One of the most common questions we get asked is how to improve paddle technique. We asked supboardguide.com writer Bill Dawes, who has coached many thousands of paddlers over the last 15 years at all levels from beginner to national championships winners, to give us some insights…
It is indeed one of the most common questions, although to be fair, it’s usually about a more specific outcome, ie ‘how do I hold a straight line, or ‘how do I paddle faster’, ‘how do I paddle without getting tired’, or even ‘how do I paddle without it hurting’? Essentially it’s the same question, and the answer is by paddling better.
However, how to paddle better is actually a very hard question to answer because there is no one right way to paddle. In most sports or activities it is possible to identify the most biomechanically efficient way to achieve a particular outcome, but in SUP there are just too many parameters. The best way for one person to paddle will not be the best for the next person – unless they happen to be absolutely identical in body shape, fitness, age, injury history, muscular composition, motivation, etc etc etc. Which is pretty unlikely! You may think yeah, but it will surely be fairly similar – but it really won’t. If you’ve got big strong quads and glutes but skinny shoulders (that classic pear-shaped profile) then let’s get you paddling using those big powerful lower body muscles. Whereas if you’ve got a skinny little butt and chicken legs, but you’re tall and have plenty of weight across your shoulders (the swimmer’s body) then let’s utilise those upper body assets! The stroke will feel very different but will be vastly more comfortable, efficient, and productive for you.
There is no one right way to paddle!
So with this in mind, we can go straight into the next really important point to understand about the SUP stroke. Since there is no one right way to paddle, 99% of the paddling technique advice on the internet may not be applicable to you! Unless of course, you happen to be absolutely identical in body shape, fitness, etc, etc, etc, to the person giving that advice. Which is probably quite unlikely – the majority of paddle technique advice online is being delivered by young, well-conditioned athletes running a big powerful stroke like a finely tuned NASCAR engine, which their body has adapted to deliver through thousands of hours of training. So they are quite probably the last person you should be looking to for advice! An untrained body attempting to utilise that stroke will almost certainly not cope. This is something we come across pretty much on a daily basis; people feel disheartened – indeed sometimes a complete failure – because they cannot paddle like whichever online guru it is that they have been listening to. Which really isn’t a great outcome.
99% of the paddling technique advice on the internet may not be applicable to you
So how can you improve your paddling, then, if there is no one right way to paddle and 99% of the information online may not be applicable to you? In an ideal world, you’d find yourself a coach – someone who really knows their stuff and has been working in this field for many years, and knows how to help you find the right SUP stroke to suit you. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many coaches like this (it’s not normally covered in paddleboard instructor training, and most ‘qualified’ instructors tend to only know one stroke), so it’s unlikely that you’ll be lucky enough to have a good coach in your area. (Online coaching can work really well though and doesn’t need to be expensive. Check out supcoachonline.com for our own online coaching service.)
The good news though, is that there is one commonality between all good SUP strokes, and simply by focussing on this, you are almost guaranteed to improve your own stroke. It will unlock your path to paddling faster, straighter, and with less effort. And better still, one simple, and actually quite enjoyable, training exercise can help unlock all of this.
The exercise will also equip you with a much clearer idea of what you are actually trying to do with your paddle stroke. Because that’s the other big problem with trying to improve your paddling; it’s not at all intuitive what’s actually going on! You may well have heard advice like “you are trying to pull the board up to the paddle, rather than the paddle towards you”, and other similarly mystifying statements. So what is actually going on? It’s best demonstrated rather than described, so check our video out to see it more graphically, but in simplest terms, what actually happens in a good well-executed stroke is that the paddle blade ‘catches’, and then grips, holding its position stationary in the water. And then, the power you apply to the paddle is actually hauling the board forward rather than pulling the paddle back. Although it does undoubtedly looks as though you are pulling the paddle through the water, you’re really not (when you do a good stroke). It genuinely does not move! Imagine you are on a skateboard, reaching out to grab a fencepost, and pull yourself past it – that’s sort of what is happening here. So, continuing that analogy, the further forward you can reach for that fencepost and get a good grip on it, the better a pull you will get. Whereas if you don’t grab the post till it’s already nearly alongside you, you’re not going to get much of a shove from it.
Understanding the catch
So what we are aiming to do when we take a paddle stroke is make our paddle into that fencepost. We want to plant it a long way forward and get it in nice and vertical, and nice and deep. (Just like any good fencepost should be planted!). If the paddle blade isn’t fully in the water, then it’s not going to be gripping. Deep is good, deeper is better. And we want to achieve all this as quickly and efficiently as possible; the sooner your paddle can start gripping, the sooner you can start powering yourself forward towards it. The more perfect our catch can be, the better and more productive the rest of the stroke can be.
So it’s actually very simple. Work on achieving that perfect catch, and everything else will tend to follow on from that very nicely. And luckily, because the catch is near the start of the stroke, we can isolate it and concentrate on it very effectively. In the video, we demonstrate how to just practice your catch. Every paddler should be doing this. In most sports, it is taken as read that you practice the basics, however good you are. Top PGA golfers still practice their putting. Top tennis players still practice their serves. A great quote from Michael Jordan when a journalist asked him “why are you better than everyone else at basketball?”. His reply: “because I do the basics better than anyone else”. Practice is essential, but it has to be applied practice – focussing on what needs to be focussed on. Doing the basics better. Just going paddling is not practicing, it is not going to make you better. There is no mechanism whereby if you just do something over and again, it will automatically get more efficient. Indeed, it’s usually quite the opposite! Certainly, from my own observations over the last 15 years, the quality of many people’s SUP stroke decay with time, and bad habits start to creep in. Practice is vital – and it’s really rewarding, too! Searching for that perfect SUP catch becomes addictive. You know when you get it – it’s like that perfect drive in golf when the ball just flies straight and true.
There is no mechanism whereby your paddling improves of its own accord.
Learning how to do it will take a bit of time. You are aiming to get that paddle into the water cleanly, a long way forward, fully immersed with no splash, no sound. Like you’re stabbing a knife into butter. A great analogy is that you’re trying to spear a flounder. Aim to fully submerge the blade. It should feel effortless. Don’t even think about pulling back on the paddle or putting any other forces onto it, until it is fully in the water.
Next up is understanding that a great catch starts a whole phase before the paddle blade actually enters the water. Just like you can’t throw a stone, or a punch, without your hand starting much further back (ideally behind your shoulders), so the catch should begin with the paddle blade back. Bringing the blade forward is the start of the stroke. You are loading up, bringing your weight forward to ‘pounce’ on that catch.
The stroke starts at the back!
And this is actually a very profound thing in itself. You will regularly find the phases of the SUP stroke described as CATCH, POWER, RELEASE, RETURN, or something like that, where the catch is the start of the stroke. But it really isn’t – any more than the point when the stone leaves your hand is the start of the throw. One of the most common errors I see as a coach is simply due to this very misconception; the paddle comes forward and then pauses before it goes into the water. This is happening because that person’s ‘mental model’ of the stroke is that it starts at the front. So this exercise is very much about helping you ‘re-adjust’ your mental model to a stroke that starts at the back. I regularly find that this simple mental adjustment alone is a complete game-changer for people.
Our boxer here isn’t going to bother the punchbag too much if he tries to hit it with his left hand, already extended. Whereas his right hand can throw a proper jab with much more weight behind it. A good punch starts at the back, just like your paddle stroke should.
So in the exercise we are simply ‘unchaining the stroke’, ie doing individual strokes, with a couple of seconds of pause in between each stroke. But actually, it’s not even a full stroke, it’s actually just doing individual catches. Once you’ve done the catch, that’s the work done. Just let the paddle follow through and exit by your feet, and then keep it back there. Don’t let it drift forward! Pull yourself up to your full height, head up, and breathe in fully. If you know how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing, then fantastic – this is the time. Tummy out, pull that diaphragm down, fill those lungs with air. (If you don’t know how to do diaphragmatic breathing incidentally, then go and learn it. It’s a hugely beneficial skill, particularly if you want to paddle faster and harder). Pause for a second or two, prepare yourself mentally for your next catch, then swing that paddle forward and bring your body forward to achieve it.
The drill to practice your catch
Sounds easy, eh? You’ll be surprised – it’s not. It’ll take you a while to get it right. And you’ll be astonished also at how difficult it is to achieve a perfect catch each time. It can be frustratingly elusive. You’ll know it when you get it. But then the next one will be splashy, or the paddle will creep back a bit as it’s going in.
Once you are getting really good clean effortless silent catches on a regular basis then challenge yourself to get the paddle in just a little further forward. All the time thinking also about your breathing and pulling yourself up to your full height after each stroke. This is a very important part of it.
Just a quick side note at this point. While you’re learning this drill, you do need to look down slightly in order to see what’s going on with your catch. You’ll see this clearly in the video. However, this is different from normal paddling, when your head should be up, or at least focussing on a point ahead of the board. This improves balance and allows the chest to be more open for easier breathing. So, once you have got to grips with this drill, then try doing it without looking down, and just concentrating on the feel and sound of the catch. Maybe just look down every few strokes to check your progress. But don’t be afraid to look down while learning it; it’s really the only way to see what’s going on.
Remember, this drill is JUST about the catch. Don’t worry about applying power to the paddle, just let it follow through, as is happening in the video. (You’ll be astonished at how much speed you generate simply from getting a good catch!). Likewise, don’t worry about the fact that the paddle is perhaps coming back a way past the body at the end of each stroke (although simply keeping it by your feet is fine, if you are really worried about developing bad habits.) The important thing is simply not to let the paddle drift forward while you are pulling yourself fully upright and inhaling. The benefits of using this training technique to develop an excellent catch vastly outweigh any slight risk of developing any minor bad habits, which are soon corrected anyway.
Once you’re getting some good catches then you can steadily increase the stroke rate until you’re effectively paddling normally, but still focusing purely on that perfect catch. Watch carefully for ‘catch degradation’ as the rest of your normal stroke starts to kick in around it. Are you now paddling with a shorter stroke? Has it got more splashy on the entry now that you’re applying more power during the power phase? Is the blade still going in as deeply?
A session like this at the start and finish of every paddleboarding session will make a profound difference to your paddling. How long you want to do it for is entirely up to you. I’d suggest probably no more than 5 minutes, but if you’re really enjoying it then go longer for sure. As you get better at it, you can reduce the time. Sometimes I find I only need a few strokes like this to re-engage all the right muscle memories and everything is running smoothly. But not always. Particularly on the next session following a strenuous paddle (such as a race), I often find that my overall technique has degraded quite a bit and needs a good reset and tune-up. As mentioned earlier, your technique will degrade if it is not looked after, just as in any other sport!
So, I hope you find this of use. If nothing else, it’s a very gentle and effective way of warming up and loosening up, and centering yourself at the start of a session. But it can also do so much more than that.
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