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The Six Fundamentals of Sup Technique

All my years of paddling and coaching have led me to the conclusion that there is not one way to paddle.  Whether you’re paddling canoe, kayak, outrigger or SUP the person you should be paddling like is you, not someone else that you’re trying to copy.  We’re all different shapes and sizes with unique sets of physical skills, so why should we all paddle the same way?  There is no cookie cutter approach to good paddling technique.  

That said, if you look at top paddlers in any paddle discipline, you’ll see that they are all doing similar things.  They’re just doing them slightly differently in a way unique to them, so that while they look different when they paddle they actually aren’t as different as you might think.

No two paddlers are the same

We’re all different.  If you took 100 paddlers, lined them up and started comparing them anatomically, you’d find far more variation than duplication.  

First, you’d have to separate them by gender.  So, let’s say our group of 100 gets broken into two groups of 50 paddlers each.  Within the male and female groups there are going to be paddlers of different heights and weights.  While it’s possible in a group of 50 that you might find 5 or 6 paddlers quite similar in height and weight, if you look at them more closely you’re likely going to see that is where the similarities between them end.

If you start doing anthropometric measurements of these 5 or 6 paddlers of the same height and weight, you’ll soon start to see how different they are.  It’s extremely likely that some will have more of their height in their legs while others might have it in their torso.  Even if you found a couple of paddlers that were still the same using that consideration, if you started to measure the length of individual long bones like the upper arm humerus or the femur of the upper leg, you’d start to see differences.  Even if by chance you still had two paddlers that were close to identical, when you then started locating origins and insertions of muscles across joints you’d see that they very likely insert in slightly different locations on each individual.  

The differences don’t end there.  If we looked at percentage of muscle fiber type (fast twitch vs. slow twitch) we’d see more differences.  If we considered relative aerobic strength and musculature we’d see even more.  The reality is that each of us have our own unique physical tool kit for activities like paddling.  So, if we’re all unique, why should we all paddle the same way?

What are we trying to accomplish?

When we think about paddling technique it’s worth considering what we are trying to accomplish.  The whole idea in paddling is to use our unique physical tool kit and the laws of physics to move our board through the water as effectively and efficiently as possible.  That’s it in a nutshell.  So rather than thinking about what we should look like when we paddle, in my opinion it is far better to think about what we should be doing.  It all comes down to how we use our body (both our muscles and our mass) and the implement in our hands – the paddle – to move our board.  It really doesn’t matter what we look like as we do this.  What matters is how effectively we do it and how efficiently that allows us to move our board.  

I’ve come to realize that rather than coaching by telling an athlete to paddle like another athlete, to reach a certain distance or bend their top arm a certain amount, it is far better to help them better understand what they should be trying to accomplish as they paddle.  What makes their board go?  What things should they be trying to do with their tool kit and their paddle in order to move their board most effectively?  Then, once they have that understanding, a coach can work together with them to maximize their use of their body and their paddle, essentially helping them develop their own personal technique in the process.  

When assessing technique, start by looking at the board first

In my opinion, too many coaches start by looking at the paddler when assessing a paddler’s technique.  They’ll focus on the fact that a paddler’s top arm is too bent, their legs aren’t bent enough or that they bend over too much, without stopping to first consider how well their board is moving.  

I’ve seen some pretty interesting techniques over the years in both canoe and SUP that produce outstanding results.  While most of the paddlers I’ve seen look kind of similar, there are always these outliers who seem to be doing everything wrong but are crazy fast.  Upon closer examination, it usually turns out that these paddlers do almost everything right, they just look different doing it.  The point is, if you focus on their bodies first you’re likely to tell them their technique is terrible and they should change it.  Instead, if you look at their boards and how they’re moving, look at their paddles and how they are working against the water, and then consider how their bodies are moving to work their paddle, you’ll probably come away having learned something – that there are other ways that work for certain individuals with unique tool kits.  

I always make a point of looking a paddler’s boat or board and how it moves underneath them first, then try to figure out how they are moving and using their paddle and what they are doing well and what they could do better.  This, in my opinion, is the best approach to technique coaching.  

So, what makes a board move well?

Through all my years as a canoe athlete, then a coach, then a SUP athlete and coach with stops in outrigger and dragon boat in between, I’ve concluded that there are six things that every paddler, regardless of the paddle discipline, should be doing or trying to do in order to move their boat/board well.  These things are pretty much non-negotiable.  If you do them well, you paddle efficiently.  If you do any of them poorly, you don’t paddle as efficiently as you could.  

But didn’t I just say that everyone should paddle in the way that works best for them?  Let me clarify.  Everyone should be trying to execute these six fundamentals in the way that works best for them.  In doing that, they’ll have good, effective technique.  

The Six Fundamentals of Good Paddle Technique

These are the things that each paddler should be trying to do with their body and their paddle to try to make their craft move most effectively through the water.  They apply across paddle disciplines from sprint canoe/kayak to outrigger to SUP, for men and women, and paddlers of all ages.  Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1. Pull yourself to the paddle, then push yourself past it

In order to move your paddle craft forward effectively, you don’t pull your paddle through the water.  Instead, you gather water on the face of the paddle blade as it enters the water and then hold that water on the blade during the stroke, essentially securing your paddle in the water in one spot and pulling yourself to the paddle.  Obviously, once you’ve pulled your body to the paddle there’s no more “pulling” left to do.  At this point you push yourself past the paddle before exiting the blade from the water and starting the next stroke.

The degree to which you are able to do this effectively determines how far your board will move every stroke, and the degree to which you are able to do this effectively and quickly and repeatedly determines how fast you are going to go.  

I want to reiterate.  You do not pull your paddle through the water.  In fact, in good paddling the paddle doesn’t actually move.  In video 1 we see what a stroke looks like from underwater.  Note the leaf on the water’s surface and its proximity to the paddle as the blade enters the water.  The blade exits basically where it entered in relation to the leaf, which hasn’t moved.  Instead, it is the board that is moving past the paddle.  It is entirely possible that if someone is really connected (i.e. their blade is secure and doesn’t move in the water) and paddling in a fast-enough craft, like a sprint canoe, that the paddle will actually come out of the water ahead of where it entered as the boat, and the paddler, move even further past the paddle during the stroke.  

2. Use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles

In any paddle craft, the most effective technique involves trying to use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles to pull yourself past the paddle.  Obviously, the craft you are paddling and the body position you are paddling from is going to determine precisely which muscles you are using and how you are going to use them, but in general we’re talking about using the big muscles in the center of our body preferentially over the smaller muscles further towards our extremities.  

Let’s consider paddling SUP.  In SUP, the standing position allows you to easily engage your legs, hips and core muscles to generate power which can be applied against the water loaded on your blade.  

The hip is the most heavily muscled joint in the human body and is designed, along with the muscles of the upper legs and core to generate huge amounts of power.  These muscles are also very vascular with great blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen to them and remove waste products from them while they work.  These are the muscles SUP paddlers should be trying to engage to drive their pull against the water loaded on the paddle blade and to push themselves past it at the end of each stroke.  In comparison, muscles in the arms and to a lesser extent, the back, chest and shoulders, are smaller in comparison.  They generate relatively small amounts of power in comparison.  

Every paddler should be trying to find a way, using their own personal tool kit, to maximize the use of their big muscles and minimize the use of their smaller ones in working against the water loaded on the paddle blade.  The degree to which they can do this will determine both their speed and their endurance, for not only do these big muscles generate more power but they will fatigue less quickly than smaller muscles.  

Small muscles should simply be viewed as “connectors” linking the big muscles to the loaded paddle blade and as stabilizers used to maintain the blade securely in the water through the stroke.  This even goes for the “big” upper body muscles like the lats, pecs and shoulders.  Though stronger than the muscles of the arm, they should really just be viewed as connectors and stabilizers as well, as trying to engage them in the pull is going to break the link of connection between the big muscles of the hips, legs and core and the loaded paddle, lessening the amount those big muscles will be able to be used in the process.  

3. Use your body weight

In any paddle craft, using your body weight helps you in two ways.

First, let’s consider the weight of your board with you on it.  That weight displaces water by making the board sink deeper, and in the process increases the amount of wetted surface.  This in turn creates drag which slows the board down, or more correctly, makes it harder to move it through the water.  

Now, if you’re able to lighten the weight on the board by getting some of your body weight off of the board and onto your paddle, the board will sit a little higher in the water, have less wetted surface and thus less resistance to moving through the water.  To illustrate this, try standing on your bathroom scale with your paddle in your hand.  See how much you weigh.  Next, while still standing on the scale, lean off the scale and onto your paddle so that your paddle is supporting some of your body weight.  Note what you weigh now.  You should weigh considerably less.  Now imagine you’re on your board instead of the scale and how much less wetted surface your board would have because of the weight you’re getting off of the board and onto your paddle.  

One of the secrets to effective paddling is to get your board “up out of the water” so that instead of “plowing through the water” it is comparatively “skipping across the surface of the water”.  Clearly a big part of being able to do that simply comes from getting body weight off the board each stroke and onto the paddle.  

Now let’s consider what we know of gravity acting upon our body weight.  If we can get some of our body weight off of the board and loading onto our paddle, the gravity acting upon that weight will create a force that can be added to those forces working against the water held on our blade that are being generated by our big muscles.  Using our body weight supplements the work we’re doing with our muscles against the water loaded on our blade.  The more weight we can get off the board and onto our paddle, the greater the total force we’re able to exert against the water on our blade will be.  

This combination of using body weight to create a “lighter” board and at the same time a more powerful stroke makes it a very important part of effective paddling technique.  

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

When we reach forward each stroke with our bottom hand further forward than our top hand it creates what we call a positive blade angle.  When we pull our stroke, we eventually reach a point where our blade is vertical as seen from the paddling side before it passes through vertical and the blade angle becomes negative.  

In all paddle craft, it’s been demonstrated that acceleration rapidly increases from the moment the paddle blade enters the water to a maximum as the blade passes through vertical.  Thereafter, the craft is still accelerating but the rate of acceleration is rapidly decreasing.  The more negative the blade angle, the less acceleration.  

This can be seen in a “stroke profile” of a paddler on both a sprint canoe (figure 1) and a SUP board (figure 2). 

Fig. 1 Canoe Profile
Fig. 2 SUP profile

These stroke profiles are essentially graphs of acceleration vs. time for one stroke, with acceleration on the y-axis and time on the x-axis.  These were generated by using a GPS/accelerometer device I had access to when I was coaching the Canadian Canoe/kayak Team.  The origin of each graph represents the point where the blade enters the water and the peak of curve represents where the blade is vertical.  It is easy to see how rapidly acceleration increases in the front half of the stroke to a maximum when the blade is vertical. It’s equally easy to see how quickly acceleration decreases as the blade becomes more negative.  The only difference between the two curves is that the acceleration on a SUP board is much less than the sprint canoe, which is no surprise when we consider that world class times for 1 km in canoe are in the 3:50 range while in SUP are in the low 5:00 min range.  

When the blade is out of the water, the board slows down.  This is illustrated in the deceleration seen in the second half of each stroke profile after the blade has exited the water (represented by the curve crossing below the x-axis).  

Clearly, it makes sense in both cases for the paddler to get the blade out of the water once it has passed vertical and start another stroke, rather than continue to work at the back of the stroke with their blade getting increasingly negative and yielding rapidly diminishing returns in terms of acceleration.  

Not surprisingly, since the acceleration will result from force applied against the water loaded on the paddle blade, these acceleration curves for each stroke correspond pretty closely to the power curve.  Figure 3 is a plot of force vs. time for the canoe stroke of 2004 Olympic Champion Andreas Dittmer.  You can see the similarity of this curve to the acceleration curve above. Force output begins the moment the blade enters the water, rises rapidly as the blade is buried and the paddler begins to pull with positive blade angle, peaks when the blade is vertical, and then diminishes as the blade angle becomes increasingly negative.  

Figure 3

5.  Make your movements as direct and economical as possible

Direct movements are generally faster and take less time to complete than larger, less direct movements.  This can be especially important when paddling a craft like a SUP which is relatively short and fat compared to many paddle craft.  Because of their shape, SUPs don’t glide as much as many other paddle craft like, for example, sprint canoes and kayaks.  As such, it is important the movements like those at the exit and through the recovery be as direct as possible.  

These direct movements will take less time to complete than larger, less direct movements and to a degree, because they involve less movement, they will also take less energy.  This is important, as being faster they provide less time for the board to slow down between strokes allow the paddler to get back to accelerating their board again with a new stroke as quickly as possible.  

6.  Maximize the run of the board between strokes

The more speed a board can carry between strokes the faster it will go and the easier the next catch will be as there will be less work to do to re-accelerate it.  So, anything one can do to minimize loss of board speed between strokes is important.  

Having too slow a recovery (see fundamental 5 above) allows the board time to slow down too much.  Doing a poor job of managing your weight distribution and allowing your board to wobble excessively from side to side can slow the board down as well.  However, the biggest issues pertaining to this fundamental are associated with fundamental 1 and the ability (or inability) of the paddler to push him/herself past the paddle at the exit.  

Where you transition from pulling yourself to the paddle to pushing yourself past it at the exit is important.  Many paddlers make the mistake of waiting too long to begin their exit, making their exit less effective and reducing the acceleration it can provide at the end of the stroke.  Furthermore, many paddlers wait until after their blade has exited the water before reloading their body forward to the position required to start the next stroke.  This can not only result in less of a push past the paddle at the exit but a braking effect applied to the board instead.  Unfortunately, any time a significant amount of body mass moves forward on the board without the paddle blade in the water it will create an impulse that acts to move the board backwards.  This can translate into a fairly significant loss of speed between strokes.  

Good technique is a measure of how effectively one addresses each fundamental

When we see someone paddle and say they have “good technique”, we’re looking at how well they’re able to execute these six fundamentals as they paddle.  If they do them well, they’ll be padding efficiently and fast.  However as we’ve established, they’ll all look a little different as they do as they’ll each be using their unique physical tool kit.  

Interestingly, even though paddlers of different shapes and sizes, genders and ability all look a little different as they execute these fundamentals, it has been my experience in observation that the vast majority of paddlers seem to pass through a couple of common positions at various points within the stroke.  This is not readily apparent when viewing someone paddling in real time.  Nor is it immediately evident when watching someone paddle on video.  However, when videos are slowed down and run frame-by-frame, it becomes apparent that almost all paddlers with effective technique look essentially the same for a few frames each stroke.  While they all seem to pass through these common positions, it is the way they connect the dots between these positions that can make two paddlers look so different when they paddle.  

The fact the most paddlers seem to pass through common positions at the front of the stroke, at the end of the pull and at the exit creates a unique opportunity for teaching and learning technique.  It turns out that learning how to put your body into these positions on land makes it much easier to then find these positions on the water when paddling.  And once a paddler has learned how to find each of these positions on the water they can easily learn how to most effectively connect the dots between them.  In this way, I’ve found that good technique can be both taught and learned off the water and then transitioned to the board.  In coming issues of The Catch, we’ll look at this process and some of the drills involved in learning these important positions.  In the meantime, take some time to consider how you might better incorporate these six fundamentals into your own paddling.  Incremental improvements in how you execute each principle can make a considerable difference in how effectively, and fast, you paddle.  

Have fun and happy paddling!

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