Saturday 20 July 2013

Some Useful Technique Drills for SUP

People don’t paddle well by accident. Good, efficient technique is the result of repetition of meticulously executed body movements over thousands of hours. Whether you are just learning to paddle or trying to improve established technique, one of the most useful things you can do is perform intelligently designed technical drills which focus on various components of the stroke.

When I was competing internationally in sprint canoe I did drills regularly. Over the last few summers I have had the privilege of watching Mark Oldershaw, 2012 Olympic Bronze medalist in C1 1000m, train daily. Despite already having excellent technique, he does drills almost every single day in his warm up. Experienced paddlers with excellent technique still do drills to try to develop even greater stroke efficiency or at the very least consolidate their technique so that it maintains when they get tired in races.

You can come up with drills to address almost anything in the SUP stroke, although there are certain parts of the stroke that lend themselves better to drills than others. The catch and the exit both lend themselves very well to simple drills and can be improved enormously and relatively quickly using a few simple drills in particular. These are the ones I’ll share here and provide video of as well, including this clip on Improving Technique with Drills (click here)

     The Catch

     Having done a fair amount of video analysis in clinics, one thing has become very obvious to me
      –  most people need work on their catch. At a recent clinic I did with Jimmy Terrell and Jamie
     Mitchell in North Carolina, it wasn’t just the participants that had shortcomings in their catch
     exposed on video. Jimmy, Jamie and I all saw things in our own catch that we didn’t like. If
     some of the best paddlers around can identify things in their stroke that can be improved by
     doing drills then imagine what drills might be able to do for everybody else.

     The biggest problems that seem to arise in the catch are:
  • Air catching – pulling the paddle back from the point of maximum reach before it contacts the water
  • Missing connection – pulling the paddle back without first having gathered water behind a fully buried and secured blade
     Remember the number one premise of paddling is that you pull yourself by the paddle. If you
     can’t effectively secure your blade you won’t pull yourself very far each stroke. Furthermore,
     other problems often arise in the pull phase of the stroke as a result of a poorly executed catch so
     it is extremely important to get it right.

     Here are some drills to help you improve and consolidate your catch:
  1. Entry Drill

    The paddle should be moving forward at the entry so that the blade tip is actually spearing forward into the water. One of the most common reasons paddlers fail to do this is that they over reach in the set up.

    The set up is a stage you quickly pass through at the end of the recovery as you are preparing to catch. (For a fuller description see the SUP page on my web site). Rotation in this stage of the stroke should be comfortable and relaxed. Do not try to overreach in the set up.

    In this drill you should start with comfortable, relaxed forward rotation of your paddling side shoulder and hip in the set up (A-frame) position. Your blade should be anywhere from 6 inches to one foot off the surface of the water.

    In order to ensure that your paddle blade is moving forward into the water as you contact the water you need to extend from the set up position by rotating forward with your paddling side hip and shoulder as you drop your paddle blade to the water. Thinking about your top shoulder rotating back as you drop can facilitate the shoulder rotation. Your legs should move also, with the paddling side leg bending slightly at the knee while your inside leg (leg away from the paddle) should straighten slightly. The tip of your paddle blade should move forward as your blade drops to the water and the blade should sort of spear into the water. You should watch carefully to see if that is in fact the case when you perform the drill.

    Once you have the tip entering the water you should stop and come back to the set up position. Imagine yourself “rewinding” into the set up by moving exactly opposite to what you did to contact the water rather than taking the rest of the stroke to return to the set up position. Repeat this process 10 to 20 times before stopping, resting and refocusing. You’ll find it useful to do some normal paddling between sets of the drill, where you don’t over think technique and just focus on flowing movements. You’ll more quickly incorporate the refinement in the element of technique you’ve been working on into your normal stroke while at the same time be better prepared to get the most out of the next set of the drill that you perform.

    Check out the video for the Entry Drill (click here)

    Doing this drill regularly should help you get a cleaner, more effective entry with less air catching, and this is essential for properly securing the blade in the water.

  2. “Gathering” Drill

    If you can think of a better name for this drill please let me know as I’m not really happy with this one, but I love the drill itself. It is extremely effective for helping you bury the blade as early as possible in your stroke, which in turn is essential for a well connected/secured blade at the catch.

    In this drill start with the paddle tip where you were putting it in the Entry Drill. Try to get the blade buried in the same spot but be careful to do this by dropping your paddling side shoulder rather than by hinging or bending at the waist. Don’t try to pull a stroke. Just get the blade buried as close as possible to the point where the blade tip contacted the water and then remove the blade and repeat the process.

    Because you are working at ‘placing’ the blade into the water you aren’t really going to feel any connection yet. We’ll save that for the next drill. The idea here is to discover what you need to do in terms of rotation from both shoulders and your hips to get to the position where your blade can be buried as close to it’s point of entry as possible.

    Most people, when they are paddling, have far too much blade travel towards their body from the point of the tip entering the water to the point where the blade is fully buried. This compromises their ability to gather water behind their blade, which in turn compromises their ability to find connection to work their paddle blade against. Repeating sets of 10 to 20 repetitions of this drill will help teach you to get your blade buried quickly and close to the point of entry.

    Check out the video for the Gathering Drill (click here)
  3. Catch Drill

    The catch drill is where you now get a chance to feel load against your paddle! Start with the blade fully buried where you had it in the Gathering Drill. What you want to do now is engage the largest, most heavily muscled joint in the body in a dynamic fashion to simulate what you’ll be doing when catching the water during your paddling stroke.

    If you haven’t already guessed it, the hips are the joint we’re talking about in this case. What you want to do is maintain paddle angle by maintaining your upper body (shoulder rotation). You’re going to create load against your buried blade by torqueing your paddling side hip back to initiate connection. You’re going to have to have some good downward pressure on the paddle with your top hand to stabilize the paddle while your hips torque, but you want to make sure you aren’t punching your top hand or top shoulder forward. I’ll repeat it. You want to be saving your positive paddle angle as long as possible so you want to maintain your shoulder rotation while torqueing your hips. If you de-rotated your shoulders while doing this drill you’d quickly see that you were losing paddle angle.

    So here’s how the drill works:

       -  Start with your blade buried where it was in the Gathering Drill

       -  Save paddle angle and shoulder rotation while torqueing your paddling side hips back. This
          will create connection of the paddle blade against the water which you’ll feel in the fingers
          of your bottom hand, up your straightened paddling side arm and into your paddling side

       -  You should also feel downward pressure of the your top hand directed down the paddle
           shaft. This stabilizes the paddle blade in the water so that your hips can create full

       -  Once your paddling side hip has fired and your hips are now opened towards the paddling
           side you should stop. This will result in the blade travelling no more than 12 to 18 inches

       -  This is the tricky part that most people have difficulty with – rewind the blade through the
          water until it’s back to where you started the drill from. Imagine watching video of yourself
          executing this drill. Once you’ve run it forward, hit pause and then rewind and watch your
          body execute the motion in exact reverse. Obviously to do this you are going to have to
          rewind your body through the exact movement path, in reverse, that you’ve executed so far.
          Why do this? Interestingly, your body learns movement patterns in both directions. By
          ‘rewinding’ you get double the learning of what you’re trying to achieve here.

      -   Repeat this drill for 10 to 20 repetitions before resting and refocusing

    Here are a few troubleshooting tips for this drill:

      -  Try to keep the blade as quiet as possible while doing this drill. If the blade is noisy, with
          water splashing and swirling around your blade then your blade is not fully buried. Fully
          buried blades are quiet and better connected.

      -  As you are torqueing back with your paddling side hip, your inside or opposite hip will
         move forward. This movement is going to change the positions of your legs. Your paddling
         side leg is going to straighten as you do this and your inside leg is going to bend more. Look
         for your inside knee to actually bend and drive forward a little towards the nose of your
         board. This is a sign that you’re doing this drill correctly.

      -  Make sure you maintain blade angle by not punching your top shoulder forward. Also make
         sure you keep your top arm at the same angle throughout the drill. The strongest and most
         effective angle is about 10 degrees. If you are changing that angle throughout the drill you’ll
         be setting yourself up to lose paddle angle and also overload your triceps, which are
         comparatively small muscles and will tire very quickly when you actually start paddling.

    Check out the video for the Catch Drill (click here)

    Now you are ready to actually start paddling and moving the board forward for the next couple of technique exercises.

  4. Catch Paddling

    For this exercise it is important that you are able to do drills 1 through 3 properly. What you’re going to do now is actually paddle, however your stroke is going to be exaggerated so that it really doesn’t look anything like your normal stroke.

    The idea of this exercise is to move the board well by using the catch effectively. What I like to do is use a reference point on the board to tell me where I should be finishing the stroke. I pick a point well in advance of where I normally exit. On my board I can use the “BARK” logo. I try to finish my stroke and complete my exit before the K on the right and B on the left. If your board doesn’t have something you can use as a reference point simply placing a small piece of electrical tape on the deck of the board near the rail will work well. It should be about 2 ½ feet in front of where you stand.

    When I am doing this drill I try to generate as much impulse moving the board forward as possible by simply 1) securing the blade in front of me, 2) stabilizing the blade with good top arm pressure directed down the shaft of the paddle, and 3) forcefully rotating my paddling side hips back against the loaded blade as we did in the catch drill. Once I’ve done that I think about exiting the blade from the water. I make no effort to perform the back half of my stroke correctly. I just want the blade out of the water by the time it reaches my reference point. This results in the stroke being no more that 12 to 18 inches long, but if you do it properly it is surprising how much speed you can get by just using the catch.

    As you are actually paddling now and moving the board forward you’ll need to check that you are saving your paddle angle. Pay particular attention to whether or not you are punching forward with your top shoulder or changing the angle of your top arm at the elbow through your stroke. As explained in the troubleshooting section for the Catch Drill, you should keep your top shoulder from punching and maintain a constant top arm angle of about 10 degrees.

    Check out the video for Catch Paddling/Applying the Catch Drill (click here)

    Do this drill for a minute, rest a minute or two and then repeat on each side.

    The Pull

  5. Loading Drill

    Now that you’ve done drills 1 through 4 you’ve pretty much exhausted what you can do drill wise for your catch. You’re ready to start thinking about what comes after the catch.

    Once your blade is secured in the water and you have dynamically engaged your hips into the pull, you’ll want to add more of your body weight to the paddle through the pull phase. It is important that you do this with a positive blade angle and continue to feel water held against your blade. If you are losing your angle too quickly and losing the feeling of the paddle tugging on the fingers of your paddling side hand then you are losing connection with the water and reducing the distance you’ll be able to pull the board past the paddle in your stroke.

    Start by trying to execute the catch properly but don’t try to exaggerate it at all as you’ve done in any of the drills so far. You want to be exaggerating the load in the middle of the stroke here and it is really only a good idea to exaggerate one thing at a time in drills.

    Once you’ve got your blade buried and secured in the water and have rotated your paddling side hip back in your catch, you’ll need to think about sinking your paddle blade even deeper into the water. You should end up burying about 6 inches or more of shaft above the blade in this drill, and you’ll want to think about burying it by getting more of your body weight out of the board and over the paddle. I like to think of myself as ‘climbing on top of the paddle’ in this drill, and if you do it right you should feel the board lighten and rise in the water as it continues to accelerate after the catch. I’ll repeat that last part because it is important: you should feel the board lighten and rise in the water as it continues to accelerate after the catch.

    Don’t worry about the exit in this drill. If you pull the blade through too far or are a little late beginning your exit it doesn’t matter. Remember you are trying to exaggerate the load of weight on the blade during the pull and the fact that it is an exaggeration may make the rest of the stroke feel a little off. Don’t worry, just go with it. You can worry about working on your exit later.

    Try to save your paddle angle by continuing to direct pressure from your top hand down the paddle shaft rather than punching it forward. You’re actually not trying to push the paddle deeper into the water with your top hand. That is coming from your body weight and by dropping your paddling side shoulder. But that downward top hand pressure is important to stabilize the blade and allow you to maximize connection. As you continue to pull your board closer to the planted paddle it will appear as though you’ve pulled the paddle closer to your body. As you do this you want to make sure you are slowly losing your paddle angle and eventually it will be nearly vertical. At this point you can think about beginning to unload the body weight you’ve been putting on the blade, but don’t try to unload it all at once. While maintaining top hand pressure just gradually reduce the body weight on the paddle and bring it back into the board, letting the blade rise a little shallower in the water. You’ll need to feel as smooth and fluid a loading and unloading of body weight onto the paddle through the entire stroke as possible.

    One of the things I find useful in this drill is to think of my entire paddling side hanging over the water with my top shoulder stacked above it. The blade must be vertical throughout this drill when viewed from directly in front or behind. Another is to bend my legs more as I am continuing to increase the load on the paddle. I feel like my whole body is getting a little lower on the board. When I begin to unload my body weight from the blade my legs begin to straighten and I feel like I am standing a little higher on the board.

    Check out the video for the Loading Drill/Middle of the Stroke (click here)

    Do this for one minute and then take a couple of minutes rest before doing it again. Repeat it three or four times each side and then move on to something else.

    The Exit

  6. Exit Drill

    The exit represents about 10 percent or less of what is moving your board through the water so it’s important to get the other parts of your stroke dialed in first. Paddlers who can use the exit to drive their board forward definitely have an advantage over those who don’t, but the really significant advantage they have is over paddlers who actually drag their paddle and actually slow the board down.

    In this drill, since you are exaggerating the exit, you need to sort of forget about getting a long stroke in front. Just get the blade in the water with a casual reach and get it buried. Torque your paddling side hip naturally (without exaggerating it) against the loaded paddle so your hips are open to the paddling side and get a little body weight on the paddle, but nothing exaggerated. As your blade approaches vertical you need to think about doing a few things;

    1) Turing your paddling side hip back forward (ie towards the paddle)
    2) Straightening your legs a little as you unload body weight from the blade.
    3) Maintaining your top hand pressure down the shaft of the paddle
    4) Not dragging your paddle but not exiting early either. Make sure your hip movement initiates the exit and don’t exit before bringing your paddling side hip forward

    Exaggerate both of the movement of the hips and the legs and make sure the blade is still in the water when you initiate their movement. What you should feel is that you are almost pushing yourself by the paddle at the back of the stroke and you should see the board accelerate at the exit and carry more speed between strokes.

    Check out the video for the Exit Drill (click here)

    Do this drill for one minute and then rest for a minute or two before repeating.

    The Recovery

  7. Tippy Toe Drill

    This is a drill I do to help put my body into position to get effective body weight on the blade at the catch. It is done during the recovery phase of the stroke.

    To do this drill you’ll need to build on what you did in the exit drill. In the exit you’ve unloaded body weight from the blade, rotated your paddling side hip forward towards the paddle and straightened your legs as you exited. You’ll want to flow from that right into getting forward with your body weight in one smooth, fluid motion in the recovery. You should imagine trying to actually get forward right from your feet. To do this you need to feel the weight on your heels decreasing and more of your body weight transferring to your toes as you move through the recovery towards the next set up and catch.

    If you do this drill right you’ll feel that just at the moment it feels like you are about to lose your balance and fall forward on the board, your blade will contact the water at the catch, find support and you’ll recover your balance.

    Do this drill for one minute of paddling and then rest for a minute or two before repeating.

    A Few Notes About Drills

    Performing select drills regularly is essential if you are going to maintain and develop effective technique. I did a ton of them in my sprint canoe days and continue to do some type of drill for at least a short period of time every day on my board. The top canoe athletes I see training everyday are doing drills regularly. They make a difference.

    Drills are exaggerations. It should not feel like normal paddling when you do your drills. Remember you are working on one element of your stroke. Forget the rest of the stroke and maximize the learning you can do with regards to the element you are working on. The biggest mistake I see kids in canoeing do when doing drills is, quite simply, not doing the drill! They are afraid to exaggerate motions in drills because if feels weird. I’ll drive by in the motorboat and won’t be able to tell what they are working on. It should be obvious to anyone watching what the focus of your drill is. That is how exaggerated they need to be to be effective. Do your drills in flat water. It is next to impossible to learn good technique in big water.

    Do your drills and learn your technique in the flats. Then go out in the big water and learn how to apply your solid technique in waves. It is easy to make appropriate adjustments to good technique in waves. It is nearly impossible to learn good technique there.

    Be patient and methodical. Don’t worry about going fast when doing your drills.

    Don’t over do them. Understand that there is a window in each training session to do this type of work. It varies from one person to another but in general I wouldn’t do them for more than 30 minutes total. When you start to feel that you aren’t getting the control you want over your execution of the drill it is time to stop. I’d also suggest doing drills for no more than one minute at a time before taking a break. Doing some normal, easy paddling between each repetition of a drill is a good idea. Use that time to relax and refocus so that the next repetition can have maximal effectiveness.

    Check out the video about achieving maximal results (click here)

    Feel free to ask me any questions about these drills and feel free to make up your own drills that work for you.

    Have fun!