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Improving Technique and Developing Specific Strength with a Resistor

I don't believe in spending a lot of time trying to find gym exercises that mimic the paddling motion.  If I'm in the gym I'd much rather work on whatever component of strength I'm working on in more general, less specific, terms.  I think it is enough to train the muscle groups you use in paddling and the neural pathways that recruit those muscles for explosive, powerful contractions without trying to duplicate the exact paddling motion.  The simple truth is it cant be duplicated.  The fact of the matter is, as hard as you might try, youll be hard pressed to come up with an exercise that mimics the feel of the paddling motion exactly.

The best exercise for paddling is paddling as I discussed last month in the article Paddling Machines Yes or No? . So, the best way to develop strength specific for the paddling motion is to find a way to do it while actually paddling.

Developing specific strength

While we tend to think of the weight room as the place to develop strength and the board as the place to apply that strength, its possible to train specific strength - that is strength specific to the paddling motion - on your board through the use of resistance training.

Resistance training involves either paddling with something wrapped around your board to increase drag or towing something behind you.  In both cases, youre essentially paddling with the brakes on and whatever tool youre using as the brakes is your resistor.  I've used both types of resistor over the years and personally prefer wrapping something around the board to dragging something, although back in my National Team days we did have fun one year at ourFlorida training camp when a bunch of us bought plastic tugboats at Walmart which we towedbehind our C1s.  The problem was they would inevitably capsize and then create way more drag than was intended!

Using a resistor increases the drag and makes the board move through the water much more slowly.  This tends to make the stroke feel much more heavily loaded. In making the stroke feel heavier because the board moves much more slowly, the extra load you feel every stroke helps you build strength in your paddling muscles in the precise paddling movements. You dont have to try to mimic the paddling motion to try to build strength in your paddling muscles like you do in the gym because youre actually paddling.  If you do the right amount of resistor work and do it the right way, you'll get stronger on your paddle but won't lose the feeling of a dynamic stroke that you should always be working on.  In fact, using a resistor can help you learn how to paddle better and be more dynamic.

Using a resistor to enhance technique

The other big benefit of resistance training is that it can help you improve your technique.  One of the problems that many paddlers have is difficulty properly loading their paddle by gathering and holding water on their blade.  As they begin their catch, the blade entering the water starts the board moving forward, even before the blade is fully buried.  This is especially true on narrower boards, where there is much less resistance to the boards forward movement through the water.  With the board accelerating forward before the paddler has actually fully set their blade, it is hard for them to find connection to work against.

I still experience this every time I move from a wider board to a narrower board. I expect to have a certain amount of time to bury and begin to load my paddle but, because the board is narrower than I am used to, it begins to accelerate earlier and more rapidly than I am used to.  This leaves me feeling like I am behind my board with my paddle work and, as I result, I feel like I am trying to catch up to the board for the rest of my stroke.  This results in inferior connection and a feeling that I am spinning my wheels.  It usually takes me about 5 km of paddling to adjust to this and find a feeling of normal connection when moving from my 14 x 23All Star to my 14 x 19.75 Sprint.  At least I have a very good idea of what I am looking for in terms of connection as I make the necessary adjustments.  Now, imagine what it is like if you are still learning to find connection.  It turns out that most paddlers learning to find connection are just a little bit behind the board with their pull, and they arent going to find really effective connection until they can catch up to their board.

Catching up to the board isnt just a question of pulling faster.  Attempting to do this usually results in one pulling the blade through the water rather than pulling themselves past the blade.  If this happens, in attempting improve connection the paddler is actually making it worse.  Whats needed is a way to slow the board down to allow the paddler to learn to pull in time with the boards movement, finding connection in the process. This is where a resistor helps.

Adding drag from a resistor makes it harder to pull a stroke without finding good load and the connection that comes with it.  Slowing the board down gives the paddler time to feel water load up on the blade as they catch and helps them hold it there as they work against that load through the stroke. This helps increase connection dramatically, and the cool thing about good connection is once youve really felt it youll always be looking for it.  

If the resistor is big enough, the increased drag it creates can make the water feel almost as solid as dry land as it's gathered and loaded on the paddle blade.  Even someone who is reluctant to trust their blade to take their body weight and support them will suddenly feel how the fully loaded blade can support them. Once they learn what it feels like for the blade to support their body weight, they can gradually move through a series of smaller resistors and at the end of the process almost certainly be able to load their blade better.

Lastly, a resistor can be a useful way for a paddler to isolate a particular part of the stroke in order to improve it.  By making the entire stroke heavier, the increased drag allows that paddler a chance to better feel the water on the blade at each spot in the stroke, better feel the muscles being used, and better understand the sequencing of contraction and relaxation of those muscles.  This affords the paddler a better understanding of how to execute proper technique in each part of the stroke and make any adjustments or corrections in their technique that may be necessary. Obviously, repetition is key when using a resistor to improve connection and command of technique, and repeating the process with increasingly smaller resistors can help the paddler correct almost any technical flaw and find a way to eventually feel enhancedconnection with the water with no added resistance.

Making your own resistor

So, what should you use to create more drag and slow your board down?   The easiest way is to simply undo your leash and toss it behind you so you are dragging it in the water while youre paddling.  Youll immediately feel the braking effect and the increased load that comes from the board being harder to pull by the paddle.  However, taking your leash off can be unsafe in many conditions and it will provide a bit of an uneven load as it will tend to rise in the water and start to skip atop the surface as you pick up speed.  In my opinion, a much better option is a wrap-around resistor because you feel a more constant resistance as speed changes.  Resistors you drag tend to pop out of the water a bit the faster you go, diminishing drag.  

By far the best resistor that I have found, and one that provides varying levels of resistance, is a bungee with three tennis balls threaded onto it (see figure 1).  To make your own, simply get a canister of tennis balls and cut an X in each pole of each ball using a box cutter knife.  I strongly recommend you wear work gloves while doing this and exercise extreme caution.  Tennis balls are surprisingly difficult to cut and box cutters are very sharp.  One slip and you can end up seriously cutting your hands.  I actually put the tennis balls in a vice while cutting them.  Once youve cut the balls simply thread the bungee though them and youve got your resistor.

Figure 1



How to use your resistor

If youre working on isolating and correcting a technical flaw, youll want to start slow with the big resistance provided by three tennis balls.  Take the bungee and wrap it around your board just in front of where the board begins to really widen, making sure the balls are centered on the bottom side of the board.  On my Starboard boards, this is approximately where the plug is for mounting a GPS or GoPro (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Youll immediately notice that it is really hard to pull a stroke against this much load and that the board moves very slowly compared to normal.  As you isolate the point in the stroke youre working on youll find that the added load and slower speed caused by the resistor allows you to better feel how youre moving and provides you with more time and increased neuromuscular feedback, both of which make implementing adjustments to your movement much easier.  Simply isolate what youre working on and use the extra feeling the resistance provides you to correct your movement.  Id recommend paddling for very short intervals at first as youre learning new movements, gradually lengthening them as you feel youre making some progress in adjusting your stroke.  The idea is to maximize the number of good strokes you take (which incorporate the changes youre trying to make) and minimize the number of bad strokes you take.  So, as soon as you start to feel like you arent doing exactly what you are trying to do, stop and refocus, before starting again.  Gradually youll be able to increase the number of strokes you take before needing to stop and refocus.

I usually recommend using the huge resistance provided by all three tennis balls for only 10 to 15 minutes, maximum.  Any more and youre increasing the risk of injury and overloading your nervous system which is counterproductive when trying to learn a new movement.  At that point, Id suggest dropping down to two balls (just pull one ball along the bungee and on to the top of your board) and seeing if you can still feel the technique and connection you felt with three tennis balls with the lighter load of only two.  As the board will move a little faster with less resistance, youll have to work a little more dynamically against the water youve got gathered on your blade.  Id suggest doing this for another 10 to 15 minutes, stopping when you feel you need to refocus, before removing all the tennis balls and using just the bungee.  Repeat the process for another 10 15 minutes and then try paddling with no resistance. Gradually weaning yourself from resistance should allow you a better chance to feel a really good connection with no resistance.  

If youre working on specific strength (actually we could call it specific power) you dont want to start with the biggest resistance.  In this instance youll want to make a real effort to paddle dynamically even though it will be very difficult with any added resistance.  Remember, youre not interested in slow muscular contractions when paddling.  You want to be able to paddle with explosive, dynamic contractions, so try to work explosively against the extra resistance you use. Generally, youll find this easier to do in some shorter intervals of two minutes or less.  Starting with a smaller resistance, like that provided by just the bungee, should allow you to build up strength in your muscles and connective tissue over time and some tolerance to the effects of added resistance.  In time you can carefully add more load, but remember that pulling dynamically when working on specific strength is a lot harder on muscles and connective tissue than pulling more slowly and deliberately against the resistance like you do while working on technique.  

Obviously, there is some cross-over in the outcomes you get when using resistance.  For instance, when using the big load of three tennis balls when working on technique there is still an element of specific strength to what you are doing.  Similarly, when attempting to pull dynamically against the resistance while working on specific strength, youre imprinting more explosive, dynamic movements on your nervous system.  This has a huge impact on the development of the technique youll use at race intensity. 

Troubleshooting and precautions

There are a few things you need to be aware of when using resistance that will make your workout more effective and reduce any chance of injury or harm to your technique.

Make sure your tennis balls are centered in the middle of your board or they will play havoc with your steering.  You should be able to track pretty much normally if they are properly centered.
Wrap the bungee around your board in front of where you stand and in front of the widest point on the board (see figure 2) If you wrap it around a point further back it could get in your way as you paddle or you may even lose it during your workout as it could slide offthe back of the board.
Because resistors create a much greater load on your paddling muscles, get a good warm up first and gradually build up to hard dynamic paddling to reduce risk of injury
Dont over use this training modality.  The most sprint canoe-kayak athletes use resistance when paddling is two times per week, and rarely for more than 30 minutes of total paddling.  Overusing your resistor can lead to injury, nervous system fatigue and can, over time, harm your technique by slowing your motion down.  Remember it is all about being dynamic and always working more quickly with your blade against the water than your board is moving through the water.  If you do too much paddling on a board slowed down by a resistor it is inevitable that your stroke will slow down as well, despite your best effort to be dynamic.

Give it a try.  Im confident youll find using a resistor becomes an important part of your training program!

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