Thursday 21 March 2013

Stroke Rate in SUP Paddling

I thought I would take a break from the Training for SUP series of posts on periodized training that I’ve been working on and talk a little about stroke rate as I’ve seen and heard a lot of discussions on that topic recently. Basically people are asserting that a fast stroke rate makes for a faster moving board. Whether people have seen a top paddler winning a race with a very fast stroke rate and decided that a high stroke rate must definitely be better or they just intuitively think that more strokes equals a faster board, the relationship between board speed and stroke rate isn’t quite so simple.

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 you’re paddling in. There is no quick and simple answer to which stroke rate is optimal.

Before considering stroke rate, let’s refresh our memory of what makes a board 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 by the planted paddle. The better you do that the farther your board goes each stroke.

Now let’s consider stroke rate. If two people move their board 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 race distance more quickly. In general, if all things are equal, a faster stroke rate will result 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 travel further each stroke. Others can’t seem to move their board as far each stroke but seem to have a greater capacity to put in strokes. Both types of paddlers can be fast. They just approach going fast from different directions.

The reality is that paddling any watercraft is not a lot different than riding a bike. 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 really heavy gear. They take fewer pedal strokes but go quite fast for the number of pedal strokes taken. Others prefer lighter gears and find it more comfortable to take more pedal strokes with a less muscular effort to go fast. In our sport the gear the paddler uses is basically a function of how well connected their paddle blade is to the water. In general the greater the connection the greater the load, the farther the board moves each stroke, the heavier the stroke feels and the slower the stroke rate is likely to be. Therefore the stroke rate you see a paddler using is to a large extent determined by their connection to the water. In fact there is a balance that every paddler has to explore between stroke rate and connection in order to find his or her optimal stroke.

Each paddler, depending on their fitness strengths and weaknesses, is going to have an optimal stroke rate/connection combination. Some will approach going fast from a power perspective, using a relatively slow stroke rate with a very connected paddle. Others will minimize the “weight” of their stroke in order to put in extra strokes and feel less load in their muscles each stroke. The correct approach is the one that allows the paddler to maximize their physical strengths over the distance being raced. This generally will lead 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 their connection on any given stroke to find what amounts to different gears. They can grab and hold more water behind their blade thus increasing connection or they can lessen their connection and lighten their stroke. Given the relationship between connection and stroke rate this means they can paddle reasonably efficiently through a range of stroke rates. In effect they have a wide range of gears they can use (just like the bicycle racer) to optimize their effort at any given point, or for any situation, in a race. While it is true that even advanced paddlers have a favorite gear (mine is slightly on the heavier connection, slower stroke side), their ability to use a variety of gears allows them to be versatile and use the best gear possible for the circumstances they are paddling in.

Lets take a look at things that affect a good paddler’s decision on what gear/stroke rate 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 prefers a slightly heavier stroke I can tell you that in long races I make a real effort to find a lighter stroke. I just can’t maintain the connection I like most for 2 hour plus races like the Carolina Cup without lightening it a little. This results in a slightly higher stroke rate.
  • Sprint races: Short sprint races require a high stroke rate. But the question is how high is optimal? Connection should actually increase in a sprint in order to get maximal power on each stroke. Dynamic body movements can make that big connection feel lighter and thus allow you to use it with a high stroke rate, but it is extremely taxing so you can’t do it for long. Doing all out sprints in practice with a GPS will help you determine just where the balance between connection and stroke rate lies for you in a sprint. Furthermore, just like you have to shift through the gears in a car when you accelerate from zero to sixty, you need to go through some gears as you accelerate your board. Your start will need a couple of really connected strokes to get the board moving, then lighter, faster strokes to accelerate it to top speed as quickly as possible followed by a transition into your travelling speed in which you’ll want to find a bit more load on your blade thus slowing your stroke down a little. Of course as you train, your capability to both maintain a big connection and keep that connection effective with a faster stroke will improve. Daily use of your GPS will help you monitor this so you’ll be finely tuned to your optimal stroke whenever it is you are racing.
  • Headwinds: Headwind paddling generally requires a heavier, more loaded stroke. As such the time the blade spends in the water during each stroke should increase. However headwinds will blow you backwards when your blade is out of the water, so when paddling in strong headwinds you’ll want to try to minimize the time the recovery phase of your stroke takes. This means that stroke rate probably won’t change a lot in a headwind, but the tempo within the stroke cycle itself will need to change somewhat.
  • Tailwinds: When paddling in flat water in a tailwind a lighter, more dynamic and thus faster stroke is generally most efficient.
  • Downwind conditions in big water: These are the conditions in which a paddler can really benefit by having a bunch of different gears (connection/stroke rate combinations) at his/her disposal. Good downwinding requires the ability to not only change the load on the blade and stroke rate, but also stroke length and technique as you go from catching waves to riding waves to paddling uphill between waves.
  •  Drafting: Drafting is similar to downwind conditions in that it requires the paddler to use a range of gears. The paddler who is drafting needs to do whatever is necessary in terms of stroke rate and connection to stay on the wash while at the same time getting the full benefit of relaxing as much as possible. The paddler should be prepared to change their gear from one stroke to the next as necessary. 

Determining your Optimal Gear
Anyone who wants to get the most out of their paddling needs to figure out their optimal gear (stroke rate/connection combination). To do this you’ll need the following:
  • A stretch of flat, calm water with no current or wind;
  • A GPS set to give you a speed measurement;
  • If no GPS then you need an accurately measured distance (500m to 2km) and some type of timing device;
  • A heart rate monitor.
You’ll need to do a number of runs across the stretch of water you are using. You should do them all in one direction to eliminate current or wind affecting the information you collect. I’d suggest using 500m as your run distance. It should take most paddlers at least 3 minutes, which is long enough to get a good idea of the travelling pace you might use for a longer distance, yet not so long that your information will be compromised by fatigue as you move from one trial run to the next. If you have someone in a motor boat who can help you with this test by timing or taking stroke rate information and recording it, it will make it easier for you to collect your data. If you don’t have this type of assistance you’ll have to time and count strokes on your own and record the information yourself between runs.
Start by doing a run (with a running start) with what feels like your normal stroke at a pace that you think represents the travelling pace you’d use for a typical distance race. If you have a GPS, mount it on your board so you can see the information it provides. You’ll also want to start it and stop it at the start and end of each run so you can determine your average speed for the distance. You should count the number of strokes it takes you to cover the distance. If you don’t have a GPS then you should time your run instead and still count the number of strokes you use. You’ll also want to record your heart rate in each as it represents a way to control effort. If you don’t have a HR monitor then you’ll have to determine it manually with a 10 second count at the end of each run. Record this data when you finish one run and are resting before the next. If you have someone helping you they can do the timing, counting and recording for you.
In the next run you should try to alter your stroke rate/connection balance a little. Try making your stroke a little heavier by trying to grab more water behind your blade at the catch and load a little more body weight on the blade through the stroke. With this new connection do another trial run. Record your time and stroke count data or record your GPS speed data against stroke count as well as HR. On the next run try covering the distance with a lighter than normal stroke. You’ll find it easier to put in more strokes, but are you going as fast? Again record the data. You should play around with a couple more “gears”, both heavier and lighter, on different runs and record the data. It is important to try to make the same effort on each run and this is where recording HR comes in as it represents an easy way to control intensity. Ideally your HR should be the same on each trial so it may be worth setting some limits on your HR monitor and trying to stay within them during each run.
When you are finished you need to calculate your average speed for the distance covered on each run and calculate your stroke rate (number of strokes/minute). As there is no easy way to quantifiably measure connection, you need to rely on a subjective assessment of what your connection feels like effort wise in each run. Despite your best efforts to maintain a constant HR during each run you’ll likely see it go higher in one run and lower in another.
Determine which trial is the fastest with the least perceived effort and, if there is variation in your HR, has the lowest HR. The gear used in that trial is probably your optimal one, although I would repeat this test a few times over a one or two-week period to get an even more accurate idea of where your optimal balance between stroke rate and connection lies. You should consider the stroke rate you used in that optimal gear to be your optimal stroke rate. As stroke rate is easily measured whenever you are paddling (by simply counting your strokes) knowing your optimal rate can give you something you can use to help you find your optimal gear and pace when paddling. I would suggest trying some longer distance time trials in similarly perfect conditions at the same stroke rate to see if you can really maintain that optimal gear for longer distances. You may end up adjusting your optimal gear slightly as a result of information gained from this longer time trial.

Recalibrating your Optimal Gear
Your optimal gear is always going to be evolving. As you become fitter and more experienced the balance between connection and stroke rate at which you feel most comfortable will probably change. This evolution is natural and at some point you won’t need to do any time trials to figure out where your optimal balance lies, you’ll just be able to feel it and you’ll find your optimal gear naturally. I tend to go a lot by feel, but I also cross-reference what I feel with speed information I get from my GPS so I am very aware when my optimal gear begins to change within a season and can relatively quickly lock into a new gear.
Rather than just waiting for your optimal gear to evolve there are things you can do more proactively to increase connection without sacrificing stroke rate, increase stroke rate without sacrificing connection, or even increase both connection and stroke rate together. Of course the degree to which you can make these changes depends on where you are starting from, both in terms of paddling experience and fitness. Here are some things to try:
  • Improve your technique: I’m willing to bet that most novice to intermediate racers can gain more from increasing their connection and load on the blade then from increasing their stroke rate. The first thing to do is learn as much as you can about technique. As a start you can read what I’ve written about technique on the SUP page of my website, but I’d also suggest reading anything about technique written by Jimmy Terrell and watching some of the great videos he’s made which you can find on the Quickblade website ( click here ) I’d also carefully watch any video you can find of the top guys like Danny Ching or Jamie Mitchell. These guys connect and load the paddle tremendously well. In comparison it is obvious that most novice and intermediate racers can benefit from:

    - Gathering more water behind the blade at the catch
    - Loading more weight on the blade through the stroke
    - Engaging large muscle groups more effectively

    The increased connection gained from making these adjustments to your technique will help you go faster with fewer strokes, so expect your stroke rate to actually drop and understand that in this case it is a good thing.
  • Make your technique more dynamic: You can be doing everything right technically and finding a really good load on your blade, but if your movements against the water gathered behind your blade aren’t dynamic then your stroke rate will be too slow and your board will be moving slower than it should be.

    Without changing your technique or compromising connection by letting water off your blade, you need to more forcefully engage your large muscles (primarily of your hips and core) and create more downward pressure from your top hand immediately after gathering water behind your blade at the catch. Then, while maintaining strong top hand pressure on the blade and continuing to load weight on the blade through the pull, you should focus on trying to accelerate the blade through the entire stroke. This should allow you to maintain your connection (and perhaps even increase connection) while you increase stroke rate. This in turn will result in faster board speed.
  • Improve your strength and power: The stronger you are the more connected and heavily loaded blade you should be able to handle. You’ll also be able to handle a lesser load on your paddle more easily the stronger you are.

    Training max strength and power will give you the horsepower to pull a heavily loaded blade more easily. Improving your power endurance will allow you to do it more comfortably for a longer period of time. Much of the development of these strength capabilities takes place in the gym, but doing resistance training on the water is also quite useful. Putting a bungee around your board provides great resistance. I actually like to use a bungee with a few tennis balls strung on it. I’ll do some work with 3 balls, then 2, then 1 and then finish with just the bungee around my board. Maintaining connection and dynamic movements against this extra resistance is very hard and is a great way to develop max power and power endurance in the specific muscles used in the paddling motion.

    Remember, improving strength and power won’t help you find better connection. You’ll have to improve your technique to do that. However it will help you deal with increased connection more easily, allowing you to paddle efficiently with a faster stroke while maintaining your connection. This in turn will increase your board speed.
  •  Improve your cardiovascular fitness: Doing high quality training near your anaerobic threshold will result in an improved ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles. You’ll be able to work harder aerobically without having to call upon your anaerobic lactic energy system which will save you from having to deal with issues resulting from lactic acid accumulation. This should allow you to paddle at a higher tempo for a given period of time.

    Doing interval training above your anaerobic threshold will help you develop the ability to tolerate lactic acid in your muscles as it develops and allow you to use higher connection/stroke rate combinations for limited periods during races without jeopardizing your ability to stay on optimal pace for the remainder of the race.

You need to understand that these changes in optimal gear are incremental. You aren’t going to go from an optimal gear that has you paddle at 48 strokes/minute to one that has you paddling at 60 strokes/minute. You might, however, bump your stroke up to 50 strokes/minute, which for a 60-minute race would be another 120 strokes. If you aren’t compromising connection to find those extra 2 strokes per minute, then you’ve just made your board cover a lot more distance in one hour. Think of how far your board moves in one stroke and multiply that by 120 strokes and the extra distance you are covering is significant. You’ll definitely see a difference in your results.

I firmly believe that attempting to raise stroke rate without considering your connection to the water is a mistake. Doing things that allow you to put in more strokes, like shortening your stroke or choking up on your blade by holding the paddle with your top hand on the shaft, are great ways to find another gear that you can use for parts of your race but they come with a cost in connection. It is unlikely that either will represent an effective stroke to use for an entire race, even though they may be extremely useful for sections of it. In my opinion, finding an optimal balance between stroke rate and connection, and then exploring new gears after you’ve found the optimal one, is the best approach for anyone interested in maximizing their performance.

Have fun finding your optimal gear and stay tuned for more posts about training, technique and racing over the next few months.