Friday 13 November 2015

“Big Picture” Approach to Technique Part 1 – Securing your Blade in the Water and Pulling Yourself Past the Paddle

I’ve been busy racing the last couple of weeks and so haven’t posted in a while. You’ll remember in the last post I made, I discussed how taking a “big picture” approach to technique is a more preferable first step than getting right into considering body positions, joint angles, etc. While eventually you’ll need to consider this level of detail, it is much more effective to consider technique on a larger scale initially than micromanaging every minute aspect of the stroke. I explained that we’re all different and are all going to take a slightly different approach to moving the board based on our own unique physical characteristics and level of fitness. I introduced seven key elements of technique that you should try to address effectively in a way that best works for you based on those characteristics and your fitness level, and promised to look at each one more closely in future posts. Today I’d like to start with the first and most important one – securing your paddle blade in the water and pulling yourself past the paddle.

If you’re focusing on pulling your blade through the water then you are taking the exact wrong approach to paddling. Instead, you should be thinking of pulling yourself by the paddle. The aim of the first approach is to just pull the paddle towards you. It results in some forward movement by coincidence. The aim of the second approach is to move your board forward maximally each stroke, using the paddle as a tool to do that. To me the difference couldn’t be more obvious.

If you’re going to pull yourself by the paddle effectively you first need to gather water on your blade as it enters the water at the catch and then hold that water on your blade and work against it through the stroke. You need to be able to actually visualize this and be able to distinguish the difference between working with the blade against the water and pulling the blade through the water. You also need to train yourself to “feel” the water you’ve gathered behind your blade. If you reached out and grabbed something with your hand I have no doubt you’d feel it. What you need to learn to do is make the paddle an extension of your body so that as your blade is entering the water you actually feel the water gather against your paddle just like you would if it were your hand. You should feel this in the fingers of your pulling hand and with your entire body as the paddle begins to support your body weight. Then as you start to work against the water to move the board forward you should feel the water on the paddle blade in all the muscles up your paddling side arm and into your shoulders, back and core, and up your top arm into your shoulders, back and core. Your arms should simply act like connecting rods which attach the paddle to your torso and ultimately to your hips and legs, and your entire body can then be engaged in pulling the board past your planted paddle. Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. A lot of one’s ability to feel the water is innate. When you first send kids on the water in kayaks at a canoe club, you’ll see some who try to move the boat past the paddle naturally. They take slow strokes and the boat seems to move a long way every stroke. You can actually see a connection between the paddle blades and the biggest muscles in their little bodies. You’ll see others that just try to move the paddle, with no real sense of connection to anything. Their paddle blades move quickly through the water, splash a lot, and their boat hardly moves anywhere. The kids in the first group are ready to move to learning more about technique. The ones in the second group have to learn how to feel the water first. It is the single most difficult thing to teach, and some paddlers never really master it.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do throughout your stroke to increase your feel for the water. We can also take a look at some of the things that prevent you from doing it well and suggest some corrections for the most common mistakes.

The catch
  • Make sure the blade is actually moving forward as it enters the water. Think of the way a swimmer’s hands enter the water when they are swimming freestyle. Their hands don’t slap down onto the water, but instead sort of spear forward into the water, gathering water behind them. If you’ve spent any time paddling a prone board you’ll have been doing the same thing. Imagine doing this with your paddle blade instead of your hands and you’re half way there.

    One of the analogies I like to use is reaching into a big bucket of movie theatre popcorn with your hand and trying to grab as much as you can each time. Imagine you’re trying to do the same thing with your paddle blade and the water is the popcorn.

    In “Some Useful Technique Drills for SUP”, I shared a number of drills I use which help enhance certain elements of the stroke. You should refer to it throughout this post. Drills 1 through 4 are really useful for this aspect of the stroke and you should perform them sequentially to get maximum benefit.

    The most common error is pulling the paddle blade back in the process of catching, which means the blade will be doing the exact opposite of “spearing” into the water. This most commonly happens because the paddler reaches too far in the set up and can’t continue to reach forward as their blade lowers to meet the water. I call this “air catching”, and the best way to fix this mistake is to ensure you are not overreaching in the set up and instead are just reaching with a casual rotation during the set up and then continue to rotate shoulders and hips forward as the blade tip lowers to meet the water. As I rotate forward to meet the water, my paddling side leg bends more at the knee and my inside leg straightens a bit, and as my paddling side legs bends I become aware of increasing flexion of my paddling side ankle. My heels also get a little lighter in their contact with the board. I’m actually reaching forward right from my feet and my paddling side foot in particular. Again drills 1 through 4 will be useful in correcting an “air catch” and drill 7 will be useful for helping you get your heels a little lighter and your weight forward onto the paddle.

  • As you’re gathering water behind your blade you need to start working against it to move yourself forward. Because it’s all about moving our board forward, we never really have time to “plant” our paddle and then “pull”. You’ll actually be slowing your board down when you plant your paddle if there is a lag before you pull because if the blade doesn’t immediately work against the water it will instead be acting as a brake. It’s okay to start with a definite “plant” and then “pull” while you’re learning, however as you get more advanced you should aim to reduce the lag between the two until the gathering of water behind your blade and the start of work against it happens almost simultaneously. The catch drill and catch paddling really can help with this.

  • As soon as you have water gathered on your blade you need good top hand pressure, directed down the paddle shaft to ensure you hold onto that water. This top hand pressure is hugely important. If you’ve planted and secured your blade in the water this pressure will keep the blade secure as you work against the water to pull yourself forward. One of the biggest errors a sprint canoe paddler can make is pulling too much from the bottom shoulder because of a passive top hand.

    You shouldn’t be punching forward with the top shoulder/hand, but instead should be directing pressure straight down the middle of the paddle shaft. Be sure to make the top hand pressure come from the big muscles of your back, shoulder and chest, rather than from just the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles of your shoulder. Remember, your arms are just connectors between the paddle and the big muscles of your torso, core and hips.

  • Eliminate any tension in your muscles and try to be as relaxed as you can. If you are tense, are gripping your paddle too tightly, or are tight in your shoulders and neck you won’t be able to feel the water properly and won’t be able to tell if you’ve loaded your blade effectively or not. Proprioceptors in your muscles give you feedback about the load you have on your paddle blade. However for them to do their job they need to identify the load placed on your muscles from the paddle blade. If all of your muscles are tense these proprioceptors won’t be able to distinguish that load from the background noise created by those tense muscles.

  • Engage your hips to initiate your stroke. A big part of connection comes from the speed at which we work against the water. If we work slowly against the water, our board will accelerate less than if we work really dynamically and explosively against it. Your hips and legs represent the largest, most powerful muscles that we can use to accelerate our board. We need to ensure that the blade is secured in the water first, but once we have secured it our hips and, to a lesser extent, our legs should provide the bulk of the impulse against the secured paddle. It is extremely important that your hips stay forward until the blade has been planted and secured, but once it has they should drive back explosively, connected to your paddle through your torso and arms.

    Obviously you’ll have to do some homework before you should try using them explosively. If you rush this process it’s likely you’ll end up pulling the blade through the water rather than the board past the paddle. However once you’re confident you have a good connection with the water and are moving your board past the paddle by using your hips, you should little-by-little work at increasing the speed at which you apply your hips and legs to the stroke. Eventually you’ll have a really connected, explosively dynamic stroke.

The pull

  • Maximize connection through the pull by learning how to fully load your paddle during the pull. We’ll talk more about this when we talk about using body weight during the stroke but basically, if you’ve got your paddle well connected to the water you should be able to “climb on top of your paddle” with your body weight during the pull, thus getting weight off of your board. This in turn makes your board a little lighter and allows it to sit slightly higher in the water, which then makes it easier to pull through the water. It also allows you to gain benefit from your body weight and add that to what you’re applying to the paddle with your muscles as you work against the water.

    The big benefit of continuing to load your paddle during the pull is that it helps you maintain, and even increase, connection. Imagine that the water is composed of a column of extremely small water molecules stacked on top of each other in a great number of very thin layers. As soon as the tip of your blade enters the water and works against the water column it disturbs the molecules in that layer. They move away from the face of the blade and fill space on the backside of the blade where a little vacuum has been created. This results in a loss of connection similar to your foot losing traction in deep beach sand or snow. Fortunately, all we need to do is go a little deeper into the water column with our paddle and we’ll find a new, undisturbed layer of water. For a moment we reestablish connection until that layer is disturbed and connection is reduced. We can reestablish connection again by sinking the blade deeper into the water and interacting with another new, undisturbed layer. This happens repeatedly as the blade tip sinks deeper into the water. Once we’ve reached the maximum depth of our stroke, the top of the blade repeats the same process as the blade climbs back up through the water column towards the exit.

    I suggest you experiment with the “Loading Drill”. Like all drills it is an exaggeration that in this case should help you find maximal connection through the pulling phase of your stroke. The more you load, the more connected your stroke will be through this phase. If you load too much for your strength, you’ll find the stroke too heavy and unsustainable for long periods. It’s like using a gear that is too big for you on your bike. Playing around with this drill should help you find optimal load and therefore connection for the pulling phase of your stroke.

  • Use your legs to help load your paddle. Most people bend at the waist in this part of the stroke to keep their blade buried. Of course we’re talking about doing much more than just burying our blade so we’ll have to do more than just bend at the waist. I strongly suggest bending your legs more as you load your blade to help you get the blade to sink deeper into the water. You’ll find this relieves strain on your lower back while also allowing you to continue to engage your hips and legs which you started to do in the catch. If you do this, your legs will end up giving you a huge boost when you “unload”, straightening them as you spring your hips forward at the exit.

  • Maintain top hand pressure. A common mistake in the pulling phase is loss of top hand pressure. It is extremely important to remember to maintain consistent top hand pressure down the paddle shaft through the entire stroke. As soon as you release top hand pressure, your paddle blade is no longer as stabilized and secure in the water, making it more difficult to effectively pull yourself by the paddle.

  • Stay relaxed. Remember, for the proprioceptors in your paddling muscles to feel water against the paddle blade your muscles need to be relaxed. You can experience this by paddling with relaxed muscles and then feeling the difference when you intentionally tense up all your muscles and grip the paddle too tightly. You’ll notice a drastically diminished ability to feel water against your paddle blade when your muscles are tense.

The exit
    Most people get the idea of pulling yourself to the paddle in the catch and pull. Fewer appreciate that you can actually push yourself past the paddle at the exit. An exit that is properly executed gives your board one last burst of acceleration that helps it better maintain its speed between strokes.
  • Unload your paddle by bringing your hips forward and straightening your legs. If during the pull your focus was on loading the paddle, in the exit it should be on unloading it. As the blade nears your body and blade angle passes through vertical, you want to prepare for your exit by reloading your hips forward and unbending your legs. It is imperative that these two movements occur while the blade is still supported in the water. In fact these movements should initiate the process of the blade exiting the water. If you can execute these movements against a fully supported blade you’ll be pushing yourself forward off the blade at the exit not unlike the way a cross-country skier pushes themselves forward in the last stages of the double polling motion.

    You can try doing the loading drill and focusing on the unloading at the end of the stroke to work on connection at the exit. I’d also suggest doing the “exit drill”. You’ll want to do them rather slowly and carefully initially to make sure you’re synchronizing your movements properly, but ultimately you want to be exploding forward with your hips and as you straighten your legs. Like the rest of the stroke this motion needs to be dynamic. If you’re getting an effective push off the exit you’ll feel like the board is really accelerating or surging off the back of the stroke and maintaining speed between strokes.

    The biggest and most common mistake made at this point in the stroke is starting your hip and leg motion after the blade has already exited the water. Not only will this not push your board forward, it will actually break the forward run of your board. You’ll want to continually remind yourself as you’re working on your exit that the forward movement of your hips and unbending of your legs is what initiates the action of lifting your blade out of the water.

  • Don’t forget to maintain top hand pressure. If top hand pressure sounds like a recurring theme throughout the stroke then it must be important. Remember top hand pressure directed down the paddle shaft keeps the blade stabilized and supported in the water. It is very common to see paddlers relaxing their top hand pressure in the late stages of the pull meaning that their exit, no matter how well they do the rest of the exit movements, will be soft and ineffective.

Where do we go from here?

In this post I’ve discussed things you can do to effectively secure the paddle blade in the water and to maximize your ability to pull yourself by the paddle throughout the stroke. I’ve described strategies you can try and things you can visualize to help you do this, but ultimately you’ll have to find a way that works for you. They way I accomplish this is different than how Travis Grant does it, and Travis does it differently than Connor Baxter. Once you’ve found a way that seems to work for you, you’ll have to remember it for the next post in which we will focus on maintaining positive blade angle as long as possible, because that will build on your ability to find connection with your paddle. It won’t do you any good to have a positive blade angle through most of your stroke if your blade isn’t well connected. Give these tips a try and stay tuned for more…