are holding on our blade than the board is moving.  If the speed of our pull matches the speed of the board, we won’t accelerate, we’ll maintain speed.  If the speed of our pull is slower than the speed at which the board is moving our paddle ends up behaving as a brake and we’re actually slowing ourselves down when the blade is in the water.  

Sprinting isn’t just a matter of putting in more strokes, it’s about maintaining connection and rhythm while working as dynamically against the water held on our paddle blade as possible.  This is hard to see when looking at a video of someone paddling, but if you watch the videos of Connor, Andrey and Caroline, you’ll see that their cadence is high not only because of how fast they are moving in the air, but also how fast they are working against the water.  It’s important to realize that they aren’t pulling their paddles through the water.  They’re pulling themselves to the paddle, then pushing themselves past it as they exit.  They’re connected, and there is minimal slippage of water off the blade face as they pull.  

Unfortunately, our ability to pull faster against the water than the board is moving through the water is limited by our power.  Power is defined as work as a function of time.  While we can pull a full load with the paddle moving at a slower speed, we’re limited by our ability to generate power to work against that load when we try to pull on our paddle faster than a certain speed.   At any given load, there’s a limit to how fast we can work against that load which is different for every individual.  If we try to pull faster than that limit, water slips off our blade and we lose connection, and this can lead to us “spinning our wheels”.  In this case, our rate may be high, but our board won’t be moving as fast as it would with a fully connected stroke.    

Clearly, stroke rate is important when sprinting, but a fast, unconnected stroke with water slipping off the blade is not going to move our board quickly.  It is imperative that we’re connected, holding the water we’ve gathered on our blade through the stroke without letting any slip off.  So, how do we increase our work rate against the water without losing connection?

Find the right gear

When riding a bicycle, we control the load we work against by the gear we select.  In each gear, our ability to generate power limits the cadence we can sustainably achieve.  If we want to pedal at a higher cadence, for example, we eventually need to select a gear with a lighter load.  Generally, the load and cadence are inversely proportional.  Paddling is similar to cycling when it comes to the concept of gears.  How much water we gather and hold on our blade through the stroke determines our paddling gear.  If we’ve gathered and are holding a lot of water on our blade, we’re less likely to be able to pull quickly against it with connection, and that limits our cadence.  If we want to increase the rate at which we can work against the water we need to lessen the load by gathering and holding less water on our blade.  

So, if we want to work more dynamically against the water and increase our stroke rate, we need to lighten the load on our blade a little by gathering and holding a little less water on it as we pull.  The trick to sprinting is finding the ideal load.  Remember, sprints are generally pretty short.  Many top paddlers can actually pull surprisingly quickly against a pretty heavy load in a sprint, they just can’t do it for very long.  Most of us, however, will need to considerably reduce the load on our blade in order to hit the high stroke rates necessary to sprint effectively.  

The only way to determine the gear you should be sprinting in is by experimenting.  By doing repeated efforts over a number of workouts and playing with the load and stroke rate, you can find your optimal sprinting gear.  Just be aware that as your strength and fitness changes (either for the better or worse), your ability to work quickly against a given load is likely going to change.  Your optimal sprinting gear usually evolves in relation to your fitness.  

One thing to clarify is that it is better to intentionally shift to a lighter gear by lessening the load than it is to attempt to pull too quickly against a heavy load and have water slip off the blade.  The former allows you to find optimal connection against the load you choose to work against.  No water should slip off your blade as you work against it quickly and dynamically.  You’ve chosen to work against a load that you know you can pull quickly against and your paddle is working optimally at all times against that load to propel you forward.   

The latter – attempting to pull too quickly against a heavy load and having water slip off your blade – actually results in you losing connection.  When water slips off your paddle your connection is diminished.  Because you’re losing connection, you end up losing your feel for the water and feel like you’re spinning your wheels.  What is really happening is that you’re no longer securing the blade in the water and pulling yourself to the paddle, but instead pulling your paddle through the water and violating the most important fundamental of paddling.  

Attack the water by “pre-catching”

We’ve all heard that splashy catches are bad, likely indicating that we are “air catching” by pulling before we’ve fully buried the blade.  This is true when we’re paddling at slow stroke rates and speeds, and is especially true when we’re learning proper technique.  Catching cleanly and eliminating splashing by “reaching to catch” rather than “pulling to catch” helps ensure we learn to gather more water on our blade at the catch that we can then hold on the blade as we pull.  This is very important and the better we can do it at slow speeds, the more likely we’re going to be able to gather water properly and effectively when we’re catching much, much more quickly while sprinting.  

When sprinting, however, we don’t have time to be “careful” catching.  If we’re going to paddle at the stroke rates typical of sprinting, we need to catch quickly and aggressively and we’re likely to create some amount of splash.  To sprint really effectively, we need to “attack” the water with our paddle before the blade actually enters the water.  We just need to make sure we aren’t “pulling to catch” as we do it.  

You can consider “attacking” the water to be almost like “pre-catching” or starting to catch before the blade actually contacts the water.  Without pulling the blade towards you, you need to create some blade speed and therefore some momentum downwards towards the water that can quickly translate into work against the water as the water loads up on your blade.  

This momentum makes the work you’ll do against the water held on your blade through the stroke easier.  It can actually help you pull dynamically against a heavier load and may help you be able to use a heavier gear sprinting that you otherwise might.  This is analogous to what you feel when you’re in the gym strength training and explode into a lift.  You can move a heavier weight, more easily, with the momentum produced by that “explosion” than you can if you do the same exercise starting the lift slowly.  

You can see in the videos how Connor, Andrey and Caroline really attack the water. In one aggressive motion they gather water and rip against it.  This aggressive catch may create a bit more splash than you’d see if they were paddling slowly, but it allows them to pull a really well-connected stroke much more dynamically.

Get on and off the paddle really quickly

Those who’ve read what I’ve written about technique know that I like to refer to “loading” and “unloading” during the stroke.  Basically, the loading phase is the first part of the stroke when the paddler is loading body weight onto the paddle.  They get weight off the board and onto the paddle as they catch, then continue to climb on top of the paddle with upper body weight as they pull.  They drive their hips back against the load on the blade and bend their legs at the knees to help pull a deeper stroke.  Eventually, they reach a point where they can’t load any more weight on the blade and the movement of their hips and legs, and that of their upper body weight collapsing downward on the blade, is completed.  At this point they need to immediately begin to “unload” by reloading their hips forward underneath their upper body so they essentially stand up into the paddle.  Body weight comes off the blade and the paddler’s body resets to the position it needs to be in for the next catch as they exit.  All they have to do is reach forward with their arms and some shoulder rotation.

At slower speeds, we can easily perform this loading, however we often we have a lag between the end of the loading and the beginning of the unloading. We tend to feel good loading and sometimes commit to it a little too long in the stroke, meaning that we are often late unloading.  When sprinting, there is no room for such a lag between loading and unloading.  In fact, one of the most important things we can do when sprinting is load on and off the paddle really quickly.  

I can’t possibly describe this in words better than you can see it in the videos.  Caroline, Andrey and, in particular, Connor, all get on and off their paddle remarkably quickly.  This is key to why they are good sprinters.  

You’ll note in the videos that all three begin to unload immediately when:

  • The blade has just passed through vertical
  • The top hand is in front of the face
  • The bottom hand is level with the knee
  • The hips have stopped driving back
  • The legs have stopped bending at the knees
  • They have stopped bending at the waist

As they unload, they feel the water held on the paddle blade and use their legs, hips and core to pull their hips towards the paddle.  Hips come under their upper body and legs straighten, both working against the water held on the blade, so that they are essentially “standing up into the paddle”.  

When we consider the six fundamentals, getting on and off the blade this quickly ensures they use their body weight, use their biggest muscles preferentially over smaller muscles, and do the bulk of their work with the most favorable blade angles.

Set up your next stroke as you exit

The first of the six fundamentals addresses pulling yourself to the paddle rather than pulling the paddle through the water.  But once you’ve pulled yourself to the paddle, it’s possible to push yourself past the paddle, creating a burst of acceleration off the exit which helps with fundament five – maximizing the run of the board between strokes.  

Pushing yourself past the paddle is achieved by squeezing your glutes and pushing your hips forward just before you pop the blade out of the water.  You’re essentially piggybacking on what you did as you began to unload, and are pushing the hips the rest of the way forward under your upper body until they are in perfect position for the next catch.  Not only does this create the acceleration off of the exit described above, but it facilitates a much quicker recovery by allowing you to essentially paddle out of one stroke right into the position required to start the next.  

While pushing yourself past the paddle to initiate the exit is important at any time when paddling, it is vital when sprinting.  By increasing acceleration off the exit, it allows you to carry more speed between strokes, making you faster and making the next catch easier.  And, it helps speed up your recovery, which is essential if you’re going to have a fast cadence.  

Video of each of our three pro paddlers clearly shows hips dynamically reloading forward at the end of the stroke.  The acceleration this creates is clearly apparent when we watch the nose of the board climb in the water as they exit.  And, of course, each can be seen with their body in perfect position for the next stroke almost immediately as they exit.  All they need to do is extend their arms and get a bit of shoulder rotation with direct, straight line movements, and they’re ready for the next catch.  

Keep the board on top of the water

Getting weight off the board and onto the paddle, as described in fundamental three, helps the board to sit a little higher in the water, making it easier to accelerate across the water.  Acceleration helps the board climb even higher.  At the end of the stroke, just as the blade pops out of the water after the burst of acceleration created by a proper exit, the board should be moving its fastest and sitting its highest, with less wetted surface than at any other time in the stroke.  To sprint effectively, you need to keep the board as high in the water between strokes as possible.  Not only will this help the board retain speed, it will make the next catch and pull easier.  If the board is already sitting high in the water, you don’t have to work as hard to get the board up as you do when you’re accelerating to top speed.  

So, how do you keep the board on top of the water?  You minimize your air time.  Any paddle craft accelerates during the stroke when the paddle blade is working against the water gathered on it.  In fact, using an accelerometer shows that paddle craft begin accelerating the moment the blade tip hits the water and continue to accelerate till the point where the blade exits.  While it is true that the rate of acceleration reaches its maximum when the blade is vertical, your board is still accelerating right through till you exit.  It’s when the blade is out of the water that your board begins to slow down.  So, if you can minimize the amount of time your blade is out of the water, you minimize the amount of time your board has to slow down.  

A fast recovery, facilitated by the most direct movements possible, coupled with the most effective, acceleration producing, exit possible is the key to keeping your board on top of the water between strokes, minimizing its deceleration, helping you carry more speed, and making your next catch easier.  

Looking at the videos of Connor, Andrey and Caroline, we can see that all three are extremely fast in the air.  There is no wasted movement in the recovery.  Their movements from exit to the next catch are direct, rapid and simple.  The only movements required are extending their arms forward, some paddling side shoulder rotation, and dropping the paddling side shoulder over the water to stack their shoulders.  The rest of their bodies, from their feet to the head, are already in position for the next stroke as they start their exit.  

Putting it all together

It takes time to learn how to sprint effectively, let alone like the athletes we’ve watched in these videos.  You’ll need to start by first learning to paddle well, with sound movement patterns consistent with the six fundamentals.  Then you’ll need to play with the concept of gears, learning the relationship between cadence and load specific to your level of fitness.  As you become more comfortable with gears that allow you to paddle at a higher cadence with a well-connected, yet relaxed, stroke, you’re ready to start to do regular sprint work in your training.

Learning to increase your cadence without compromising connection involves doing your sprint work right at the limit of your ability to maintain connection and rhythm, in one piece working just below the limit and in the next just over it, where you begin to feel like things are getting slightly out of control.  This is the time to start to try to incorporate the suggestions provided here in this post.  

By dancing back and forth across this boundary between control, connection and effective rhythm and lack thereof, you gradually learn to paddle faster and faster.  Obviously, land-based strength work focused on power and power endurance will support this process, as you try to incorporate the suggestions provided here into each sprint effort in each workout you do.  

You’ll see improvement fairly rapidly, particularly if you’re careful not to sacrifice connection and begin to spin your wheels.  However, be prepared for it to take a few seasons to really become a strong sprinter.  Like everything else in this sport, learning to sprint is a process that takes time.

Certainly, working with others can help with the process.  Paddling with training partners, particularly those of similar speed, can push you in training sessions and help you learn more quickly.  And, obviously, doing this training under the guidance of a good coach can really expedite the process, help you learn more quickly, and help you start sprinting faster in a shorter period of time.  

Sprinting is fun and sprint work lends itself well to data collection that helps you monitor your progress.  There’s no time like the present to start learning how to sprint, or sprint better.  So, here’s wishing you a great summer learning to paddle faster.  

Happy paddling!


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