Posture, Posture, Posture

As most of you know,  since first attending one of Oscar Chalupsky’s clinics in the fall of  2013,  I have been a huge proponent of the forward stroke technique principles and style that Oscar teaches.

I have made it a point to both teach the drills to my students and also to perform the drills myself, both on the water and on the ERG.   All of the concepts that Oscar stresses  make logical sense to me and I am convinced they are the ticket to preventing injury and getting the most bang for your buck when trading power for level of effort.

Feeling Strong Despite Lack of Training and Diet

Over this past winter I was completely consumed in my full time work in addition to launching the Paddle Relay.   As a result my training was whittled down to a meager 30 minutes a week  on the ERG.   Then summer hit and my full time job ramped up in intensity and travel even more.   Fortunately I was home on the weekends and thanks to an extremely understanding wife and kids, I still managed to eek out 2-3 hours on the water each weekend.   This time was predominately spent chasing waves as I had no desire to paddle flat water or do any focused training efforts with my minimal time to paddle.  Rather I wanted to maximize fun time and pursue my passion for continuing to improve my downwind paddling.

Despite any serious focus or training time,  I did enter a few races and to my surprise I paddled quite well.   A couple of the races I did with my son Hayden in the tandem,  so while I was impressed with my ability to hang with most of the main field,  I couldn’t really be too sure how strong I was paddling.

As the summer continued and we got into mid July I was starting to note that even when I went out for somewhat casual paddles,  my averages speeds were consistently higher than ever before.   Then my new GT arrived and I was of course compelled to put in some hard efforts to see what it could do.   I quickly clocked my fastest downwind average,  fastest single mile downwind average speed and fastest 3 mile time trial  (by a long shot  – going from 7.5 to 7.9 mph).     Along the way I also managed to beat Greg Barton in the Paddle Relay Exhibition Race.   Of course Greg was in the V7, but even with that handicap, I didn’t think I’d be able to take him.     My average speed in that 7 mile race was 7.9 mph,  but we had some current to assist and some chop to contend with, so really hard to tell what the flat water speed equivalent would have been.

Long story short, all this had me feeling pretty good that the Oscar technique must certainly be working, otherwise there was really no good explanation for how I was paddling faster than ever, with very limited training, a high stress full time job with weekly travel, limited sleep, and a pretty poor diet reflecting life on the road.

Rain on my Parade

I wouldn’t say I was devastated, but certainly a bit shaken  when I attended the Epic Dealer Conference in Charleston this year and had the chance to have Zsolt Szadovszki critique my technique.     Without sugar coating,  Zsolt said it looked horrible.    I was essentially way too crouched down and hunched over with my elbows way too low.    I love Zolt, he is an amazing coach and I know he truly cares about seeing me become the best paddler that I can be.    He felt that I was taking the Oscar drills too literally and that I was missing out on about 40% of the power I could be generating.    So on a positive note, I thought, wow,  40% more power would put me at elite levels, that would be awesome.    

I absolutely believe that Zsolt was spot on with my hunched over and forward leaning posture which has been pointed out to me over the years by several others.  It is terrible and the top thing I am absolutely committed to improving going forward.   I’ve always known this to be an issue for me, but have just never had the disciple to truly fix it.   My guess its that I developed this for a couple of reasons.   First being a tall guy who spends every week on airplanes and sitting at a desk, I know I’ve always had a tendency to slouch a lot.    But being tall is not an excuse,  Matt Bouman and Rob Hartman, pictured in this blog,  are two paddlers as tall or taller than me with excellent upright posture.    Second,  starting out in surfskis that were way too unstable for me,  hunching over became a survival mechanism to increase my stability.    Third, for whatever reason I developed this habit in downwind conditions of leaning forward trying to reach and pull my way onto runs.   I know for a fact when I do this it causes my leg drive to disengage and I immediately lose the bulk of my power.  I think I’ve gotten better at this, but still not good enough.

I’m certain that straightening up will allow me to breath better,  get a lot more power out of my stroke, and in downwind paddling,  sitting up higher and straighter will allow for a greater field of vision and the ability to see the runs developing further out in front of me.   I’m really excited to commit to these changes and and realize all of these benefits.

The Spectrum of Arm Height

With regard to the low elbows,  I’m not so sure I fully agree with Zsolt.   I know that he comes from a sprint background and in sprinting there is not much debate that high hands and arms are what generate the most power and are most effective for short distance racing.    Greg did a clinic at the conference this year and he was asked the exact question of arm height.  (note: everyone tends to agree the elbow stays below the level of the hand,  so it really comes down to the height of the top hand coming across)     Greg put it best stating that for him (and I think most paddlers)  it is a spectrum.  When he is accelerating hard, naturally his hands get higher and elbows flare out more, and as he is cruising and conserving energy his hands get lower and elbows come in closer.   This makes the most sense and seems to be what I observe in watching video of many of the best paddlers.  The technique fundamentals stay the same, but they vary the details across a spectrum based on the conditions and what they’re trying to accomplish.

The Real Power Isn’t Always So Easy to See

While the top hand height and elbow position is easy to see and make observations on,  I believe what is much harder to  see in someone’s stroke is the leg drive and more specifically the timing and coordination of the leg drive and paddle pull.   What Erik Borgnes first termed for me “The Wedge” and what I’ve called “The Pry”, creating the perfect opposition of push/pull forces to propel the boat forward.   A strong catch followed by an explosive pry/wedge is ultimately what I believe has the absolute most impact on the power of your stroke.   Through a lot of focused effort I’ve done a pretty good job of getting this timing down and really driving the boat forward with my legs.   This may explain some of the comments I received from others at the conference.   Jim Hoffman agreed with Zsolt that my form looked awful, but at the same time he was blown away that I was paddling casually and  holding conversation, while he was paddling full out at race pace and barely keeping up.

I recently heard a Podcast with a leader in the strength and body building world (Pavel Tsatsouline of StrongFirst) and I’m very intrigued by a concept that the glutes, grip, and abs are the critical trifecta of muscles that have the ability to recruit total body strength.    The more I learn about this and how the concepts and training can be applied to the forward stroke,  I’m convinced there is still a lot of power left to add to my stroke.   So while I will work on getting my elbows up a little higher when accelerating and going fast, I’m going to focus first and foremost on an upright posture and really feeling the power of my glutes, grip, and abs contracting and driving the boat forward.

If I can achieve even 20% more power and speed in 2016 I will be absolutely thrilled.   Stay tuned for progress reports and if you see me on the water, you have an open invitation to call me out if I’m not holding a good upright posture 🙂