Monday 7 December 2015

“Big Picture” Approach to Technique Part 4 – Staying Relaxed and Maximizing Board Run

Over the last three posts we’ve looked at a number of things you can do to make your board move faster. I’ve shared some tips for establishing connection and pulling your board past your paddle, maintaining positive blade angle, using big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles and using your body weight to your advantage. What I’d like to share here are tips for paddling relaxed and maximizing the run of your board between strokes.

There are a number of reasons you want to be relaxed when you paddle but keeping it simple we can consider two main reasons:
  1. The more relaxed you can be while paddling “hard” the faster your maximum speed will be and, 
  2. If you can paddle relaxed you’ll be able to maintain a higher percentage of your maximum speed for a longer period of time.
I guess you could also add that paddling relaxed is a lot more enjoyable.

It’s important that you’re familiar and somewhat competent with what’s been discussed in the last three posts before you really concern yourself with what’s going to be presented here, so if you haven’t read them and played around with some of the suggestions then you’d be well served to backtrack now and spend some time experimenting. That said, the whole thing is a little chicken and egg. The more relaxed you can be when you play with those drills the more you’ll get out of them.

When you do feel like you can connect well, pull yourself by your paddle, maintain positive blade angle and use big muscles and body weight it’s time to really focus on the efficiency of each stroke by being as relaxed as possible, paddling fluidly and maximizing the run of the board between strokes.

There is no simple drill you can do to teach yourself how to be relaxed while paddling. Instead you need to paddle fluidly and rhythmically, without focusing on any particular element of technique. Here are some tips that help:

  • Clear your head. When you’re doing technical drills and trying to modify or consolidate movement patterns on your board, you tend to be thinking a lot. Your brain and central nervous system are working really hard (actually much harder than your cardiovascular system, for example). If you want to really relax on your board you’re going to have to clear your head. Don’t worry about any of the things related to technique that you normally work so hard on. Trust that all the technique work you’ve done is going to “stick” and you’ll actually paddle well if you just go on autopilot and focus on nothing more than a relaxed, flowing stroke and how your board is responding underneath you.

    You’ll also want to clear your head of all the issues and stresses that weigh on you in your day-to-day life, as they will prevent you from being truly relaxed as well. Recognize that your time on the water is an opportunity to find sanctuary from all of life’s stresses. Take advantage of it.

  • Mentally prepare for how you want to feel on your board. I cannot overstate the importance of mental preparation for your paddling. This touches upon the whole area of mental training, which in itself could be the topic for a series of blog posts, but I can summarize it here: find some time before you get on the water to visualize and imagine not only what you are going to do when you’re paddling, but also what you want it to feel like.

    I used to do this while riding my bike to the canoe club for training. I’d go over in my head what I wanted to work on in my training session, the things I had to do to paddle effectively, and imagined what it would feel like. I got so good at feeling like I was in the boat when I wasn’t, that I could lie down, close my eyes, imagine myself in my boat and actually feel some type of activation in my paddling muscles. They weren’t contracting like they would be when I was paddling, but I had a heightened awareness of them. I’m convinced that that, coupled with my conscious knowledge of what I wanted those muscles to do in the boat, helped me consolidate movement patterns that would be the foundation of my technique. I was actually reinforcing good paddling technique without even taking a stroke.

    My experience has been that if I organize my thoughts about how I want to feel on the board before I actually step on it, I feel amazing from the moment I take my first stroke. Conversely, if I’m busy, in a rush or stressed out and don’t take a few minutes to mentally prepare, I get on my board and struggle to find my stroke. Inevitably I get my act together, but I’ve wasted time and I’m never quite sure if the stroke I eventually find is as good as it would be if I got on the water more mentally prepared.

    This mental preparation should be something you bring to the water whether you’re working on individual components of your technique or trying to put it all together with a relaxed, flowing stroke. I can guarantee if your mental preparation is focused on a relaxed, rhythmical, flowing stroke it will help you achieve that when you actually get on the board.

  • Make sure you are properly warmed up. If there is any stiffness or tension in your muscles it’s going to affect your ability to move easily and rhythmically on your board. You’ll find that you’ll struggle to move fluidly and may even find your balance or overall comfort on the board is off. The easy way around this is to complete a short, effective dry-land warm-up before getting on the water. We’re all different and some of us require longer warm-ups than others. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find what works best for you. You’ll definitely know it when you find what works as you’ll feel relaxed more quickly when you start paddling.

    Once you’re a little more experienced and you’ve established a warm-up routine that works, be prepared to modify it a bit day-to-day as you get better and better at recognizing your physical state, level of muscle tension and readiness to paddle relaxed. But remember, a proper warm-up is going to have a big impact on your readiness to paddle freely and fluidly on your board.

  • Relax your grip and paddle with “open” hands. An easy place to start focusing on relaxing when you begin paddling is your grip on the paddle itself. If you’re squeezing the paddle too tightly it will negatively affect your ability to feel the water. This in turn can have the effect of making the rest of your muscles tighten as they struggle to find connection. The key to relaxed paddling is to make sure that your grip on the paddle is loose and relaxed.

    To facilitate this I like to paddle with “open” hands when I’m warming up. My top hand is entirely open with the handle of the paddle sitting in my palm and held in place by the fleshy heel of my hand at the base of my thumb. I don’t need to wrap my hand around the paddle when I am exerting top hand pressure during the stroke, all I have to do is exert pressure down the paddle shaft and the paddle is held in position in my hand. At the exit and during the recovery I can keep my hand open and my thumb, which is positioned loosely under the handle, is enough to help lift the paddle from the water and maintain my hand’s contact with the handle. This works very well with both a T-grip and palm-grip handle.

    While my bottom hand isn’t as open as my top hand, the grip is extremely loose. During the pull it is really only the last two segments of each finger that are wrapped around the paddle shaft. My thumb is barely in contact with the paddle. In the recovery it’s the opposite, with my fingers barely on the paddle and my thumb in loose contact with it, pushing it forward.

    Obviously when you’re paddling harder or in rough water, you’re going to need a stronger grip on the paddle so it doesn’t accidently fly out of your hands. That said, it should still be a relaxed grip with no tension in your hands or forearms.

  • Once you’ve paddled for a few minutes with open hands and are confident you feel relaxed, focus on the rhythm of loading and unloading body weight onto your paddle. For me, the most important part of a flowing stroke is the rhythmical application and subsequent unloading of body weight on and off the paddle. It’s like I get lost in the rhythm of loading and unloading. I end up feeling even more relaxed, but end up going faster. I also feel like I get more in tune with my board.

  • Coordinate your breathing with your stroke. Just like focusing on loading and unloading helps you establish a flow and rhythm to your stroke, so too does focusing on your breathing. I find that exhaling when I’m pulling and inhaling in the air is the rhythm that feels best, and in fact you really only have to think about the exhaling as the inhaling seems to happen by itself. If you forcefully exhale every pull, you’ll quickly establish a rhythm of breathing that will help you consolidate a rhythm to your paddling.

  • Focus on the nose wave of your board. Nothing gives me a better idea of how my board is moving than the information I get from the nose of my board. As I catch, start to load my blade, and accelerate my board, I see my nose wave change. It appears to move further back from the front of the board. It starts to make the sound of a small breaking wave. And it changes from the color of the water I’m paddling in to white, just like the crest of a breaking wave.

    When I focus on the nose wave I find that it helps me avoid thinking excessively about other, distracting things. It’s almost hypnotic, and I become more relaxed. At the same time, my nose wave gives me valuable feedback about how my board is responding to the effort I’m putting in. I like to leave my GPS on shore for a workout sometimes and just focus on the nose wave instead of my speed. Then, next workout, I put my GPS back on my board and look at both the nose and the GPS. It’s helped me get an idea of what various speeds feel like and, in terms of the nose wave, what they look like.

    I’ve actually learned to expand this to listening to my board as well. Not only the noise of the nose wave, but also the sound of the release helps give me information about how the board is riding and how effectively I’m paddling. Just like watching the nose wave, listening to the board helps me focus on the flow of my stroke, move with my board, and relax.

    This feedback that you get from your board is going to be a little different from board to board depending on its shape. If you switch from board to board depending on conditions, it’ll take a little longer to recognize and understand precisely what the feedback you’re getting from your board is telling you, but the principle is unchanged and is independent of the board you are on.

  • Move with your board. Once you’re relaxed and have focused on loading and unloading, and when you are in tune with your board from watching the nose wave and listening to it, try to recognize the relationship between the movements of your board and your body. If your stroke is flowing and relaxed, you’ll be able to recognize a definite rhythm between what you feel in your stroke and what you see and hear from your board. Become familiar with this. As you do, this pattern becomes part of you and who you are when you’re paddling. You’ll be able to notice how subtle differences in load change what you see and feel, and use that information to enhance your stroke. You’ll also be able to more readily detect when something is off with your stroke and correct it before it becomes a bigger issue.

  • While maintaining a flowing stroke, focus on relaxing various muscle groups. I like to start with legs first. I think of my feet for a while and try to relax any tension I can find in them while I am locked into my flowing, rhythmical motion. Then I’ll move up my legs and think of my calves, thighs, and hips, and then on to my abs, back and shoulders. It’s all about the flow of the stroke, and two areas that can inhibit that flow, make you feel tense, unstable and unconnected, and make your paddling less effective are your legs and your shoulders.

    If your legs are tight, then you won’t be able to load and unload the paddle effectively and you won’t be able to engage your hips as well. Furthermore, there is nothing that is going to make you feel unstable more than tight legs. This is especially true in rough water but also in the flats. If your legs are relaxed your connection to the board will be good, you’ll move your board through the water well and feel stable on top of it. It will provide an enormous boost to your ability to effectively load and unload your paddle.

    If your shoulders are tight it seems to affect your entire upper body and your ability to feel the water with your blade. I like to tell canoe and kayak paddlers to keep their shoulders low and their necks “long”. This visual seems to help them avoid paddling with tight shoulders, which seem to creep up around the level of their ears as they paddle.

    The net result of focusing on relaxing various muscle groups when you’re paddling is that it teaches you to identify the muscles you need at any given moment of your stroke and separate them from the ones you don’t. This is extremely important. The best paddlers in the world are able to completely separate muscles they need to propel their board/boat from those they don’t. Moreover, they only contract those muscles the precise amount and at the exact moment in time they need to in order to make their board move maximal distance each stroke.

    The more you can become adept at this separation of paddling from non-paddling muscles the better able you’ll be to maintain speed over time. You’ll also notice that this ability has a huge impact on how well you’ll be able to sprint. One of the biggest characteristics of sprint athletes in any sport is their remarkable ability to maximally recruit muscles they need while totally relaxing ones they don’t.

  • Let your board wobble underneath you without affecting your paddling movement. Let’s be clear about it. It’s best if your board doesn’t wobble underneath you. A boat or a board that moves evenly through the water is going to be faster, as wobble can increase wetted surface and interfere with forward movement. While that might be attainable in the perfectly flat water you do your drills and technical paddling on, as you adapt your paddling to rougher, choppier water it isn’t as realistic to think you can totally eliminate any sort of wobble. Certainly you want to try to minimize any movement that isn’t in the forward direction, but not at the expense of good paddling.

    Rather than use your legs to try to totally control the side to side roll of your board that might be caused by rough, choppy water, I’d suggest it is better to just accept that there will be some rolling movement of your board and just let it move underneath you.

    I still remember the epiphany I had in C1 when I realized that I was a lot faster if I just focused on maintaining a fluid, loaded stroke with consistent, rhythmical hip movement and let the boat wobble freely underneath me in rough, disorganized water. Experience has shown me it is the same on a SUP board.

    If you try too hard to hold your board level by tensing your legs (or any other part of your body) you’ll actually end up going slower and a couple of undesirable things start to happen. One is that you get tight, and that tightness prevents you from paddling with the relaxed, rhythmical, fully loaded stroke that makes you fast. Another is that you end up losing your balance a lot more as your body tends to wobble or roll with your board. We’ve all experienced the frustration of trying to paddle effectively when we feel unstable. Well, if you’re tight because you’re trying to keep your board level and control your balance in choppy water, you’re actually making the situation worse.

    The key is to just focus on loading and unloading your paddle and moving your body with the same relaxed rhythm that you do in the flats, letting the board roll however it wants underneath you while you stay level on top of it. For me, a life long flat-water paddler, relaxing in the flats comes naturally. In the ocean, I’ve found that all I think about is trying to maintain that relaxed, consistent rhythm that I have in the flats. I work really hard at that to the exclusion of just about everything else related to technique. I find that has allowed me to achieve a level of competence in the ocean that permits to me work maximally, go reasonably fast, and read and make use of what the water is offering reasonably well, despite not having an ocean background.

  • Relax everything in the recovery. At this point it should go without saying that since you’re not doing anything to actively propel your board forward in the recovery, EVERYTHING should be relaxed. Again, this is easier to achieve in flat water so start there and practice totally relaxing in the air work. If you’ve really emphasized the rhythm of loading and unloading in the stroke you should be in the process of relaxing when your blade is exiting the water. Focus on keeping relaxed from your feet up through your entire body as you move forward to the next catch.

    You should be able to find a fraction of a second to feel like you’re “standing up straight”, which will help you rest and relax some of the postural muscles you use while on your board. While you won’t actually have time to stand up straight like you would on land, every little bit that you can do to find relief for these muscles will help over a long paddle so focus on finding that feeling.

    The air work can feel like the least stable part of the stroke because your blade is not in the water supporting you. On the other hand if you’ve pulled a good stroke and executed your exit well, your board should be moving it’s fastest off the exit and that extra speed should give you a little more stability for the first part of the air work. None the less, the more you can feel comfortable on your board without the blade in the water, the more relaxed you’ll be able to become in your recovery. To that end, I strongly suggest taking time to occasionally play balance games on your board. Learn to walk and jump around on it. If you’ve ever seen Danny Ching playing around on his board after a race you’ll know what I mean. He has clearly spent lots of time doing this. Small wonder he is able to move so cat-like on his board and is so relaxed throughout his stroke.

  • You’ll find that this approach will allow for maximal board run between strokes by minimizing things you inadvertently do to mess it up. We know it’s the blade-in-the-water part of the stroke that creates your board’s speed. While a really solid push off the water with the paddle at the exit can provide you with one last bit of acceleration that will allow you to carry more speed into the recovery, it is what you do in the recovery itself that determines how well you maintain that speed. No matter what you do, you’re obviously going to slow down. But if you stay relaxed and move like a cat on your board, without inducing any big disturbances to how it’s moving, you’ll be able to maintain your speed optimally as you prepare for the next catch.

    Putting it all together

    Over the last four posts I’ve offered a lot of suggestions that you can try to enhance various parts of your stroke. By no means is the list of things you can do exclusive to what I’ve shared. Other paddlers and coaches will have their own tips to share. However, it’s important to remember that there are certain things we need to do in paddling technique that really aren’t debatable. Things like securing your paddle and pulling yourself by it are essential to paddling effectively and paddling fast. How we determine to best do those essential things is a puzzle that we each have to solve for ourselves. It takes some experimentation and trail and error but there are a number of drills you can do and tricks you can incorporate that can help. Hopefully, what I’ve shared over this series of posts will provide you at least a few tools that you can use to solve that puzzle effectively, help you improve your performance if you race, and help make your paddling more enjoyable.