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Racing in long distance races that last several hours, like Chattajack, can be exhausting.  Obviously, one of the easiest ways you can chew up distance and minimize fatigue is by drafting.  However, it’s not always possible to draft.  Sometimes you get dropped from the draft train or just can’t find anyone your speed to draft with in the first place.  Fortunately, there’s another way you can keep your board moving and relieve fatigue a little, even to the point where your paddling muscles have a chance to refresh a bit, just like they would while drafting.  

Before one of my early Chattajacks, I did a clinic the day before race day.  Most of the paddlers in the clinic were a little nervous about the 31 miles/50 kilometers they were going to be paddling on race day.  Rather than focusing on paddle technique to the degree I normally do when I teach clinics, most of my time was spent helping the paddlers get a feel for what to expect on race day and helping them learn to draft more effectively (there’s lots of information available about drafting on this site, just use the search engine and enter “drafting”).  However, I also shared one trick with them that I had found useful in my first Chattajack and that I thought would help each them if they tried to use it in the race.

The next day after the race, almost all of them approached me and thanked me for sharing that trick with them.  To a person they had used it during the race and had found it really useful in helping them deal with fatigue, keep their board moving even when tired and allow them little bits of “rest” throughout the course.

Repetitive motion

No matter how fit you are, repetitive motion, if done long enough, is eventually going to cause fatigue in the muscles driving that motion.  Doing things like using the right gear can make the motion’s load on the muscles easier and delay the onset of muscular fatigue, but if you do any motion long enough, fatigue is inevitable.  Similarly, making sure your nutrition and hydration are on point can delay the onset of fatigue, but eventually repetitive motion like that of a paddle stroke is going to cause fatigue in the muscles you’re using.

Drafting

In paddling, drafting, as it is in cycling (though the dynamics are totally different), is a way around the onset of muscular fatigue.  Positioning our board on the wake of the leading board allows us to essentially surf the wave coming off of it, allowing us to travel at the speed of the lead board with less effort each stroke.  

However, the benefit of drafting in delaying the onset of fatigue in long races isn’t just due to the effect of the wave riding.  It’s also a result of the fact that riding the wash of a leading craft allows us to paddle a little differently. 

Typically, when wash riding, you’re able to stand up straighter, take shorter, less loaded strokes and are able to get away with using less legs, hips and core.  Your motion changes considerably since all you’re really trying to do is stay in the “sweet spot” on the wash.  Taking shorter, less loaded and slightly faster strokes provides you with all the forward impulse you need to stay on the wash while allowing you to make more rapid steering corrections that may be needed to stay properly positioned on the wave you’re riding.  

This “wash riding stroke” is sufficiently different from the normal paddling stroke for most paddlers that it provides the muscles used in the normal stroke a chance to rest.  Thus, drafting provides you with a double benefit – the ride you get from the wash itself and the fact that you can do it with a different stroke that takes a little of the load off your normal paddling muscles and gives them a chance to rest.  

Using a different or “alternative” motion to create forward movement

There are lots of examples in endurance sports of different or “alternative” movements being used to create forward movement without causing an appreciable drop in speed.  

Consider cross country skiing.  Whether skiing classic or skate skiing, you can switch from your normal stride to double poling.  Or, if you’re skiing classic, you can single kick while double poling.  You can even alternate legs when single kicking to lessen the load on the muscles you’re using.  While admittedly the technique you use while skiing is often related to the terrain, switching techniques is a great strategy to relieve tiring muscles.  

Consider how different muscles are used in each technique.  When the set of muscles used in one technique start to get really tired, changing the technique allows those muscles to rest while you engage a new set of muscles in an alternative technique.  Changing back and forth between these techniques can help ensure that neither group of muscles becomes overly fatigued or fatigue too quickly.

Similarly, consider prone paddleboarding.  In prone, you can paddle lying down, using one arm at a time, or on your knees, using both arms at once.  These motions are sufficiently different that the group of muscles used in one motion, both to generate power and for stability and support, can rest to a degree while you use the other.  

Even cycling demonstrates an example of this.  How you’re holding the handlebars affects your posture, and this, to some degree, impacts how the legs are used.  Cyclists periodically change positions as they get tired from the position they’ve been in so they can give those muscles a chance to rest.

Clearly, using an alternative movement to delay the onset of muscle fatigue is a strategy common in endurance sports.  Why shouldn’t it work for a SUP paddler?

Finding your alternative SUP stroke

Obviously, the key to success in SUP lies in having a really effective forward stroke.  We’ve talked at length on this site about the key elements of a forward stroke.  If you’ve missed out on this conversation, it might be worth catching up on the “Six Fundamentals of SUP Technique”.  You’re just not going to be as successful as you could be if you can’t find a way to maximize your ability to execute these fundamentals.  Striving to do so is going to result in development of a technique that allows you to optimize your stroke.  

However, as optimal as this stroke might be, you’re still going to get tired using it in long races.  It’s inevitable.  What if you could find a way to keep a high percentage of your board speed for short periods while moving in a manner that is sufficiently different enough to allow you to rest the muscles you use in your optimal stroke?   This is the trick I shared with the paddlers in that pre-Chattajack clinic.  

An optimal stroke should involve the use of body weight and big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles.  This means it’s likely using a considerable amount of legs and core to generate power, and bend at the waist to engage body weight.   These muscles are large muscles and won’t tire as quickly in the paddling motion as smaller muscles.  Engaging body weight helps take load off of these muscles and protects them from fatigue as well as adds to the power they produce.  However, if you paddle hard enough or long enough, these muscles are eventually going to tire.  When they do, your pull is likely to feel heavier and less dynamic.  Your board is going to sink a little deeper in the water, making the stroke even harder, which in turn causes you to fatigue even more.  

Finding a way to give these muscles a bit of a break before they get too fatigued can help prevent your stroke from ending up feeling heavy to the point where it is hard to recover the feeling of a light, dynamic stroke necessary for going fast over long distances.  

Just as it is for skiers and prone paddlers, an alternative motion is the answer.  In this case, you’re looking for something that sort of replicates the stroke you use when drafting.  

The first thing I would try when experimenting with an alternative stroke is standing up straighter, with straighter legs.  Once your legs get really fatigued in SUP paddling you’re in trouble.  You’ll have a really hard time generating power and even maintaining balance.  And, once your legs get really tired it’s hard to get the pep back in them.  Standing with legs that are straighter (but never locked straight at the knees) is going to take a lot of the pressure off the big muscles in your legs and give them a bit of a rest.  

Because leg bend is closely related to hip motion, straighter legs are going to affect the way you’re able to use your hips.  With your hips and legs moving less, you’re going to have to find a new way to use them to generate the power they contribute to your optimal stroke.  I’d suggest using more hip rotation rather than backward movement.  Driving the paddling side hip back while the inside hip moves forward, rather than thrusting both sides of your hips back as a unit with associated leg bend, can still provide a lot of power and keep your board moving forward.  

Since you’re not bending your legs as much and are standing up straighter, your blade won’t be probing as deep into the water column each stroke, meaning you’ll be paddling in a lighter gear.  Of course, since load and stroke rate are inversely proportional, if you’re paddling in a lighter gear, you’ll need to have a faster stroke to maintain speed.  A shorter, more upright stroke driven by hip rotation should allow you to paddle with a faster, lighter stroke and keep your board moving at a fairly high percentage of your normal traveling pace.  

To be clear, if you’re sprinting, switching to this alternative technique wouldn’t be a good idea.  It’s not nearly as capable of producing the same power as your optimal stroke that uses more legs, hips and body weight and makes greater use of the water column.  You won’t have the same capacity to generate speed with this stroke.  However, we’re talking about distance racing here.  You’re not moving close to your sprint speed.  This alternative stroke, once you’ve had some time to develop some comfort with it, can generate a pretty high percentage of the traveling speed you use in a distance race. 

VIdeo #1

To give you an idea of how different an alternative stroke can look (and should if it is going to provide a chance to rest the muscles used in your optimal stroke), I’ve included two videos.  Video 1 shows my optimal stroke.  This is the one I use in distance paddling when I am not drafting or needing a rest.  I bend my legs a lot more and bend at the waist a lot more to get a considerably deeper stroke.  Video 2 shows my much more erect, shorter, more rotationally based alternative stroke that I’ll use periodically in a distance race to give the muscles I use in my optimal stroke a rest.  This stroke is not unlike how I paddle when drafting on the tail wash.  The movement patterns are similar, but there’s a lot less legs and “crouching” in this stroke.  When I’m doing it, I feel like I am standing very erect and using minimal legs and more compact hips.  

Video #2

Interestingly enough, my traveling pace while paddling in video 1 was about 5:40/km in a pretty strong headwind, while in video 2 it was 5:30/km going the other way in the tailwind.  It’s clear that using this alternative stroke for anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes here or there over the course of a long-distance race doesn’t cost me a lot in terms of speed while it gives the muscles I use in my optimal stroke a much-needed rest.  

Exactly how you do your alternative stroke is going to be the result of some experimentation.  Just as we all paddle a little differently while trying to execute the same six basic fundamentals in our optimal strokes, our alternative strokes are going to look a little different as well.  If you’re a racing Chattajack or another long-distance race, I’d strongly suggest that experimenting with an alternative stroke be something you include as part of “leaving no stone left unturned” in your preparation.  It can have a huge impact over races that last over 2 hours or more.  

*

Long distance racing can be really challenging, but also really fun.  There’s lots more that goes into long distance racing than initially meets the eye.  Developing little tricks that allow you to sustain a high level of output for long periods can be a key part of helping you reach your distance racing goals.  Give developing an “alternative stroke” a try.  I’m pretty certain you’ll find it really helpful.

Happy paddling!

Larry

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