Implementing the Changes to your SUP Technique

Implementing the Changes to your SUP Technique

In previous issues of The Catch, we’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to technique.  We’ve discussed the six fundamentals of paddling technique, looked at the concept of gears and connection, looked at common errors and their fixes for the catch, the pull and the exit, and we’ve looked at the role of land-drills in correcting and consolidating technique.  

In this post I’d like to look at a strategy you can apply to putting everything together and successfully implementing the changes you’re trying to make.  We’ll look at each step of the strategy in sequence.

1.  Have a good understanding of the principles of good technique

If you’re going to teach yourself to paddle better, it really helps to have a good understanding of what good paddling is.  I strongly suggest doing some learning by reading and watching videos.  There is no lack of information available.  A great place to start would be reading (or re-reading) this piece on “The Six Fundamentals of Effective Technique”.  When you have a really good idea of what effective technique should be trying to accomplish, you’re ready to collect some video of yourself and see how it stands up to the six fundamentals.  

2.  Get video and figure out what you need to work on

We’ve covered this in lots of detail in the series on technique errors and their fixes.  Here are links to each of the articles:

Each article describes in detail what to look for in the video you collect.  It tells you how to identify the errors you’re most likely to encounter and explains what you need to think about to fix each problem.  

The important point I want to make here is that you can’t improve your technique if you don’t have a very good understanding of what you are doing (or not doing).  Only with that understanding can you determine what you need to correct or need to do to improve your technique and get started on working to change it.  

3.  Start your work on land, before getting on the water

Once you’ve identified the areas of your stroke that need attention, you’ll know what land drills you should be doing.  Land drills help you learn the proper paddling positions that you want to achieve on the water while you are on land where it is easier.  Once your body is familiar with these positions from doing them on land, it is much easier to find them on the water and, once you can successfully and consistently find these positions, your body is intelligent enough to effectively connect the dots between them resulting in effective technique.  Land drills definitely speed up the process of learning effective technique and are excellent for consolidating and maintaining effective technique.   Here are links to the land drills that you’ll need to read to get started:

Since land drills teach you the proper positions you need to find in each part of the stroke it is important to do them in front of a full-length mirror, if possible, so you can check your positioning and ensure you are doing them properly.  You need to be meticulous and exercise real attention to detail when doing land drills, using the mirror to help you with this.  Using the mirror, you should be able to see the difference between the correct body positions in the drills and the errors you were making in your videos.  

Hold the positions you achieve in these drills for 5 to 10 seconds so you can identify the muscles involved and how those muscles feel when you are in the proper positions and doing things correctly.  I also suggest doing numerous repetitions of each drill to accelerate your learning.  Of course, the more you properly execute these drills, the greater the positive impact on your technique they are going to have.  Doing them daily for 10 minutes or, better still, twice daily for 10 minutes, is going to be much more helpful than only doing them a couple of times a week.  

4.  Getting on the water

Taking things to the water is where implementing changes to your technique gets really interesting.  If you’ve been doing the land drills your body will have a good idea of the positions you want to pass through while you are paddling. Moreover, you will have a good idea of what your body should feel like as you pass through these positions.  

The key to your first few paddles while working on the adjustments you want to make to your technique is to make things feel on the board like they do when you do the drills on land.  The easiest way to do this is to use a resistor to slow your board down.  This does a couple of things.  First, it exaggerates the load you feel on the blade and the connection with the water.  This will make it feel like the paddle supports your body weight better and will help you feel more stable, allowing you to more easily do on the water what you’ve been mastering on land.  Additionally, since the pull will be more heavily loaded, it allows you to more easily feel the muscles involved and the sequencing of their contraction within the stroke.  This will help make your strokes on the water feel more like the drills on land and help you find the correct positions more quickly.  

Because the resistor slows the board down, it also gives you more time to feel how all the parts of the stroke fit together.  Remember, in the land drills you’re looking at each position in isolation from the others.  On the water, however, you’re moving from one position to the next as the board moves through the water past the paddle.  Slowing the board down initially really helps by providing you with a little more time to successfully find each position and learn what each feels like in a moving stroke.  

I’d suggest you make a resistor using a bungee and tennis balls.  Basically, you’re going to thread three tennis balls onto the bungee, like beads on a necklace, so that you can vary the amount of resistance applied when the bungee is wrapped around your board by varying the number of balls beneath the board.  Read more here about making your resistor.

Your first paddle when trying to implement changes to your technique should start with a short warm up and then maximal resistance.  Wrap the bungee around your board as described in the link above, with three tennis balls, centered, on the underside of your board.  These three balls are going to provide a huge amount of resistance that makes your board move very slowly.  Each stroke will feel extremely heavy, and the load you feel when you catch and gather water on the blade will feel as close as possible to what it feels like on land when you do the catch drill.  

Paddle slowly, trying to find and feel within the stroke the positions that you found in the land drills.  Because of the resistance, you’ll be passing through these positions very slowly, allowing you lots of time to identify them and then prepare to find the next position in the stroke.  Try to paddle with as natural and fluid a rhythm as the resistance will allow.  

You’ll likely find that you feel really good for a short period, like 10 to 20 seconds to start with, and then start to feel a little confused with what you are doing.  When this happens, stop.  The last thing you want to do is take strokes that aren’t perfect.  Refocus and then start again, trying to find each position you’ve become familiar with in the land drills within the stroke.  Paddle continuously for as long as things feel good and stop when things get confusing again or you begin to struggle to find the proper positions.  Refocus, and then start paddling again.  Do this for 10 minutes and then stop, reach under your board, and pull one of the tennis balls along the bungee and up on to the top of your board.  Now, repeat what you did with three tennis balls with only two.  

Dropping resistance from three tennis balls to two is going to significantly increase the board’s speed and reduce the load you feel each stroke and the time you feel like you have to find each position.  You’ll need to anticipate this increase in speed and try to move a little more dynamically.  Paddle as long as things feel good and stop and refocus when things feel like they’re starting to fall apart.  Do this for 10 minutes and then pull all of the tennis balls along the bungee onto the top of your board.  Repeat the process using the resistance provided by just the bungee.  

Using just the bungee is going to make the board feel very fast in comparison and challenge you to move more quickly to feel connection and find the proper positions.  Experiment with it, stopping when things feel wrong, refocusing, and then starting again.  Do this for another 10 minutes and then take the bungee off and repeat the process again with no resistance.  

Starting with the big resistance allows you to more easily find the positions you practiced in the land drills while paddling on your board, then dropping resistance step-by-step allows you to adjust gradually to the increased board speed and provides you with a better chance of maintaining connection, support for your body weight on the blade, and finding the positions that you were working on in the land drills.  

My suggestion is to do four paddles a week when you start to work at implementing the desired changes to your technique, doing the resistor work described above twice.  Doing fewer than four paddles/week really doesn’t provide you with enough time on the board to learn and consolidate the changes you’re trying to make.  Doing more than four paddles a week is beneficial but there are diminishing returns in the early stages of changing your technique.  The problem is, working to this degree to try to change and control your movement patterns is really intense work for your central nervous system.  It is going to fatigue.  In my experience, the fatigue is minimal over four sessions that are well spaced out within the week.  However, the more work you do beyond four sessions, the more it seems that nervous system fatigue rapidly builds.  As your nervous system fatigues, it becomes more difficult for it to control your movements, resulting in the possibility of less effective learning with regards to technique.  Once your nervous system adjusts to the new movement patterns you’re trying to build it doesn’t have to work as hard and won’t fatigue as quickly.  This is ideally when you want to increase your time on the water, both by lengthening each training session and adding more sessions per week, to consolidate the changes you’re attempting to make.  

Of the four paddles/week, I would recommend that in addition to the two resistor sessions you do two sessions of drill or exaggeration paddling.  A great workout for this comes from my canoe days, which we used to call “catch-exit-together”.  This session works as follows:

  • 1 min, level 2 to 3, focused on the catch.  For this piece, you are exaggerating things that put you in the proper position for the catch like the ankle flexion, hips forward and reaching to catch that you do in the land drills.  Because it is hard initially to work on the full stroke including both the front and back ends all at the same time, just ignore the back half of the stroke for this one-minute piece.  If you are a little late coming up with the stroke or drag the paddle a bit, that is okay.  Instead, make sure the front of your stroke is perfect and that you continue to load weight on the paddle after you’ve set the blade, starting an effective pull by using your hips and legs like you do in the pull land drills.  Remember, this one-minute piece is about technique rather than effort or speed.
  • Rest 1 min upon completion of the “catch” piece
  • Do the next 1 min, level 2 to 3, focused on the “exit”.  In this piece do not over exaggerate your reach and catch.  Just get the blade in the water, get some weight on your blade and work at feeling the load on the blade with the blade approximately vertical and pulling your hips towards the paddle like you do in the “exit” land drills.  Try to make the board accelerate off the exit by maximizing your connection and feeling the load in the muscles in the middle of your body between your knees and your chest.  As the paddle gets to your feet, squeeze your glutes and push them under your body, initiating your exit of the blade from the water as you do so.  
  • Rest 1 min upon completion of the “exit” piece
  • Do the next 1 min, level 2 to 3, “together” by focusing on joining the two ends of the stroke together by beginning to initiate your exit as soon as you have finished loading in the pull.  Do not try to exaggerate the catch or the exit, but rather focus only on the transition between the two.  
  • Rest 1 min upon completion of the “together” piece, then repeat cycle of catch-exit-together focus two more times.  This should give you a total of 9 one-minute technical focus pieces in each set, with one-minute rest between each.
  • Rest 3 to 5 minutes and do a second set of 9 x 1 min exactly as described above.  

This workout is extremely useful in helping you master the two halves of the stroke and then putting them together.  We used to do it once a week pretty much year-round in canoe and it was a really valuable part of the training program, both for implementing new technique and consolidating technique changes that you had made.  Again, my advice is to aim to do this session twice a week when trying to implement changes or new elements to your technique. I would suggest setting your week up as follows:

  • Workout 1:  resistor
  • Workout 2:  catch-exit-together
  • Workout 3:  resistor
  • Workout 4:  catch-exit-together

If you are going to do six sessions/week then I would suggest you continue to alternate between these two sessions.   I would suggest doing at minimum two to three weeks of this schedule before trying to do more traditional workouts.  

5.  Tips for implementing and consolidating technique

If you follow the steps outlined above, you’ll find it is a pretty logical path for effectively implementing changes to technique and sets you up for success.  However, there are a few extra things to think about as you work through these first few weeks on the water and gradually begin to slide into your more traditional work with a newly minted, more effective technique:

  • Be prepared to take a step back in terms of work in order to get two steps (or more) forward in terms of technique.  Changing your technique requires a lot of focus and paddling that is often quite slow and deliberate as you learn to move your body differently.  Doing a lot of “work” in your training sessions just isn’t conducive to that.  Be prepared to back off the work for a few weeks in order to provide yourself with the opportunity to focus as required on technique.  Nobody is good enough to crank out hard work and focus on implementing changes to technique at the same time. 
  • If you’re nervous about missing “work” while focusing on technique do your “work” on land instead.  I’ll repeat it, you’re not going to successfully implement changes to your technique if you are focused on cranking out hard work instead of your movement, and it is virtually impossible to focus on both.  Most of us can afford a few weeks of reduced aerobic work on the water as the price to pay to learn more effective technique.  However, if you’re nervous about taking a few weeks off hard aerobic work and are afraid of getting out of shape, do your hard training workouts on land as land-based cardio work.  
  • Take frequent video and analyze it. You started the process of enhancing your technique by taking video and analyzing it, looking for mistakes and things you can do better, and then determining the fixes you need to make.  It is extremely important that you repeat this process regularly while you are attempting to implement changes to your technique.  Sadly, no matter how hard we try, we aren’t always moving on our boards the way we think we are.  Fortunately, video does not lie and can show us exactly what we are doing.  Capturing and assessing video weekly can really keep us on track as we work at the changes we are trying to make and ensures that we don’t end up developing new issues while trying to fix old ones. 
  • Be patient.  You are trying to teach your body entirely new movement patterns.  This takes time.  Be prepared to spend anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks working as described above on establishing and consolidating new movement patterns before starting to do “work”.  Your weekly video analyses will tell you when you’re ready to start working a little harder.
  • Once you’ve established a new motion, it’s time to establish comfort in different gears.  It’s one thing to learn how to move differently.  It’s another thing entirely to learn how to move at different speeds, working against different loads on the paddle in what amounts to different gears, but it is an essential next step in mastering effective technique at race speed.  Again, patience is required, and establishing comfort in various gears is going to take time.  


If you’re willing to embrace the process, be patient, and not try to rush things it is possible to make some pretty radical, lasting, changes to your technique is a relatively short period of time. In the last two years I’ve helped dozens of paddlers through this process.  They’ve all found it challenging but extremely rewarding and, the best part is, that with the knowledge they gain from the process they’re capable of not only continuing to nurture their own technique moving forward but helping others through the process as well.  

Of course, it’s easier to get through this process with a coach, but a coach isn’t essential.  Over the last several months we have posted all the content you need, most of which I have provided links to above, to coach yourself through this process.  With the season fast approaching, now is the time to start the process of evaluating your technique, identifying changes that need to be made, and implementing them.  By the middle of the summer it’s possible for you to become a totally new, more efficient, paddler.  

Happy paddling!