Wednesday 18 November 2015

“Big Picture” Approach to Technique Part 2 – Maintaining Positive Blade Angle as Long as Possible

You’ll recall when I introduced the “Big Picture” approach to looking at technique that the second thing I mentioned was maintaining a positive to vertical blade angle as long as possible in the stroke. This builds on what I discussed last week in Part 1 – securing your blade in the water and pulling yourself past the paddle. If you can secure your blade effectively, you’ll pull yourself a lot further past the blade every stroke if you’re able to maintain a positive to vertical blade angle than you will if you quickly lose that positive angle. While it is inevitable that you’ll end up with your blade past vertical and at a negative angle during the late stages of the stroke, the more you can do with a positive angle the better.

Let’s take a look at some things you can do to maximize the positive blade angle in your stroke and some of the common errors that lead to a negative angle occurring too soon. You’ll find that some of the things discussed in the last post that are useful in maintaining connection help with maintaining positive blade angle as well. In actual fact, the more connected you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be doing a good job of paddling with a positive blade angle. Similarly, the better you are at maintaining positive blade angle, the more likely it is that you will be able to find superior connection. The two are that closely related.

The catch

  • Make sure you get adequate rotation from your shoulders and hips. If you are reaching far enough it will be because you’ve got good rotation from your shoulders and hips. We discussed this in the last post and used drills 1 through 4 from “Some Useful Technique Drills for SUP”  to help with connection at the catch. The fact of the matter is that if you’re reaching far enough and gathering water behind your blade effectively you are going to have a suitably positive blade angle. One of the biggest errors you can make which negatively affects your ability to maintain blade angle through the stroke is not getting enough of a positive blade angle (in other words not reaching enough) to start with. If you’re lacking rotation, and therefore lacking reach, you’ll have a smaller positive blade angle at the catch that will disappear much more quickly as you begin to pull. The more reach you have to start with, the longer you’ll be able to maintain positive blade angle during the pull.

    Having said that, it isn’t simply a case of more is better with reach and rotation. If you attempt to reach too far it encourages a number of errors that diminish your ability to maintain appropriate connection or effectively engage big muscles in your stroke. The trick is to reach the optimal amount. Lets take a look at a couple of things to avoid in your attempt to find reach.

    If you bend your top arm too much you’ll increase the positive angle of your blade at the catch and the blade will likely enter the water further forward than otherwise. However once you bend your top arm at the elbow more than about 10 degrees, you’ll find that the pressure you can apply with your top hand down the paddle shaft decreases. This will diminish your ability to maintain connection through the stroke. It also increases the likelihood that you’ll straighten your arm out during the pull, which means that you’ll in effect be punching forward with your top hand rather than exerting downward pressure. Not only does this diminish your ability to maintain connection, it actually decreases the length of time you’ll be able to maintain positive blade angle as the paddle will end up pivoting around your bottom hand, going to a negative angle more quickly, rather than travelling at a positive angle for a longer period of time.

    You can easily experiment with this on land. If you have access to a pulley machine at the gym, try doing a one-arm press-down and play with different angles at the elbow as you try it. You’ll quickly find the optimal angle at which you are strongest. It will likely be somewhere around 10 degrees. You can also experiment in front of a full-length mirror. Hold your paddle normally with your bottom hand and experiment with bending your top arm at different angles as you pretend to pull a stroke. You’ll find that you have a greater positive paddle angle the more you bend your top arm. But watch what happens if your top arm straightens during the pull. You’ll see that rather than travelling at a positive blade angle that allows the big muscles of your torso and hips to be involved in applying force on the blade through the stroke, the paddle instead quickly passes through vertical to a negative angle by pivoting around your bottom hand.

    The other mistake people often make in their search for more reach is that they over-rotate. Just like with top arm angle, there is an optimal amount of rotation for each of us. Too little and we don’t put ourselves into position to effectively use our hips and torso during the stroke and our stroke will simply be too short. Too much and we put ourselves into a position at the catch where it is difficult to effectively generate sufficient power. Remember we want to get onto our paddle and generate as much power as we can as quickly and dynamically as possible at the catch. What’s the point of trying to reach a little further if it impedes our ability to do that?

    You’ll have to experiment a bit to find what is optimal rotation (and therefore reach) for you. Just be aware that one of the most common mistakes is that people don’t rotate enough, and if that is your problem it will definitely be limiting how long you are able to maintain positive blade angle in your stroke.

  • When engaging your hips make sure to hold your top shoulder back. This is a bit tricky and is something you shouldn’t take too literally or it can mess you up. Basically, what you don’t want to do is engage your hips and have your shoulders un-rotate with them so that you lose all your rotation immediately. Your hips should lead the motion and your shoulders follow, but you should try to spread the de-rotation of your shoulders out through the stroke. I find the easiest way to do this is to think about holding my top shoulder back and focus instead on pressing down with the top hand. My shoulders end up un-rotating appropriately during the pull and I am able to maintain blade angle well. If I don’t concentrate on this I find it is easy to punch forward with my top shoulder, leading to a very rapid loss of rotation and positive angle before I’ve even really started the pull.

The pull

  • Spread your de-rotation out over the stroke. Building on the last point above, you want to think about distributing the de-rotation of your hips and shoulders out over the entire first half of your stroke. Your hips are going to move most dynamically and will lose their rotation more quickly than your shoulders, but for both you don’t want to have done everything in the catch and have nothing left to use during the pull. Remember, positive angle is preferable to a negative angle for moving the board forward, but the optimal angle is when the blade passes through vertical. You want to be passing through vertical when everything – body weight on the blade, force generated from your hips, force generated by your shoulders, and force generated by top hand pressure – is at it’s maximum. It’s going to take some time and experimenting to find out exactly where this point is in the stroke for the way you paddle, but the key is to make sure that your blade is passing through vertical when all these forces are approaching maximum. If you don’t think about spreading your de-rotation out through the stroke you’ll find you have a negative blade angle at this critical point and you’ll be getting less out of it than you should be.

  • Try to get everything done early. This may seem counterintuitive if we’ve just talked about spreading your de-rotation out over the entire stroke but basically what I’m suggesting here is that you think about being dynamic and aggressive with the work you do against the water, right from the catch and through the pull. Even though you’re trying to spread your de-rotation out over the entire stroke, the last thing you want to do is do it slowly. If you try to be aggressively dynamic and get the pulling done early you’ll find that you are likely to have more of a positive angle through the pulling phase than if you are less dynamic and committed to an aggressive stroke. You can use reference points on your board (or put some on your board using tape) to help remind you of where you should be entering the water, burying your blade, reaching a vertical angle with your blade, and initiating your exit.

  • Use top hand pressure to not only stabilize the blade in the water but to maintain paddle angle. By now I’m sure you are realizing just how important top hand pressure is during the stroke. Remember, this pressure comes from the muscles of your upper back, chest and your entire shoulder girdle as opposed to the relatively small muscles of your deltoids and rotator cuff and is transmitted to the paddle through your top arm, which acts as a connecting rod to the paddle.

    As you are loading your paddle during the pull you’ll want to think about pressing directly down the paddle shaft with your top hand and using that pressure to help you begin to come up with the stroke as your blade passes through vertical and you begin to unload the paddle. It is almost as if you push off of the stabilized and supported paddle to push yourself into an upright position as you unload, rather than use the small, postural muscles of your low back to stand more upright.

    While many would consider this unloading to be part of the exit, you need to start thinking about it in the pull. When you’re paddling well you always have to be mentally one step ahead of what you’re doing in your stroke because it is impossible to think of something and then immediately do it when you’re paddling. If you’re paddling properly, and have your muscles and body weight effectively applied to the blade in a dynamic motion, it takes a fraction of a second to get them to start unloading after they’ve been committed to loading the paddle. You actually need to be setting up the exit in the second half of the pulling phase, and top hand pressure is crucial for this.

    Tommy Buday recently released a video that I am sure you can find on YouTube in which he talks about trying to pull your body to the paddle in the late stages of the pull to initiate your exit. This can also be an effective way to look at this part of the stroke, although I think you’ll find what Tommy suggests easiest to do with really solid top hand pressure.

  • Don’t go too deep. Although I’ve talked a lot about increasing connection and load on the blade by going a little deeper into the water, there’s a limit to what is effective. The deeper you go, the more likely it is that your body will get a little behind your blade and you’ll be late coming up and have a bit more of a negative angle relative to your body position. This is a common issue that I have to deal with, and arises because I feel I often have more to gain from the extra connection going a little deeper gives me than I do from maintaining a more positive angle at the end of the stroke.

    Like most things in paddling it is a trade off. The gear I’m trying to use and the conditions I’m paddling in are what determine how deep I tend to go. Experimentation with different loads and stroke rates is the only way to determine what is optimal for you, and you really aren’t a complete paddler if you don’t have at least a couple of “gears” that you feel are optimal.

The exit

  • You’re going to have a negative blade angle in the exit. Don’t stress about it. Just make sure it doesn’t get too negative. In “More Thoughts on SUP Technique” I demonstrated that pulling the blade past your feet with a negative angle isn’t disastrous with regards to making your board go fast. Your board is still accelerating, even though the blade is at a negative angle and is behind you. In my opinion, trying too hard to get the blade out of the water before your feet and limiting negative blade angle at this stage of the stroke likely means you’ll be limiting the amount of load you get on the paddle in the pulling phase of your stroke. I think that getting appropriate load in the pulling phase should be most important and you really don’t want to limit it in any way, so I’ve always been okay with pulling a little past your feet. If you see any of the top paddlers in the world in action you’ll notice they all pull past their feet to some degree, so let’s get the notion out of our heads that this is wrong.

    What is wrong is pulling too far past your feet and letting the blade angle get too negative. Not only are there diminishing returns in terms of the acceleration you can provide to your board at this point of your stroke, if you get too negative a blade angle you’ll end up slowing your board down by increasing the pitch of your board as a result of pulling the tail into the water. So the key here is to just make sure the blade angle doesn’t get too negative.

    If you’ve done a good job of trying to get everything done early in the pull, and if you’ve maintained good top hand pressure and have pushed yourself upright by pressing down the paddle shaft as you’ve begun your unloading then you’ll almost automatically be executing your exit in an appropriate spot. Your blade will of course be at a negative angle, but not excessively so. Just maintain top hand pressure till the last possible moment as you reload your hips forward, straighten your legs and pop the blade out of the water.

  • Bend your bottom arm a little towards the exit. For good reason, it has been pretty well established that it is best to reach and then pull with a straight bottom or paddling side arm. It ensures that you’re getting maximum reach and that you aren’t pulling with your biceps and instead are using the big muscles of your back and hips. Remember, your arms should be viewed simply as connecting rods through which the big muscles apply force to the paddle.

    However as you approach the exit in the late stages of the pull, it makes sense to bend your paddling side arm a little as it will actually help you maintain blade angle through the exit. It doesn’t mean you stop pulling with your big muscles and begin using your biceps exclusively. You can compare it to doing a one-arm row in the gym, where you are using your lats almost exclusively even though you are bending your arm as you do it. It turns out that by bending our bottom arm slightly at this stage in the stroke we can maintain a few more degrees of blade angle than if we can if we continue to have a straight arm. Our big muscles are still engaged; the path of the paddle is just slightly adjusted, delaying its arrival to a big negative position. This is an especially useful trick to use if, like me, you are heavily loaded in the pulling phase and likely to find your body a little late coming up at the end of the stroke because of it.

What’s next?

To this point we’ve looked at securing the blade in the water and pulling yourself past the paddle as well as paddling with a positive blade angle as much as possible. The two are interrelated and it is hard to do one well without doing the other well at the same time. Conversely, it is easy to mess one up if you do the other poorly, so it is really important to work at both.

Next we’ll want to look at tips for using big muscles preferentially over small muscles in the SUP stroke. We’ll be revisiting many of the points made in these last two posts to do that, but there are few extra things we can look at that will help us do this effectively. Stay tuned for more…