Enjoy reading this post. I hope it helps your paddling.
Learning to Sprint
We’re in the middle of the summer paddling season. People are going in lots of races and realizing that doing a 6-mile race isn’t just a case of paddling at the ideal pace for that distance. They’re discovering you need to be able to sprint as well. Whether it is a sprint off the beach to the first buoy, a sprint to the finish, a mid-race pick up to get on a wash or hammering to catch a bump it’s not just helpful, but actually necessary to be a good sprinter that can change gears on demand and efficiently hit very high speeds for relatively short periods of time. So let’s take a look at sprinting and what you can do to make yourself a better sprinter.
The key to sprinting is getting the same (or for very short sprints even more) load on the paddle as normal but in a much more dynamic fashion so that your stroke rate is higher. The wrong way to sprint is to just throw strokes in. The right way to do it is to find load, just like when we work on the loading drill, but get everything loaded on the paddle and then unloaded really quickly. We want to engage big muscles rapidly with a positive blade angle and body weight on the blade, and then start to think about exiting sooner than we normally do so that it feels like we’re “getting everything done early” in the stroke.
To do this we’re going to need to focus on gathering water on the blade more rapidly than normal and working against the water more quickly and dynamically than normal. Imagine trying to generate the same or greater impulse that you do in your traveling stroke in a shorter period of time (or distance of blade travel relative to your board) than normal. You want to get good load on your blade as you do this and use your legs to continue to load into the pull till the blade is vertical. Then you want to very quickly unload the paddle by bringing your hips back underneath you towards your paddling side hand and straightening your legs, springing forward as you do into the weight forward, “tippy-toe” position so that you’re leaning forward and feeling like you might topple forward over your toes.
While you’re exerting greater amounts of force in a shorter period of time, you’ve got to be relaxed as you do it. Your hips, legs and arms need to be as free of tension as possible so they are able to move freely and naturally without any internal resistance. Remember, connection is about feeling water loaded on our blade. If there’s tension in your hands and arms you won’t feel that connection nearly as well and won’t be able to link it to the big muscles required to drive the movement. And if there’s tension in your legs and hips they’ll move more slowly, get out of rhythm and make you feel unstable.
Should I shorten my stroke?
Again, the idea of sprinting is to generate the same or even more impulse (which moves that board forward) than normal and as quickly as possible, then get the blade out of the water and prepare to do it again. You’ll find this a lot easier to do it you try to “get everything done early” generating as much impulse as possible with a positive blade angle and limiting the amount of time when the blade is in the water with a negative blade angle.
To do this you’ll be aiming for a stroke that feels a little shorter than normal, but that shortness needs to come from the back of the stroke rather than the front. Unloading the blade forcefully and dynamically will get it out of the water quickly, help you push the board forward off the exit and allow your board to carry lots of speed between strokes which actually makes the next stroke easier.
What you don’t want to do is try to get the blade out before your feet at the expense of loading the paddle. I’ve seen lots of paddlers try to paddle at very high stroke rates by getting the blade out of the water before the blade passes their feet. While in theory this is great, in practice it likely isn’t. Generally what happens is that in order to get the blade out so early, the paddler ends up cheating by lessening the load they should be getting on the paddle. They end up taking a great many strokes, but each one is less effective than they could be. By taking just a few less strokes but finding more load it’s possible to go faster.
On the other hand, if you pull too far past your feet with a heavy load on your paddle the blade is going to feel like it gets stuck behind you. This is a disaster if you want to go fast. Not only will it slow you down, it will make your board feel heavy and “sticky” in the water and suck energy out of you as you try to move a board that has bogged down forward through the water.
The fact of the matter is, even though you’re trying to get everything done early and make the stroke a little more compact by making sure you don’t pull through too far, your technique shouldn’t really be changing. You should be paddling pretty much the same as you always do mechanically; it’s just your rhythm and timing that should be changing to help make your stroke more dynamic and compact.
Tips to help you sprint
- Lean forward more. Find an aggressive stance on your board. Imagine standing in ski boots so that you’re leaning forward right from your feet. When you’re reaching forward think about your hips being forward. Imagine that if someone looks at you from the side they’ll see your bum is ahead of your heels. Get in the “tippy-toe” position I’ve talked about, where your weight is forward and it feels like you just might topple over your toes. Your whole body should be leaning forward except for your upper legs and your head should be in front of your toes. Imagine that from your feet to your head you could draw a line that would be almost the same but opposite angle that your paddle is at the catch. I know I’ve used this photo a lot already but it’s because it’s good technique. Check out Seychelle Hattingh in this position at the Lost Mills 200m sprint this past June.
- Generate the impulse that moves your board forward as soon or as early as possible. Obviously you don’t want to start this before the blade is properly set, but at the same time you don’t want to set the blade and then start to pull. You don’t have time. And if there is a lag between setting your blade and starting to pull, your paddle will actually be acting like a brake and slowing you down. The reality is it’s actually okay to be getting a little splash at the catch if you’re aggressively getting on your blade and getting it buried quickly. Lots of the top canoe-kayak athletes have catches that appear to be a little less than clean but they are aggressively burying and loading body weight on their blades which more than makes up for a tiny bit of missed catch up front. It’s a trade off, and while it is better to be aggressive and have a clean catch, I’d rather see someone who is trying to sprint be a tiny bit sloppy at the catch and aggressive than be perfectly clean at the catch and not aggressive.
- Generating the impulse that moves the board forward early means being aggressive and even more dynamic with your hips. You want to get the board feeling like it is up and on top of the water as quickly as possible by engaging your big muscles as quickly as possible. Your hips are the biggest, most heavily muscled joint in the human body. It’s essential to find a way to use them to generate force. If you look at video of both Connor Baxter and Seychelle at Lost Mills you see they both use their hips to drive their stroke in an explosive and dynamic fashion. Good top hand pressure directed down the paddle shaft helps stabilize the blade, which gives your big muscles connection to work against.
- In almost the same motion as you begin to engage your big muscles you want to get on top of your paddle with your body weight. Don’t be afraid to continue getting on top of your paddle with your body weight and building on the load you’ve already placed on your paddle at the catch. Your legs should bend a little bit more to facilitate this extra loading of body weight. Just make sure you don’t go too deep or you’ll have trouble exiting early and you’ll get stuck at the back of the stroke.
- Almost as soon as you’ve loaded weight on the paddle you want to start thinking about your exit. You’ll want to start coming up with your shoulders, straightening your legs and, most importantly, bringing your hips back underneath you towards your pulling hand. People tend to think that your reach shortens when you sprint. I suppose if you have a very exaggerated reach at slower speeds that is true, but what really should be happening when sprinting is the blade entering in the same place and the stroke becoming more compact by your efforts to get everything done early. If the stroke shortens it should shorten at the back. Try to start your exit even earlier than usual, but try not to sacrifice load to do it.
- Don’t just push off your paddle at the exit; spring forward off of it. If your paddle is well loaded as you exit and you’re able to feel connection as you bring your hips back underneath you, really try to make that motion explosive. As you’re bringing your hips forward straighten your legs and literally spring forward from your feet into the tippy-toe position. Get your weight forward for the next stroke as quickly and dynamically as possible. If you’re imitating that movement against a loaded paddle you’ll be accelerating your board forward off the exit more than you can imagine.
Take a look at the following photos of this year’s “Fastest Paddlers in the World” from Lost Mills in Germany. Though Connor and Seychelle have very different techniques, they both do similar things when they sprint that allow them to paddle with a stroke that is both fast and loaded/connected.
1. Weight forward in “tippy-toe” position at catch:
2. Fully loaded in pull, notice Connor has slight splash from catch that is more forceful than clean:
Can you gather the same amount of water on your paddle in a sprint as you do in your traveling stroke?
This is the big question everyone wrestles with. My answer is that it depends. In a very short sprint I don’t think you want to lose any connection so I actually think you can gather the same and maybe even a little more on your blade. Because you’re attacking the water aggressively and being super dynamic at the beginning of the stoke the board gets on top of the water really quickly. This makes the rest of the stroke feel lighter, even though it is fully loaded. And a really good exit that involves both the hips reloading forward and your legs straightening and helping everything spring forward helps really accelerate the board off the back of the stroke. The fast recovery in a sprint helps you get the blade back in the water for the next stroke before the board has slowed down much. This makes the next heavily loaded catch feel easier, making it sustainable for the duration of the short sprint.
However doing everything I just described above may not be very sustainable for a more prolonged sprint. Consider that you’re trying to sprint all out with perfect technique just like a track athlete running the 100m with absolutely perfect strides. It is not only tiring on your muscles but also the nervous system that is controlling them. You may only be able to sustain this for a very short time like 20 seconds or so, so you’ll either have to transition into your slower traveling stroke (which is not conducive to going fast) or learn to sprint in a lower, slightly less loaded gear.
Sprinting is a slightly less loaded gear should be just as aggressive and dynamic as described above but with slightly less water gathered and held on your blade at the catch, and your stroke may not be quite as loaded and deep in the pull. This lighter geared sprint doesn’t necessarily have to have a faster stroke rate as the heavily loaded one can be quite high for short distances, but it should definitely feel like it is more sustainable for longer periods.
Choosing the right gear (i.e amount of load) is really important. You won’t be able to sprint very fast if you load up a paddle so much you can’t pull it dynamically. Your gear should depend on your strength but also your cardiovascular ability. Some people will want to pull less but don’t mind breathing more quickly (remember, you should be exhaling every stroke), while others will want to breathe a little more slowly and don’t mind pulling a bit more. Experimenting to find the right gear for you is essential. I’ve blogged about this before -click here.
Trying to sustain a sprint really just involves keeping your board up on top of the water. Eventually you’ll feel like your board is dropping deeper into the water, your stroke is getting heavier and your board is slowing down – almost as if it is getting bogged down in mud. A great way to prevent this (or remedy this as it is starting to happen) is to recognize this happening as soon as possible. Recommitting to making the first foot of your stroke as dynamic as possible is usually enough to make the rest of the stroke feel easier, help the overall stroke feel lighter, get the board back up on top of the water and allow you to sustain your sprint a little longer. You may have to refocus on this a few times over the course of your sprint. **When your mid race traveling stroke seems to “bog down” you can focus on the same thing to help maintain your pace.**
Dead starts vs. Running Starts
The big difference between dead starts and running starts is, obviously, the initial speed of the board. For running starts the board is already moving, so it is much easier to lock into the stroke and rhythm described above.
For dead starts you first have to get the board moving before you can find the stroke discussed above. In my experience trying to pull a full length stroke usually results in the first stroke being too slow and often getting stuck in the water close to your body or behind you. Either way it is going to make for a slow start.
Instead you want to load and unload the paddle really quickly in front of you, with a good positive blade angle and almost the same reach as you’d have when sprinting from a running start. The stroke should be very short and all in front of you. It should basically be an “in, out” kind of stroke (or an “on, off” kind of stroke if we’re talking about body weight); just in the water with some weight on the blade and immediately out. If sprinting requires a more compact stroke and you need to feel like you’re “getting everything done early”, then a dead start needs to feel even more like that.
Once the board is moving you can lengthen the stroke a bit at the back and approach the stroke that you’d use to sprint with from a running start (in other words, you can make the stroke a little less compact so it is like a normal sprint stroke).
For most of you your sprinting will improve at pace with the improved ability to load and unload the paddle in your basic traveling stroke. As you get more and more comfortable with the elements of technique we’ve been addressing in our drills and your basic technique consolidates, you’ll be able to execute it at increasingly faster speeds with more relaxation and generate the same impulse in increasingly more compact stroke lengths so it feels more and more like you’re getting everything done early. It may take some time, but this method of learning to sprint, while perhaps taking longer to go fast initially than just going nuts on the paddle and thrashing away, will always lead to faster sprinting in the end.