TC-SURFSKI-BUSINESS-CARD-BACK-finalThe Five Dimensions of SURFSKI Paddling – Simplified

What I have always found most fascinating and appealing about surfski paddling is the many dimensions that come into play to ultimately determine paddling performance and abilities.   I actually coined the Five Dimensions of SURFSKI paddling a few years ago.   With the new logo design,  I was designing new business cards and decided I wanted to put something on them that would serve as a guide for new surfski paddlers.   I came back to the Five Dimensions, but this time, I challenged myself to list just the top 3 most fundamental aspects of each dimension.  In the world of information overload,  I wanted to try and keep things as simple as possible.  Below is my best shot at it:


  1. Stable Boat
    • This should be obvious and should go without saying,  but it is really amazing how many times I find paddlers in boats that they simply aren’t ready for.   On flat water a paddler might be fractionally faster in the more advanced boat, but once the waves pick up, there is no comparison.  You will be considerably faster in a stable boat and you’ll enjoy the experience a whole lot more.   The difference between demoing a boat on flat water and truly managing it in real waves is massive!   If all you ever want to do is paddle flat water then maybe its okay, but if you want to have fun in waves, then consider a boat more stable than what you think you’re ready for.
  2. Paddle + Butt + Heels = Tripod
    • I first heard this mantra from Jasper Mocke at a clinic in Chicago, and I believe every world class paddler is infinitely familiar with it.    Your paddle, butt, and heels create a tripod that is rock solid stable and cannot be shaken when they are all engaged.  The butt is of course always planted in the boat,  but what most beginner paddlers do when they start feeling wobbly is  slow down their cadence,  pull their paddle out of the water, splash at the water, and/or release the pressure on their feet driving into the foot board.   Any and all of these moves is a certain recipe for disaster.   On the flip side,  keeping your cadence up,  spearing with a strong catch, driving with your same side heel, and exiting wide and early will keep you firmly planted upright and moving forward,  allowing you to power through anything.
  3. Confident and Consistent Stroke
    • Rough water surfski paddling is exactly like so many other sports in that confidence is key and hesitation is the killer.   As long as you are confident in your abilities in the boat you’re in,  and you keep your stroke steady and consistent, balance should not be an issue


  1. Intervals
    • It is no secret in the world of cardio that interval work is critical to drive true adaptation and increase your cardio output capacity and ultimately your speed.   Additionally, there is a quickly growing body of evidence proving that quick hit workouts deliver the greatest overall long term health benefits, especially as a factor of time, the ROI is hard to beat.   Personally, I have also found them to be much more fun, especially in the winter months when training on the ERG.   An added and not insignificant benefit is that the interval efforts should also cause you to really focus on generating a powerful stroke with strong leg drive and hip rotation, using your entire body.
  2. Cross Training
    • Cross training is a great way to improve your overall cardiovascular strength when you can’t get on the water or simply need a break.   Additionally, there are many athletes who simply can’t push the heart rate levels in a boat that they can achieve running, cross country skiing, or biking.
  3. Diet
    • You  can’t talk about improving overall fitness levels without talking about the role that diet plays.   Ultimately eating has a much more significant impact on achieving a healthy weight than exercise.   Additionally, as many are now realizing,  playing with the macro nutrient ratios in your diet and reducing carbohydrate can train your body to burn fat and thereby increase your endurance capabilities even more effectively than long slow distance training.


  1. Elbows below shoulders
    • This goes against much of the traditional sprint kayak technique that has been taught for years,  but it makes logical sense, and especially in a surfski where you’re typically paddling much longer distances and often need the increased stability of keeping your arms lower.
  2. Pull with a straight arm
    • Pulling with a straight arm is one of the hardest concepts for many paddlers to grasp, especially those who have had years of developing bad habits.   It makes fundamental sense on every level though,  you are pulling with your lats while your legs drive hip rotation and this is far more powerful than any other muscle movement you could apply to the paddle stroke.
  3. Legs drive hip rotation
    • We tend to focus on torso rotation since that is what is easier to see,  and while there should be some solid torso rotation,  it is ultimately a result of the legs driving hip rotation.   This is pretty simple to grasp for anyone who has ever paddled a racing kayak with a swivel seat, but much harder for a traditional paddler to grasp.   As the leg extends and drives the boat forward at the same time that the lower straight arm is pulling the boat past the blade and the hips are rotating with torso rotation following suite.


  1. Finesse the runs, power through transitions
    • This is a recent mantra that I’ve come up with.  It is so hard to describe the combination of sheer absolute power one minute and total finesse the next, but ultimately I’m more and more convinced that this is what downwind paddling comes down to.   When you are getting the boat perfectly planted on a wave and then riding the wave, it is all finesse.  The slightest turn, lean, or stroke can make the difference.   But at a certain point on every run, you have to make your move for the next one.  In this split second you transition from finesse to shear power as you paddle all out through rough and tumble conditions to once again get positioned for the next ride.
  2. Draft the wave in front
    • This concept may work better in the smaller Great Lakes wind driven waves , than in the really big stuff,  but I do think it is a great way to view riding waves and because I know many new paddlers are road bike racers or xc skiers, the drafting concept should resonate.   You want to match the speed and direction of the wave in front of you because the wave behind you is likely doing a very similar thing.   You do this using your bow and placing it just behind the wave in front.   In biking you don’t want to bump the person your drafting, the same applies in surfing waves.  For as long as you can, you want to just “ride in the draft”
  3. Stop earlier, start earlier
    • This is a mantra that Rob Hartman first mentioned to me, and it definitely holds true for most paddlers.   Most of us charge too hard to catch the wave, not realizing that we are on the waver sooner than we think.  In our excitement we overrun the wave and while we might still catch a ride,  it is a much shorter ride than we could have had.    Worse yet, once we finally catch the wave it feels so good,  we ride it too long and fail to leverage the momentum of the wave to slingshot over to the next opportunity.  Stop paddling earlier than you think, start paddling earlier than you want to.


  1. Pushups and Pullups
    • Simple but highly effective.   I would argue that 16 minutes a week is all you really need.  Done consistently and with maximum effort these will build serious strength.   I try to do 3 sets in 2 minutes, getting in as many reps as possible.  If you do the pull-ups with your upper thigh parallel to the ground this will also provide an amazing core workout,  saving even more time!
  2. Core exercises
    • Paddling is first and foremost about the core.   The core is the linkage between the legs whipping the torso back and forth and pulling the paddle through the water.   Anything and everything you can do improve your core will help your paddling and stability in the boat.   
  3. Develop the lats
    • If you have the time to do more than pushups, pull-ups, and core exercises, then I recommend doing lat work.    Most of the common lat exercises will work.   Focus on explosive power, remembering that the vast majority of power in your forward stroke happens in the first 6-8 inches of blade movement.