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Overspeed Training

Sprinting is not just about paddling with a faster cadence.  It’s about paddling with a faster cadence with maximal connection.  For most racers, it’s hard to elevate their cadence and remain well-connected.  And, for all but a very few top pro racers, it’s hard to elevate cadence above 80 to 90 effective strokes/minute.  Most paddlers just aren’t able to move that quickly while finding connection and, therefore, find it difficult to improve as sprinters despite their best efforts to do so.  There is, however, a method that can help.  It’s called overspeed training.  

Consider that in the 2022 ICF World Championship open sprint final, almost the entire field paddled with stroke rates around 120/minute or more.  Most of us can’t even move that fast in a paddling motion in the air, let alone against a fully loaded paddle.  We can, however, learn to paddle faster and more effectively than we currently do, and overspeed training is a big part of that.  

Overspeed training by definition

Overspeed training utilizes lighter loads and/or neural training techniques that allow athletes to move at higher speeds than they can under normal conditions. This is most easily accomplished by using some type of neural training stimulus that helps the body to go faster than previously able.  Then, when the stimulus is removed the body adapts and retains some of the performance boost the stimulus provided.  

In essence, you’re tricking your nervous system into moving your body faster than it normally can or needs to.  Over time, this higher speed of movement becomes the new normal and you’ve learned to move faster than you could before, without sacrificing quality of movement.  

I first became aware of this as a young canoe athlete training at a facility where other National Team athletes from different sports trained.  I got to see some of the sprinters from the athletics team train when they ran on a big, industrial strength treadmill that had a cage over top of it and a harness suspended from it that the athlete could strap into.  The coach would crank the treadmill up to speeds that exceeded the athlete’s ability to run on their own and they would try to keep up for short periods without faltering and falling, where they would be saved by the harness from shooting off the back of the treadmill.  The treadmill was providing a neural stimulus that helped them learn to do their sport motion faster than they’d normally be able to.  This, in theory, would eventually result in them being able to sprint faster on the track.  

Sprinting in paddling

Before we look at overspeed training specific to paddling it’s worth reviewing how we move our boards and, specifically, how we accelerate them when sprinting.  

The most important principle of paddling is that we move forward by gathering water on our paddle blade, holding it there, and then working against that load to pull ourselves to and then push ourselves past the paddle.  The paddle doesn’t actually move in the water; we move past the paddle.  

To accelerate, we need to work against the water we’re holding on our blade more quickly than the board is moving.  If we work against the water at the same speed as the board is moving, the board maintains speed but doesn’t accelerate and move more quickly.  If we work more slowly against the water we’re holding on our blade than the board is moving, the paddle actually acts like a brake in the water and slows our board down.  

Unfortunately, our ability to work dynamically against the water without losing connection and having water slip off our blade is limited by our strength and our nervous system.  Even the strongest paddler can only work so fast against the water without losing connection.  There’s a point for everyone where the effort to pull more quickly against the water exceeds their ability to do so, resulting in a loss of connection in which water slips off the blade and they end up ‘spinning their wheels’.  

That strength largely determines how quickly you can work against the water loaded on your blade should be obvious.  However, since the nervous system recruits muscle fibers involved in any activity regarding strength, it needs to be finely tuned to dynamic, explosive pulling.  Furthermore, the nervous system also controls the speed of muscle contraction and the sequencing of muscle contractions involved in complex sport movements like paddling.  So really, it’s our nervous system we want to be training if we want to work more quickly against the water we’re holding on our blade in order to go faster.  

Overspeed training in paddling

Let’s revisit the definition of overspeed training.  It talks about using lighter loads and neural training techniques to teach the athlete to move faster than they normally can.  For paddling, it is vital that that faster movement occur without any loss of connection or slippage of water off the blade face.  So, what techniques can we incorporate in our training that help us learn to work against the water with our paddling movement more quickly, without any loss of connection?  

Let’s take a look at a few techniques that we can use, and assess them according to their pros, cons and ultimate effectiveness.

Paddling in a lighter gear

Just like cyclists have gears on their bicycles, paddlers have gears at their disposal as well which are determined by the amount of water gathered and held on the blade during the stroke.  The more water we gather and hold, the heavier the gear we’re paddling in.  These heavier gears are analogous to the harder gears you have on your bike that you can only effectively use once your bike is at speed. If we gather and hold less water on our blade, we’re paddling in a lighter, easier, gear.  Our board won’t move as far every stroke, but we’ll be able to take more strokes in a given period of time.  

Just like on a bicycle, cadence or stroke rate in paddling is inversely proportional to the load, meaning that for all but the shortest sprints, if you want to paddle with a faster rate you need to be paddling in a lighter gear.  

So, if we paddle in a lighter, less loaded gear we should be more easily able to paddle with a faster cadence.  Provided that the connection is optimal for the lighter gear we’re using, there should be no slippage of water off the blade face with this faster cadence, and our motion should exactly replicate that when we’re paddling perfectly in our favorite heavier gear.  This can be a viable way to learn to paddle with a faster cadence.

Even if the gear we’re using in our overspeed training is lighter and less loaded than the gear we’d like to sprint with in a race, using this gear in this fashion in training is helping us learn to move more quickly without losing connection.  It’s teaching our nervous system to properly sequence all the contractions involved in an entire paddling stroke more quickly.  It’s also teaching us to maintain our feel for water on the blade as we work more quickly against it so that no water is slipping off the blade and lessening our connection. 

In theory, when we go back to our slightly heavier, more loaded and powerful gear after overspeed training, we should be able to work ever so slightly more quickly against the water that we’re holding on our blade, without any slippage or loss of connection, than we were before.  We’ve trained our nervous system to move everything involved in the paddling motion faster.  

You don’t have to work against the water much faster to make your board go faster and, if you’re training for sprint racing where the races are really close, every little bit of extra speed counts.  

The key, of course, is to make sure that there is never an excessive loss of connection while you’re doing your overspeed work.  At all costs you want to avoid losing connection and spinning your wheels.  You might feel a little out of control while doing your overspeed work, but you shouldn’t be just thrashing at the water.  The objective is to teach yourself to move more quickly while maintaining optimal connection and you’ll best achieve that if your overspeed training is just incrementally over the boundary between feeling in total control and connected and out of control and starting to lose connection

This method of overspeed training is the easiest and can be quite effective.  However, the question needs to be asked – is it the most effective method?  Let’s take a look at a few more methods that may be more difficult to incorporate into your training for reasons that will be obvious, but that can yield greater returns for your effort if you’re able to do them.

Downwind paddling

Riding down a bomb that you’ve caught downwinding is, in fact, a neural training technique if you’re actually trying to paddle while you’re on it and aren’t just milking it, with your paddle down, enjoying the ride.  

If you’re downwinding casually and letting the waves do all the work, you aren’t going to get any overspeed training effect.  However, if you’re aggressively chasing bumps, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself chasing a wave in front of you that requires you to start hammering while riding the wave you’re currently on.   The idea is to use the speed of the wave you’re on and jump to the next one when the opportunity strikes.  In this situation, you’re going significantly faster than you can in flat water and, depending on how big the wave actually is, you can be going an awful lot faster.  Trying to sprint to the next wave while traveling at such unusually high speeds requires you to find connection and work against it much more quickly than you can do in flat water.  

Remember, in order to accelerate we need to be working against the water more quickly than our board is moving.  In the case of paddling down a wave you’re riding, you’ve got to pull much more quickly than normal or you’ll just be slowing yourself down.  Using these downwind rides and actually finding effective connection while on them is an amazing overspeed stimulus that it literally forcing you to pull more quickly.  Though the rides may not be super long and the duration of your super fast pulling may not last much more than a few hyper speed strokes, the ability to find effective connection at these speeds, for even a very short time, is extremely effective overspeed training.  

The best example I can think of of someone who has used this method of overspeed training to go learn to go faster is Connor Baxter.  Connor has been, for a number of years, the top sprint paddler in the world.  He also grew up on the Maliko course on the north shore of Maui, one of the world’s most iconic downwind runs.  From a very early age he’s been pounding while on massive Maliko bombs, trying to link to the next wave.  This has taught him to find better connection at higher speed than virtually anyone else on the planet.  If you watched him at the 2022 ICF World Championships and wondered how he could be so dominant in the sprint race and paddle at 120 strokes/min, this is your answer.  

Unfortunately, this method of overspeed training isn’t going to work for everyone.  Most of us either don’t have the downwind skills to do what Connor does or, if we do, don’t have the water to consistently do it in.  As effective as downwind paddling can be as an overspeed training tool, we need to find another way to do it.

Getting towed

When I was racing canoe, I was a pretty good sprinter as a young athlete. I had a good feel for the water and was able to connect quite dynamically.  This allowed me to be, until the age of 21, as good if not better in 500m races than in 1000m races.  However, as I got a little older and stronger, I became a bit more of a diesel engine than a Ferrari and really locked into the pace required to be world class in 1000m at that time – approximately 58 strokes/min rather than 70 strokes/min plus.  My 1000m results improved and my 500m results declined to the point where I really wasn’t a threat anymore to be in the top half of the final in that distance.

For the 1989 World Championships, my coach and I made improving my 500m ability a priority, thinking that not only would this help me get a better result in that event, but that more comfort with a sprinting gear would be useful in my 1000m specialty and help me get a better result.  We decided to incorporate overspeed training into my program to help me find a more dynamic connection and a few more strokes/min for 500m racing.  

The easiest overspeed training method in canoe or kayak is training in crew boats.  A C2, for example, goes significantly faster than a C1.  For kayak paddlers, a K4 goes much, much faster than a K1.  Paddling in these faster boats is a fantastic way to teach a C1 or K1 paddler to find the quicker, more dynamic connection necessary for a faster stroke rate.  It’s the easiest and most effective overspeed method available.  

Unfortunately, that year I didn’t have a C2 partner available, even for training, that would serve this purpose.  We had to find another method so we went with the next easiest and most obvious – once a week my coach would tow me behind his motor boat.  This had my boat moving much faster than I could move it alone.  My job would be to find effective connection for the work that we were doing – usually 15, 30 and 45 second pieces.  Over the course of the summer I learned to work against the water, with some level of comfort, much more quickly than I had in years and the results at the world championships demonstrated that.  I had the best result in C1 500m that I had had in five years and won a silver medal in C1 1000m.  

Of course, getting towed behind a motor boat is not as simple as it sounds.  For starters, you need to figure out exactly how you are going to attach a tow rope to your canoe or paddleboard.  Then you need a motorboat with sufficient power to pull you the required speed and a driver knowledgeable and skilled enough to a) recognize the ideal speed to tow you at and b) consistently find and maintain that speed while you’re doing the work.  

For sure, this work was a ton of fun and extremely effective.  There is, however, an easier way for a stand-up paddler to do overspeed training. 

Using a faster board 

The easiest way to do overspeed training for a SUP paddler is to use a faster board.  Whether it is moving to a flat-water unlimited board from a 14-foot board, or moving from a 23” All Star to a 19.75” Sprint, you’ll find that moving to a faster board will challenge you to pull more quickly against the water on your blade in order to “keep up with the board”.

I was reminded of this recently when I got on my 19.75” Starboard Sprint for the first time since last September.  Even just dropping two inches from a 21.75” All Star to the Sprint sees a very noticeable difference in how quickly the board accelerates once the blade is in the water.  In fact, on the Sprint I felt like the board was moving so much faster than I was ready for so quickly that it felt like the board was surging forward out from underneath me every time I began to pull.  Try as I might, I couldn’t feel “on top” of my stroke and well connected after the catch.  When this is happening, a “faster” board is very likely not faster than a slightly wider, “slower” board.  In fact, it is possibly even a little slower.  Remember, to accelerate a board and make it go faster, you need to work more quickly against the water gathered and held on your blade than the board is moving.  When you feel like your stroke can’t keep up with the board, you’re definitely not doing that.  

Paddling on a faster board provides the identical training effect that paddling in a crew boat provides for a sprint canoe or kayak paddler.  In either case, you have to work more quickly against the water held on your blade to maintain connection.

Since I’m training to race 200m for the first time in decades when I get to the ICF World Championships in Thailand, I’ve got some homework to do.  If possible, I need to find about 10 more strokes/min without losing connection.  Doing regular sprint training will help with this, but doing some type of overspeed training will definitely facilitate the process.  Since I have a 19.75” Sprint, the best method available to do overspeed training for me is to paddle it a few times a week and use it to learn to connect more quickly and pull more dynamically.  

The first day I took the Sprint out, my pulling was behind the board for the first 5 km.  However, in the second 5 km of the 10 km paddle, I began to adjust to the faster board speed and connect more quickly.  Suddenly, I was maximizing what that narrower board can offer and saw a noticeable increase in speed on my GPS.  More importantly, learning to connect effectively on the faster board made my connection the next time I hopped on my 21.75” All Star much, much more dynamic.  Over the last several weeks I’ve improved my sprinting ability, increased my cadence, and found more comfort in a higher tempo gear in my distance paddling.  These outcomes are exactly what you’re looking for as a result of overspeed training.  

Obviously, not everybody has the luxury of a narrower, faster board that they can use in training.  This is the drawback of this type of overspeed training.  However, if you have a friend that has a narrower board, ask if they’d be interested in switching boards from time to time in a workout.  You’ll get the overspeed benefit that paddling on a narrower board can provide while they’ll get the specific strength benefits that occasionally paddling on a wider board can provide.  Furthermore, just as paddling on a narrower board can help you learn to connect faster, paddling on a wider, slower board can help you learn to connect better.  It’s worth adding a little resistance to your pull from time to time, provided you don’t overdo it, as it can help you enhance the connection by better feeling the water loaded on your blade.  It can also help you better understand the muscles you’re using in the stroke and the exact sequencing of their contractions.  This is no different than using resistance when you paddle. You can sell your friend with the narrower board on these benefits of paddling a wider board. 

How often should you do overspeed training?

Overspeed training, though it is basically the opposite of resistance training, is a tool that should be applied in a similar fashion. 

You don’t want to overuse resistance training because pulling a slower moving board past the paddle is actually teaching you to connect more slowly.  Remember, you can only pull so much faster than the board is moving.  If your board is always moving slower, you’ll end up pulling against the water more slowly over time.  Furthermore, overuse of resistance when paddling can lead to injuries.  Once or twice a week for 20 to 30 minutes is plenty of resistance work.  It’s easily enough to allow you to derive the benefits that can come from it but not likely enough to slow your stroke down, particularly if you’re doing work on other training days geared towards helping you pull dynamically.  

Similarly, thought for entirely different reasons, you don’t want to overuse overspeed training.  Because overspeed training is geared towards teaching you to move (without sacrificing connection) more quickly and dynamically, there is a huge neuromuscular effect.  Neuromuscular work is physically fatiguing, and is especially fatiguing to the central nervous system.   You’ll recall that central nervous system fatigue can be a real problem for athletes and one that is best avoided.  

To avoid central nervous system fatigue, high intensity neuromuscular work should only be done 2 to 3 times/week with days of easier work in between.  Doing excessive overspeed training is just asking too much of your nervous system and is sure to a) result in lower quality work and b) lead to excessive nervous system fatigue typical of overtraining.  Instead, I would suggest you just incorporate sets of overspeed work within your 2 to 3 higher intensity sessions each week.  

*

Overspeed training is a hugely useful tool in paddling, even if you’re just training for distance racing.  Anything that can help you learn to pull a little faster against the water you’re holding on your blade is going to help you move faster, whether in a sprint or over longer distance.  

If you’re racing sprint races, you’ll find that some type of overspeed work is essential, and you’re certain to see improved results if you use it properly.  Try building it into your training using the method described above that best applies to your situation.  Be sure to use your GPS as you do, so you can see the benefits for yourself.  

Happy paddling!

Larry

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