Prepping for the Naish Gorge Paddle Challenge a few weeks ago the goal was to increase my speed over a 5 mile distance. Little did I realize how insane the upwind legs of the Sunday course race would be – 4 gnarly laps! The training I did was adequate – but the level of fatigue I had over the next week pretty much let me know that I pushed my limits endurance-wise. Even with the great advice shared by Candice Appleby before the race, I knew I wasn’t getting every ounce of speed or power from the efforts of my paddle strokes.
It wasn’t until I got back home and went out for a training session that the most valuable insight of my weekend at the Naish Gorge Paddle Challenge really hit home. I had been hanging out with a group of people all chatting in the KIALOA Paddles tent before the awards on Saturday. A few strong looking paddlers from Vancouver were asking Dave Chun about which paddle to add to their KIALOA quiver, As it usually does with Dave Chun, conversations about paddles tend to morph into conversations about design and technique. He’s so passionate and knowledgeable about every aspect of his life’s work he simply can’t help it.
The guys were skilled at both outrigger paddling and standup. So in the explanation, Dave was comparing and contrasting body position, stroke and technique. Always eager to learn more I listened like a fly on the wall. It seemed that recently I’d honed my reach and blade entry into the water, but there was always room to refine things even more. All the phases of the stroke have to work together smoothly for the stroke to be efficient and without good reach and catch, the stroke won’t be effective.
Dave was explaining aspects of the “catch.” The “catch” is the point where the blade is fully buried and locked onto the water. It is natural that the stroke begin as you begin to put the paddle into the water. You will naturally begin to pull on the paddle and begin to apply pressure to the water with the blade, even before the blade is fully buried. SO, it is important to “bury the blade” relatively quickly. The paddle should not “float” down to the water. Reach and drive the paddle into the water and make the catch as far in front of you as possible. Since ALL of the stroke is in front, and never behind your body, the more in front of you that the paddle gets fully buried and makes the “catch” the longer stroke you will have!
While I don’t always execute the reach and set-up, followed by a great catch, I had heard this before. What I never “heard” before was a key bit of information. Dave explained that a mistake that’s sometimes made is to begin pulling the paddle back or attempting to begin to drive the board forward before the catch has been completed. It’s a brief second of time, but important to fully execute the catch before moving through the paddle stroke. The focus should be on entering the water smoothly and quickly with the paddle edge slicing into the water cleanly, creating minimal turbulence. Once the blade is fully submerged and “planted” it’s time to apply the power. If you start pulling too soon, the blade tends to cavitate (air bubbles form along edges of blade) and will slip through the water instead of holding.
Planting the paddle: That was something I never thought about – and probably rarely did. So eager to turn over another stroke, I did a reach-catch-pull without getting that minute time period of allowing the blade to “plant.”
Paddling in wind, paddling currents upstream and down all make it difficult to really determine the impact on speed or efficiency that a single change might deliver. Yesterday as I did my 60 minute training session I picked a section of the river that would be somewhat consistent over the hour. Wearing a heart rate monitor I did 1-mile loops up and down stream. The miles flew by, maybe because so much concentration was going into refining that catch and “plant.” In any event some things were both cool and surprising.
My average time per mile was about 25 seconds faster. My heart rate per minute was 5-8 beats per minute slower. That led to a perceived exertion that was less – while going faster. My limitation when racing is usually central (my heart rate rockets off the chart) before my muscles beg for relief. This was fun! Our sport can keep us refining skills and learning constantly – and that’s just one more thing to get us back on the water working hard again and again and again.