surfski training

Surfski Training – Be Smart About It

When it comes to surfski racing and paddling the goal for most of us is very simple,  how do I go faster in my surfski when I know that I can’t increase the amount of time I spend on the water without risking coming home to find my bags packed on the door step.

Unlike the pros who can train twice a day six days a week,  most of us mere mortals are lucky to get in 3 hours of water time a week.   So the question is – with that amount of time can you get faster in your surfski?  I am very confident that the answer is yes.  As long as you are always performing deliberate practice. (for an in depth look at deliberate practice I highly recommend reading either Talent is Over Rated or The Talent Code, both excellent and thought provoking books that I truly believe in.)  What I mean by deliberate practice for surfski paddling is that every time you are out on the water you should have very specific training goals and be fully present and aware throughout your session.  Never get caught in the trap of going out and doing the same exact paddle over and over.

One of the great things about surfski paddling that makes it so exciting is that there are so many dimensions to work on and it truly takes years to master the on-the water dimension of forward stroke technique, balance, and downwind paddling.   All this means that you should never be at a loss for something specific to work on each time you hit the water.  DON’T JUST GO OUT TO LOG MILES!!!!

Forward Stroke Technique

For those just starting out in performance paddling,  the forward stroke technique is definitely the best starting point to make the most gains.  Without this you won’t have good stability/balance in your boat and you also won’t have the power to accelerate and catch waves when paddling downwind.   There is a lot of great material on my website and the internet in general about technique; it is good to read everything you can, but even better to get some coaching and video analysis.    In my own experience I didn’t have access to coaches, video or other paddlers, so I was on my own to teach myself based on what was available on the internet and the few forward stroke videos that are out there.  I will be the first to admit I still have a long way to go and could definitely benefit from video analysis and coaching.     

Simplicity is always best and a lot of the material out there is overwhelming for a beginning paddler.  Below is my attempt at a pretty extreme simplification of the forward stroke.  This is a good starting point to make sure you ingrain the fundamentals.  The items below are listed in order of priority

  1. Straight Arms, Straight Arms, Straight Arms:   
    • This is the number one most critical technique aspect to strive for.  It is also not what your instinct tells you to do when you first grab a paddle.  
    • Ok, so straight arms is a little bit of an exaggeration because you do at some point have to bend your arm, but it should only be as you remove the paddle from the water for a split second and you are quickly straightening your arm back out.    Take some time to watch this video from the Men’s K1 Sprint in the Olympics this year. And you will see what I mean.
    • In order to keep your lower arm straight the entire time the paddle is in the water you will have to allow the paddle to track away from the boat.   This again will feel strange as it is not natural to how your brain thinks the paddle stroke should go.  
    • Allowing the paddle to track away from the boat is however the natural path of the paddle if you are driving the blade through the water with full body rotation and the use of your large muscle groups.
    • Allowing the paddle to move outward will also ensure that you don’t pull it too far (beyond your hip)  and it will improve your stability drastically as it serves as a wide anchor point
  2. Initiate with Leg Drive
    • The stroke side heel initiates the stroke by driving into the footplate of the boat and serving as the pivot point/foundation around which your body will rotate
    • As the heel drives into the boat the leg should extend and begin to lay flat along the cockpit of the boat (leg starts with about a fist gap between the back of the knee and the seat)
    • The full extension of the heel allows the hip to open up increasing the whole body rotation that you are striving for
    • As the heel on the stroke side drives into the boat the opposite leg is doing the opposite motion.  Going from a straightened position to a bent position and pulling back on the foot strap.
    • The opposite leg action not only promotes more body rotation but also counteracts the natural lean/roll of the boat to the side where you are applying pressure with the heel

I am a firm believer that if you master the above two points you will be well on your way to developing a good forward stroke.  There are however a few additional points that do deserve mention and should not be ignored:

  1. The Catch: Make sure that you pause for just a split second beif you fore “spearing” the paddle blade into the water.   This allows:
    1. The boat to glide with the paddle out of the water (most effective time)
    2. Provide you the time to shift control to your upper hand to ensure that it drives the full paddle blade into the water versus just splashing at the water
    3. Provides an ever so short breather to you  (doesn’t seem like much but it adds up over the course of a long race)
  2. Vertical Blade:  The blade should be as vertical as possible when tracking through the water
    1. This requires that your top arm be high – coming across at eye level with your wrist slightly above your elbow
    2. In flat water and short distances you should always strive for a very vertical blade and high hand coming across as this is the proven fastest technique and what you will see watching Olympic K1 Sprinters
    3. As races get long (10k plus)  and water gets rough, even the very best paddlers in the world will begin to lower their arms a bit for stability and to conserve energy on  a long paddle
  3. Cadence : Once you have all of the above points down – and your ready to really get your speed up – then it is time to work on Cadence.
    1. The elite paddlers run between 90 and 120 strokes per minute.    It is nearly impossible to compete at their level without matching their cadence.
    2. If your paddle is too long or blade is too big you will struggle to ever sustain the necessary cadence level
    3. When you combine strong heel drive, an outward moving blade and a high cadence your stability becomes bombproof and you will quickly find that you only struggle with balanc
      e when you neglect those key fundamentals.


Balance is certainly critical to going faster in a surfski.   While much of your stability does come directly from your forward stroke paddling technique, there is also a certain amount of balance that is purely muscle memory.   This is what allows the pros to sit in their surfskis in choppy conditions with the paddle out of the water like it is no big deal.

In a recent clinic led by Jasper Mocke he describes three basic anchor point of balance being your paddle, your butt, and your heels.   Connecting these three balance points is your inner core muscles.   The next time you are in your ski and things start getting wobbly, play with pressuring your heels and notice what this does.   You can quickly stabilize yourself just by driving your heels into the boat.   If the boat is leaning left and you pressure your right heel you will neutralize the lean.  I am convinced that the elite paddlers have this so dialed in that they can use their legs to make balance corrections and never have to do it with the paddle.   This allows them to never compromise their paddle stroke.

Jasper also talked about how all the elites add padding to their seats to not only increase their comfort but to increase their height and leverage.   I have been experimenting with this as well recently and have certainly made some beginner mistakes  (aggressive padding for the first time in a race with beam/quartering waves for 10 miles was not so smart).    But I am convinced that padding is a great way to work on your balance.  I suggest getting several different pads in varying thicknesses (1/4 inch up to 2 inches) and depending the conditions and your goal for the day challenge yourself accordingly.  Epic now offers a stack-able seat pad set that is perfect for stability training.

It amazes me that someone like Dorian Wolter who lives in Columbus Ohio can be so competitive out in races like the US Surfski Championships.   He mentioned to a group of us in Chicago that he trains by padding the seat on his K1 up a few inches (can’t remember exactly how much but I know it is a lot)  and then going out on the local inland lakes and chasing boat wakes.   Per Dorian, this is more challenging than paddling Molokai.    I believe it.   So the net/net is that if you feel your aren’t pushing your balance skills, time to pad up and you can quickly change that no matter what conditions are available to you.

Downwind Runs

Just like the Forward Stroke Technique and Balance,  mastering downwind paddling is another one of those challenges that takes continuous deliberate practice every time you go out.   You should always have a specific goal in mind and something specific to work and improve upon when going out on a downwind training session.  Immediately after Jasper Mocke’s clinic on Power Paddling,  Dawid did one on downwind paddling.  I will outline his key points below and then add my two cents based on my own experience in much smaller lake  conditions:

  1. Nose in the hole – Always strive to put the nose of the ski in the biggest hole/ trough you can spot in your quadrant
  2. One at a time – Focus on catching just one run at a time and make sure you get on  than run before looking for the next
  3. Little runs lead to big runs You cannot physically paddle onto the big runs as they are simply moving too fast.  You need to link multiple small runs together in order to get your boat speed and momentum up to a point where you are ready to catch the big runs when they present themselves
  4. Catch as many runs as possible.  He who catches the most runs – or lets the least amount pass under – ultimately wins the race

My additional pointers based on experience in smaller choppy waters and mostly wind waves versus ground swell

  1. Angle, Angle, Angle:  In most conditions and especially the short/choppy waves we get in the Grand Traverse Bays, you absolutely need to angle the ski on the wave.  Once you catch the waves you should start steering across it.  The more stacked the waves (shorter period) the more aggressive the angle.   If you are burying the bow of your boat and losing momentum, chances are you aren’t angling enough.  I have to admit this has been a tough one for me and I still find myself violating this rule.  I seem to have some inherent impulse to just shoot straight down the wave face thinking this will give me the most speed.   It probably does for a split second but then I’m stuck in the trough and wallowing up the back of a wave… no fun!
  2. Leap frog the waves –  In small conditions there will be a lot of cases where the swell is not moving fast enough and you need to overtake the waves in front of you.   It takes practice, experience, and instinct to know when you can successfully overtake the wave versus plowing into the back of it and getting stalled out in the trough.   But when you feel you have the speed and momentum you should throw down some powerful strokes and go for it.
  3. Paddle, Paddle, Paddle  one of the biggest mistakes I have historically made is catching the wave and immediately going into that ever so cool looking/feeling high brace and skimming the paddle across the water.   As cool as this is – you should save it for only when you really need it.   If your in the small stuff (2-4 footers ) –  your much better off keeping your paddle moving.   It is that split second where you start losing momentum and lose the chance to catch the next wave that will ultimately cost you a lot of time over the course of several miles
  4. Speed leads to more speed, momentum and consistency are key.  If you can catch a few runs and keep your speed up by avoiding getting stuck wallowing on the back of a wave or stalled in the trough then you will experience a snowball effect where it becomes easier to continually link the waves.   Losing your momentum is the killer in downwind paddling.
  5. Don’t rest too soon:  As you cut across a wave and onto the shoulders of the wave don’t rest, rather keep paddling hard at that point until you get your bow into another hole.  The concept in your mind should be that you are not waiting for a wave to come find you, rather you are attacking and sprinting forward to find a hole in front of you (i.e. positioning for the wave th
    at is inevitably behind you to naturally catch you)
  6. Timing is everything:  If your timing is off, you can easily go out on a downwind paddle and work your but off and finish with a very slow pace, in many cases  even slower than paddling in flat conditions.
  7. Downwind doesn’t mean easy downwind paddling is  an all out effort with very brief rests when you first catch a wave and when you fall off the back and take a short pause to avoid trying to paddle up the back of a wave. 
  8. Time your efforts:  I find that my heart rate is actually higher going downind than any other condition.   This is good, and as long as your efforts are timed correctly it should lead to the fastest possible times.


Surfski paddling is an activity where you can continue to make significant improvements for a very long time without just logging more hours.   I truly believe that the key is deep and deliberate practice.  While it may be true that to become truly world class you do need to log the hours to hone the instincts and conditioning, for most of us there is still substantial improvements that can be made with the right focus and approach.