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6 Tips for Improving Your Paddling

6 Tips for Improving Your Paddling

I have been doing more flat water paddling lately—as a way of staying in surf-shape while traveling with my wife and young kids this Summer.

My friend Jeff Beck of Nine Lights Surfboards (who we have collaborated with over the last several years) built me the custom flat water board of my dreams... an 11'0 Balsa over Foam glider / prone paddle board / coastal exploration vehicle.  It's super light, super strong, and incredibly fast in the water.

Distance paddling is a new realm, and requires a different level of endurance than the short bursts required to catch waves.

I chatted with my friend Rich Knight a former XTERRA amateur world champion who has also competed successfully in long distance prone paddle board races. He’s shared some tips and tricks he picked up from some of the best coaches and trainers in surfing, paddling and endurance sports.

After my chat with Rich, I realized many of his tips would be absolutely relevant for day-to-day surfing as well...

Every surfer would benefit from more efficient paddling and improved endurance, so here are my tips from Rich Knight for maximizing your paddling stroke:

1. Engage the Correct Muscle Group

Contrary to what you might assume, you actually don't want to be using your shoulders when you paddle, you want to be using your lats. (The muscles that run down your back).  This requires a little bit of conscious effort on your part to engage those long muscle groups.  But stay tuned, there are some tips on how to properly engage your lats coming in the next 2 tips...

2. Keep Your Sternum Off Your Board

You don’t want to lay too flat on the board. To access your lats and take stress off your shoulders, lift your sternum off the board when you paddle. Also keep your chin tucked as much as possible to keep your neck in a more neutral position.

3. Know Where Your Leverage & Strength Is

When you reach ahead to start your stroke, the first objective is only to get your hand down into the water, lined up and in a position to apply power when the time is right.

Your paddling strength is found through the latter half of your stroke, not at the beginning when your arm is stretched forward.

An analogy would be to think of pulling yourself up into an attic or out of the water onto a dock. The first part when you are grabbing a hand-hold and pull yourself up is quite strenuous but once you’ve made it up to your rib cage, the final push is relatively easy.

The second half of your paddle stroke—from your rib cage back—is where your power is. So start your paddle stroke easy and finish it strong accordingly.

4. Clean Entry, Clean Exit

This is fairly straightforward, but critical for not wasting energy... you want your hands to enter the water cleanly when you are reaching to grab, and exiting the water cleanly at the end of your stroke.

Keep your fingers pointed straight down and your palm pointing straight back through the entire “power phase” of the stroke and do not “lift” water when your hand exits. Hear how quietly you can do this, a quite paddle stroke is an efficient one.

5. Rhythm is Key

Rhythm is crucial, especially for long distances, strong headwinds, tide changes or choppy conditions.

Counting strokes or making inside-your-head rhythmic sound effects or even humming or singing along with your strokes can help prevent your brain and body from freaking out when faced with an arduous physical task.

Almost every top endurance athlete does this, but the big challenge is to be able to do it stealthily without the people around you hearing and thinking you’re crazy!

6. Variety is the Spice of Life

During a paddle session, vary your paddle stroke and techniques so that
you’re not recruiting the exact same musculature over and over and over. For example, alternating arms or “crawl” style, both arms at once or “double arm” style, long strokes at a lower cadence, shorter strokes at a higher cadence.

Starting short and working to long, starting long and working to short strokes and everything in between. Make it a game to mix up your strokes in a way that keeps refreshing your energy levels as you paddle. Count how many times you use one technique before you feel the urge to switch to another.

Over weeks and months of paddling you will have the urge to switch techniques less frequently during your paddle.

Bonus Tip: Check Out "Foundation Training from Dr. Eric Goodman"

 According to Rich, this is a great workout for every surfer to do—every day.

Watch "Foundation Training" on YouTube, here.

I hope these tips help you to become a stronger, faster, and more efficient paddler.  We say it often, but we can build boards that paddle well and glide effortlessly, but they are still 100% human-powered.  

Having a solid paddling technique can be the difference between catching tons of waves, and catching very few.  It can also be the difference between getting to a wave that's breaking further out from shore or staying on the beach because your range is limited.

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