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Stroke Rate and Gears in Paddling

One of the most confusing aspects of high-performance paddling for new paddlers is stroke rate or cadence.  Clearly, the way to go faster is to take more strokes.  Nobody goes fast without taking lots strokes to move their craft forward and, if you’re paddling on a craft like a SUP that doesn’t get nearly as much glide as a sprint canoe or kayak, it’s important to be mindful of cadence to keep the board moving at speed.  That said, the quality of the strokes you’re taking is every bit as important as the number of strokes you’re taking.  

Different individuals are going to want to paddle differently.  In previous discussions on technique, I’ve described how no two paddlers should try to paddle exactly the same.  As different individuals, they have different strengths and weaknesses that make them unique.  No two individuals are going to be exactly the same anthropometrically or be equally fit and, as such, each is going to have their own strengths they can apply to their paddling and weaknesses they need to try to overcome.  The right way for each to paddle is the way that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.  Each is going to have their own interpretation of the fundamentals of effective technique and each is going to choose to load their paddle slightly differently during the pull.  One might choose to take more strokes that aren’t as heavily loaded while the other might choose to take fewer, more heavily loaded strokes.  Again, there’s no right or wrong here if they are capitalizing maximally on their strengths.

Load on the paddle and stroke rate are, in all cases except for the shortest sprints, inversely proportional.  If your stroke is more heavily loaded, your sustainable stroke rate is going to be slower.  If your stroke is less heavily loaded, your sustainable stroke rate is going to be higher.  In this sense paddling is not unlike cycling.  Just as road and mountain bikes have up to 21 gears or more which allow the rider to select the load, in paddling we can choose the “gear” we want to paddle in simply by the amount of water we gather and hold on the blade during the stroke.  The key to successful paddling is being able to choose the right gear for our strengths and weaknesses, for the conditions, and for the distance that we are traveling or racing.  

The truth is that neither a fast, light stroke nor a slower, more powerful stroke is necessarily better.  What you might call the optimal stroke rate depends on a combination of factors such as the individual, the race distance and the conditions one is paddling in.  There is no such thing as a simple answer to which stroke rate or which gear is optimal.

Paddling basics and the concept of “gears”

Before diving into a discussion on gears and stroke rate, it’s worth refreshing our memory of what makes a paddle craft move through the water.  The basic premise of all paddle sports is to secure the paddle in the water in front of you and then pull yourself to the planted paddle.  When you reach the paddle, you continue to move the craft forward by pushing yourself past the paddle before exiting the water and preparing for the next stroke.  The better one is able to do this, the farther the boat/board moves each stroke.

Now, let’s consider stroke rate.  If two paddlers are moving the same distance each stroke but one can take more strokes in a given period of time, then the one taking the extra strokes will cover a given distance more quickly.  In general, if all things are equal, a faster stroke rate results in a faster speed.  The problem is, all things are rarely equal.  Some paddlers do a better job of securing their paddle than others, thus traveling further each stroke.  Others can’t seem to move their craft as far each stroke but seem to have a greater capacity to put in more strokes comfortably.  Both types of paddlers can be fast.  They just approach going fast from different directions.  

So, let’s consider the bicycle analogy again.  Everyone is familiar with the selection of gears available to a rider on a road or mountain bike.  When riding a bike, some people like to use a heavier gear in which their cadence is lower but the load on their muscles is heavier.  They take fewer pedal “strokes” but go quite fast for the number of “strokes” taken.  This plays to their muscular strength and power.  Others prefer lighter gears which means their cadence is higher but the load on their muscles is lighter.  They find it more comfortable to take more pedal “strokes” with less muscular effort to go fast.  This compensates for a comparative lack of power and allows them to feel like they are relying more on their aerobic system than “muscling it”.  

In paddling, the gear the paddler uses is basically a function of how much water is gathered and held on paddle blade in the stroke.  In general, the greater the water gathered and held on the blade through the stroke, the greater the load, the farther the craft moves each stroke, the heavier the stroke feels, and the slower the stroke rate is likely to be.  

Water gathered and held on the blade is often thought of as “connection” with the water, though I prefer to think of connection as having less to do with how much water is gathered and more to do with how well it is held on the paddle and how effectively and dynamically the paddler can engage big muscles and body weight against it to move the craft forward.  It is possible to be really well connected in a less heavily loaded, lighter, gear.  In fact, you should be trying to maximize your “connection” whether the gear you’re paddling in is “heavy” or “light”.  

Discover what a heavy gear feels like first

The first step to selecting your paddling gear is to establish some sort of understanding of just what a big load/heavy gear feels like.  Most paddlers haven’t done the requisite experimenting to understand just how much load you can find on the blade and maintain through the stroke if you try.  As a consequence, the range of gears they have to choose from is somewhat limited to the “lighter” end of the gear range.  

When teaching technique, I like to encourage people to find as big a load as possible initially.  This sees them finding a stroke that feels extremely powerful and moves the board a long way every stroke but leaves them commenting that it is so heavy it is not sustainable.  My response is always that that is good.  That it will get easier with time as they develop some comfort with this stroke and get stronger from doing it.  But I also tell them that once they’ve consolidated their technique and ability to find such a great load they can simply gather and hold a little less water on the blade to make the stroke lighter.  In fact, they can choose any gear they want just by adjusting the amount of water they gather and hold on the blade through the stroke.  In this sense, paddling is extremely similar to riding a bike in that we have a wide range of gears available.  

Why do I ask paddlers to go to the heaviest extreme first rather than have them just find the load the feels right immediately?  Well, if you don’t know what a heavy gear feels like, you really don’t understand how to find load and connection.  You’ll likely settle for a gear that you “think” is heavy when in fact it really isn’t.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  If you’ve experienced paddling with a really heavy gear and know how to easily find it, you’re much more likely to settle upon an optimal, sustainable, gear that is a little more loaded than you otherwise would.  You’ll also have a wider array of gears at your disposal to use in various situations as they arise, meaning you’ll always be able to find the most effective stroke possible for you.  So, how do you find that heavy gear? 

Maximize the amount of water you gather on the blade

In previous posts we’ve talked a lot about errors in the stroke, among them taking too long to get the blade buried and pulling rather than reaching to catch. Simply put, if you’re pulling the blade back before it is secure in the water, you’re failing to gather as much water on the blade as you should.  The more blade you can bury before you pull, the more water you’re going to gather on your blade.  This is step one to determining how heavily “loaded” your stroke is and ultimately the gear you’re paddling in.  However, our gear isn’t just determined by how much water we gather on the blade, but also by how much water we’re able to hold on it through the stroke.  

Understand and use the water column

The question I am frequently asked when we are discussing gears is “how do you change gears?”  Remember, a gear is not just a function of stroke rate, it’s also a function of load.  So, how do you hold more water on your blade through the stroke?  

The first step is to understand the concepts of “water as molecules” and “the water column”.  Water, is composed of molecules of H2O.  When water is a liquid, these molecules move freely.  This is what allows us to move through the water.  Unfortunately, it is also what makes it impossible to hold it in our hands or grab on to it. 

When our paddle enters the water and begins to gather water molecules on the blade face, there is pressure directed against those water molecules.  Because they are freely moving in liquid state, they are pushed together and the density of the water molecules in front of the blade face increases.  At the same time, the density of the water molecules on the back of the blade decreases as the blade begins to move in the water.  Because the water molecules want to remain at equilibrium or normal density, some of the molecules in front of the blade face will slip off the blade and fill in the area of lower density on the back side of the blade.  The can be seen if you pull a stroke with a partially buried blade like in figure 1.  In figure 1 you can see water piling up a bit in front of the blade face and slipping off the blade face and swirling into the space left on the back of the blade.  

Figure #1

This slippage of water from the blade face to the back of the blade represents a loss of connection or “grip” of the paddle blade with the water.  This is not unlike the loss of grip or traction you feel between your feet and the ground when running in snow or beach sand, where the snow or sand crumbles under the pressure of your foot and your foot slips back, losing some of the traction needed to propel you forward.  In both cases – paddling or running – this slippage results in a loss of connection that in turn leads to a loss of speed.  So, the question is, how do you prevent this slippage and maintain maximal connection during the stroke?

This is where the water column comes in.  Imagine the water molecules piled up on top of each other in a column from the surface to great depth.  Because water molecules are so incredibly small, this column is, for all intents and purposes, composed of a nearly infinite number of infinitesimally tiny layers of water molecules at any given moment.  The key to maintaining connection when water begins to slip off the blade face is to use the tip of your blade to probe deeper into the water column, finding a new layer of undisturbed water to work against.  For the briefest moment, your blade will continue to find maximal connection, until the water molecules in that layer also begin to slip off the blade face because of the increased density of water molecules in front of it.  

If, however, we keep probing the blade tip deeper into the water column to a new layer of undisturbed water before that slippage can occur, we can maintain optimal connection.  In short, if we use the blade tip and the water column in this fashion, we can maintain maximal connection by holding a maximal amount of water on our blade, from entry all the way through to the deepest point of our stroke.  Once we reach the deepest point in the stroke, which usually occurs when the blade angle is close to vertical, we can then use the water column and the shoulders of the blade to maintain connection in the same fashion as the blade rises through the water column towards the exit.  

Video #1

Video 1 shows an underwater view of a paddle stroke.  You can see that the paddle does not move straight back in the water, but rather probes deeper into the water before rising through the water column towards the exit.  This video is particularly cool because it also shows how the paddle does not move in the water but rather the board moves past the paddle.  Notice the leaf in the water.  The blade enters at the leaf and exits in the same place relative to the leaf.  In fact, the blade does not move.  Instead it is the board that moves past the paddle, illustrating the first of the six fundamentals of technique described here.

Video #2

Video 2 shows the same interaction of the blade and the water column, however in an exaggeratedly heavy gear.  Notice how much deeper the blade probes into the water column, maintaining optimal connection better than in video 1.  The paddler in video 2 would feel a much heavier load through the pull as there is less water slipping off the blade than in video 1 because of the greater use of the water column.  

Selecting your gear

Now that you’ve expanded your array of potential gears by learning how to gather and hold a maximal amount water on the blade, you need to determine the combination of load and stroke rate that is most effective for you in the conditions you’re paddling in.  There’s a balance you have to find between load and stroke rate in order to find your optimal stroke, and it is going to depend largely on your physical strengths and weaknesses.  Some paddlers will approach going fast from a “power” prospective by preferring a comparatively slow stroke rate with a heavy load.  Others are going to minimize the weight of their stroke in order to put in extra strokes and feel less load in their muscles.  The correct approach is the one that allows the paddler to maximize their physical strengths over the distance being raced and the conditions being raced in.  This generally leads to the best possible performance for the paddler.  

Just like mountain bike racers will use different gears for different terrain and conditions, advanced paddlers are able to adjust the load on their paddle on any given stroke to find what amounts to different gears.  They can grab and hold more water on their blade or they can, in the very next stroke, lessen the connection and lighten their stroke as the situation dictates.  They can paddle efficiently with good connection through a range of stroke rates and loads giving them a wide range of gears they can use to optimize their effort at any given point or in any situation in a race. 

Let’s take a look at things that affect a good paddler’s decision on what gear to use:

  • Long distance races: Generally speaking, the longer the race, the lighter the gear a paddler is going to want to use.  Being a guy that has always preferred a slightly heavier stroke, I make a real effort in long races to find a lighter stroke.  It just isn’t possible to maintain the connection I like for a 2 km or 5 km time trial, for example, in a long race like the Carolina Cup (20 km) or Chattajack (50 km).  This lighter stroke is characterized by a shallower pull and less use of the water column to hold water on the blade.  It allows one to take more strokes with each one requiring far less from your muscles, allowing them to last much longer and making your pace more sustainable.  
  • Sprint races: Short sprint races like 200m races require a super high stroke rate.  Witness Connor Baxter’s rate of approximately 120 strokes/minute at the 2022 ICF World Championships.  Since stroke rate and load are generally inversely proportional, one might expect sprint racers to paddle in a very light gear.  However, that’s not usually the case.  Sprint racing generally sees paddlers pulling pretty heavily loaded strokes considering the rate they are pulling at.  Since the races are so short, usually lasting less than one minute, it’s possible to pull a heavy load with a high rate.  If you’re training to race 200m don’t fall into the trap of thinking just about stroke rate.  You’ll want to think of load as well and find the optimal combination of load/rate for the short distance you’re racing. Just note that the inverse proportionality between load and rate doesn’t apply to sprints as much as other distances.  

The other aspect of gears in sprint racing is that just like you have to shift through gears in a car when you accelerate from zero to sixty, you’ll need to go through some gears as you accelerate your boat/board from a dead stop to top speed as quickly as possible.  In general, you need to start with a couple of really well-connected strokes to get the boat/board moving.  They’ll be a little slower as nobody has the strength to pull well-connected strokes much faster than the speed that the craft they’re paddling is moving. As the boat/board gains speed, your stroke rate can increase.  Once the boat/board has a little speed you’re going to take some lighter, super-fast strokes to accelerate to top speed as quickly as possible.  Once at top speed, you transition into a traveling speed that is sustainable for the distance you’re racing. It’ll probably see you paddling with a little heavier load and very slightly slower rate.  

It’s important to note that good sprinters go through these gears really quickly, to the point where it is often hard for the uninitiated eye to discern the difference between them.  As you start to learn to sprint you’ll discover the need to run through these gears.  As you get better at sprinting you’ll rip through these gears really quickly and instinctively.

  • Headwinds:  Gear selection in headwinds depends on the strength of the wind you’re paddling into.  In general, you’ll need a more heavily loaded stroke in a headwind but at the same you’ll need to minimize the time the paddle is in the air between strokes.  So, with perhaps a bit of a slower but more heavily loaded stroke in the water but faster recovery in the air, the stroke rate may not be much different from paddling in calm conditions.  However, the tempo within the stroke cycle itself will change. 
  • Tailwinds:  Generally, when paddling in flatwater in a tailwind a lighter, more dynamic and thus faster stroke is most efficient.  
  • Downwinding: True downwinding, where you’re riding bumps is where a paddler can really benefit from having an array of different gears at their disposal.  Good downwinding requires the ability to not only change the load on the blade and the stroke rate immediately as conditions dictate, but also the stroke length and technique.  There are times when a paddler has to pull themselves onto a wave where they need to dig really deep with a really high rate, just like when sprinting.  Then suddenly they can be paddling with a lighter load providing just enough impulse to keep the boat/board on the wave.  The most common mistake novice paddlers make when downwinding is not varying gears as required.  They end up paddling steady in the same gear despite what is going on with the conditions around them.  They’re essentially just paddling in waves, rather than downwinding.
  • Drafting:  Drafting is similar to downwinding in that it requires the paddler to use a range of gears and change those gears from one stroke to the next as required.  The objective of drafting, of course, is to do whatever is necessary to stay on the wash and relax as much as possible.  This can require rapid gear changes, though ideally the paddler should be using the lightest gear possible to minimize the load on their muscles, with a slightly faster stroke.  

Determining your optimal gear in flat water

To really get the most out of your paddling you’ll need to figure out what your “optimal” gear is for your “traveling speed” in neutral conditions.  In my opinion you can’t do this without your GPS mounted where you can see it so you can get pace/speed information while paddling.  

Paddle in calm water with no wind or current.  I’d suggest getting a good warm up and then doing two to three-minute pieces with at least one-minute rest.  Do your first piece at what you think feels like a good stroke in terms of power and rate.  Monitor your speed/pace.  Try to assess how sustainable it feels.  If you have a heart rate monitor, mount it where you can see it as well and monitor HR.  It can give you some objective information on sustainability as, in theory, a higher HR should indicate a less sustainable stroke than a lower HR.  

Do your second piece and change gears by either making the load heavier (and stroke rate a little slower) or lighter with the stroke rate a little faster.  Again, check the speed/pace reading on your GPS.  Check the HR and make a subjective assessment of sustainability.  

Do a few more pieces in different gears, each determined by the load/stroke rate combination.  Inach piece, assess the speed and the sustainability.  After five or six runs you should have a pretty good idea of which gear feels best.  Now it’s time to put that gear to the test in your training.  

Over the next several flatwater sessions, find that gear and see how sustainable it is over various distances.  Learn to add slightly more load to it in shorter pieces and lighten it just a little bit over longer distances.  Keep an eye on the speed as you do, and of course, always assess how sustainable it feels.  Within a short period of time, you’ll find that you are paddling in a gear that is pretty much optimal for you, and you’ll have insight into how to slightly adjust the load (and therefore the gear) as conditions change or as the distance you’re paddling varies.  

Recalibrating your optimal gear

Your optimal gear is always going to be evolving.  As you become fitter and more experienced the balance between load and stroke rate at which you feel most comfortable will probably change.  Expect your optimal gear to change through the paddling season as a result of the training you’ve done.  This evolution is natural and at some point, you’ll intuitively know where your optimal balance between load and rate lies and you’ll adjust to your new optimal gear without even realizing you’re doing it.  

It’s important to always be mindful of how sustainable your paddling feels – are you able to maintain that load and rate for the distance that you’re paddling?  It’s vitally important to use your GPS, mounted where you can see it, as much as possible.  The information it provides you about your speed is essential and you can cross reference it against your impression of what’s sustainable, allowing you to lock into new optimal gears pretty easily as your paddling evolves.  

What can you do to increase both the load AND stroke rate to find a new gear?

Of course, there’s no reason to think that your ability to find load on your paddle and pull against it at a particular rate aren’t going to change.  While it may be true that, generally speaking, load and rate are inversely proportional, you can increase both through accomplishing a few simple things through lots of hard training.

  • Improve your technique: I’m willing to bet that everyone can gain more from increasing their connection than increasing their rate.  In whatever gear you currently feel most comfortable in, I am certain that it is possible to improve the connection so that you can pull more dynamically, better engaging big muscles and using body weight more effectively.  When you start to do this, you’ll find you travel further every stroke and will likely be able to go faster at a slower rate. 
  • Make your technique more dynamic:  You can be doing everything right technically and find a really good load on your blade, but if your movements against that load aren’t dynamic you’re going to be moving slower than you should be and you’re going to get tired more quickly than you should.  Learning to attack the water aggressively as you gather water on your blade and work more quickly against the water you’re holding on the paddle without letting any of it slip off blade is what being dynamic is all about.  Learning to aggressively attack the water as you’re gathering, without sacrificing any load, starts your stroke with some momentum that makes the rest of the stroke more dynamic and easier.  It’s an acquired skill, but layered it on top of sound technique that effectively engages big muscles and body weight, it’s going to enable you to paddle with greater load and a higher rate, thus making you considerably faster.  
  • Improve your strength and power:  The stronger you are and the more power you can generate, the more capable you’ll be of paddling sustainably in a heavier gear with a higher rate.  This can be achieved to some degree on the water by using a resistor, but you’ll really want to spend some quality time in the gym to develop enough strength to make a noticeable difference.  

Training max strength and power will give you the horsepower to pull a more heavily loaded blade more easily, while training power endurance will give you the ability to do it more sustainably for a longer period of time.  

Remember, improving strength and power won’t help you find a better connection.  You’ll have to improve your technique to do that.  However, it will help you deal with greater load more easily, allowing you to paddle efficiently with a faster rate while maintaining connection.  This in turn increases your speed.  

  • Improve your cardiovascular fitness:  Improving your aerobic ability is going to allow you to better deliver oxygen to working muscles.  This in turn will allow you to work against a higher load or at a higher rate more aerobically without having to call upon your anaerobic-lactic energy system, saving you from having to deal with the issues resulting from excessive lactic acid production.  

Doing higher level interval training at or above your anaerobic threshold will both help you develop the ability to delay the onset of large amounts of lactate and at the same time better tolerate lactic acid in your muscles as it develops, and this should allow you to use even higher gears with greater stroke rate/load combinations for limited periods during races without jeopardizing your ability to stay on optimal pace for the remainder of the race.

Changes in your optimal gear are going to be incremental.  You aren’t going to be able to dramatically change your ideal gear overnight.  However, if you take on trying to increase your ability to handle greater load at a higher rate by enhancing both technique and fitness you’re sure to see considerable improvement in time.  

Have fun playing with different loads on your paddle blade and trying to increase your stroke rate without sacrificing connection.  And, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments below.  

Happy paddling!


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