Starting the Peak Paddle Performance Podcast this summer has been a ton of fun and I’ve now had the chance to record podcasts with Oscar Chalupsky, Sean Rice, Boyan Zlatarev, Dawid Mocke, and Greg Barton. Needless to say, I”ve learned a lot and thought I would attempt to net out some of the key learnings, tips, and tricks I’ve gleaned from the very best in the world.
Focused and disciplined training with a purpose
There is no short cut or “hack” that will make you a world class paddler. Everyone I’ve talked and spent time with follows a regimented training plan designed to get them to peak performance for three or four key races each year. It is true that guys like Dawid, Oscar, and Greg can still compete with substantially less hours than they logged in their twenties, but they can get away with this because they have such a tremendous base to work from.
While most of us have no delusions of winning big races we do want to compete as successfully as we can against our mates. The key takeaway for me is to first decide on a realistic amount of time that can be spent training the make sure that time is well structured and utilized to deliver optimal results. This will ensure that every training session you have is serving a specific purpose and cumulatively leading to the best performance you can achieve.
I’m not sure there is a single pro paddler out there who doesn’t use a seat pad. I had a chance to discuss this with Sean Rice while he was visiting. While the seat pad may help with comfort for long paddles, that isn’t the primary reason for using one. Just a single 1/4” pad helps tremendously with posture and leverage. Depending on the type of short you are wearing, you may find yourself sticking to the pad. If this happens, I recommend finding some slippery tape to cover the pad.
Prior to this summer I had never padded any of my Epic Surfskis. Adding a single Mocke pad along with shortening my footboard length (which I’ll get into below in more detail) has positively changed my posture, power, and leg drive in the surfski.
Wave deflectors – these are a recent addition that you’ll see on almost every pro paddler’s ski. This is a very simple and inexpensive piece of molded fiberglass that helps tremendously by shedding water both when going upwind in choppy conditions and when going downwind on big and steep waves. The wave deflectors are especially helpful on double skis which are notorious for taking in a lot of water. The Epic bailer works amazingly well, but it is still always an advantage to keep water out of the cockpit as much as you can.
Paddle length and grip position
There has been a lot of discussion around paddle length over the past few years, but as I interact with customers around the country, it seems many paddlers are still paddling with more length than they should. To give some perspective, at 6’2” and 200 lbs, Sean is one of the strongest paddlers in the world and his normal length in varied conditions is 212 cm. On flat water he’ll bump up a little bit to around 214. Oscar varies his length considerably based on the circumstance, but even with that and with his size and strength, he isn’t over 215 very often.
Grip positioning on the paddle is another area where I see a lot of opportunity for improvement. Sean’s simple rule of thumb is to have your hands 2-3 finger widths from the edge of the tape (most paddles have some form of tape where the shaft meets the blade)
For many paddlers when they first start out and are still developing good technique, it is very common to experience blisters and chase after various solutions with tape and wraps to help with paddle grip. Most of the pros I’ve seen tend to go bare hands on the shaft, using surf wax to add just a bit of grip. Another trick is to rough the shaft ever so slightly with a very fine sandpaper, around 1000 grit. This probably isn’t necessary on the new Epic 3K shaft as it has just enough texture to provide a good grip
It has taken me 10 years to get this figured out. But I’m quite certain that most, if not all pros have a more aggressive knee bend than most of us. There were hints in the past that indicated my footboard position was longer than most of equal height, but the final factor was when Sean Rice borrowed my boat and had to move the footboard several notches shorter. We are pretty similar in height and almost identical in inseam, so this was a definite eye opener. Reflecting back on my own experience, the longer length allowed me to both lower my knees and slouch in the cockpit, both of which helped with stability, but significantly compromised my posture and power. It does take time and may be a gradual evolution to get into a more upright and aggressive position, but it is well worth experimenting with.
Downwind paddling is a never ending balancing act both figuratively and literally. Milk the runs, time your power, leverage the momentum of the waves.
You have to learn to leverage the momentum of the waves and use finesse to get the most out of every wave, but at the same time, you have to have a powerful stroke. And the bigger the conditions, the more power you need to have. I like to think of it as throwing down a lot of power first to get up to speed and “rise above the noise” then the runs start to present themselves and you can transition into combining power and finesse.
As Jasper Mocke describes in his video about breaking the record on the Miller’s Run, to go super fast in downwind conditions you have to paddle very hard. Essentially honing in on every opportunity to launch from a wave and continuously leap frog the runs. Almost everyone will tell you they paddle extremely hard when going downwind. The difference is that beginners do a lot of hard paddling to dig out of the trough or catch a wave that is just passing them. The more advanced downwind paddlers paddle extremely hard when they already have a lot of momentum from a wave and they are building on that momentum to quickly position for the next run.
A great drill that Oscar and Boyan both recommend, is to count strokes and compete with your buddies to see who can get the furthest on 50 strokes. This forces you to really make every stroke count, which requires taking powerful strokes and timing them when they provide the most return. It forces a high level of awareness and discipline. Similarly you can focus on restricting heart rate for a similar challenge.
Minimize use of the rudder
The very best in the world know that pushing hard on the rudder adds a lot of drag and substantially slows you down. They master the ability to use very subtle rudder movements combined with edging the boat, bracing, and taking strong paddle strokes to maneuver on the waves. If you find yourself dependent on heavy rudder use during downwind paddling, chances are your timing is off and you are getting caught out of good position. Having a stable boat is a great way to experiment with a smaller rudder, body position, and paddle strokes to maneuver in downwind.
While there are some common fundamentals that are necessary to enable a powerful and stable forward stroke, there are many different ways for this to be realized. The core fundamentals are:
- Getting a clean catch with the blade fully immersed on every stroke, regardless of the conditions
- Connecting leg drive with hip rotation and pulling with the large muscles of the back
- Getting a clean exit early enough to not cause stability issues or slow down the boat
Some of the finer fundamentals include:
- Good upright posture, shoulders back and chin up and tucked back
- Hinging at the hips not hunching at the shoulders (dirtly little secret – this requires hamstring flexibility, here is a program I’m following to improve on this)
- Timing of the catch and initiation of leg drive
- Weighting the stroke side of the boat
- Downward pressure on the paddle through the stroke
How high or low the arms should be is always a big point of discussion. I believe that Greg Barton put it best when he explained that in reality for the vast majority of paddlers this is a broad spectrum. Arms will be higher for most in a sprint or short distance race, and gradually dropping lower for longer races and when greater stability is needed. If you watch extensive footage of the best ocean paddlers in the world, you will most likely observe this.
Getting into the boat / remounts / bracing
Oscar and Boyan are extremely good at instructing in this area. When you take an Oscar clinic he is adamant about getting into the boat properly, remounting, and always bracing. At first it seemed a little much to me, but as I’ve gained more experience working with new paddlers, I’ve gained an appreciation for the absolute criticality of these fundamental skills.
Watch any pro get into their boat and you will witness a very quick, coordinated, smooth process. Very different than many of us. Oscar has an awesome drill for this that exposes anyone who hasn’t practiced or is in a boat that is too unstable. Levering around a paddle stroke, swing both legs from one side of the boat completely over to the other side and then back. Essentially you are spinning on your butt and swinging your legs, using a paddle stroke to drive the spin. This is a foundational movement to having a bullet proof entry and remount, which is exactly why it should be practiced every time you get into the boat.
Do your Drills
I am quite certain that all of the pros spend a considerable amount of time doing drills. Specifically breaking down the paddle stroke and focusing on one specific piece at a time. I am amazed how many people struggle to do the bracing correctly during these drills. This should not be discounted or overlooked. It is imperative that when doing these drills you develop the necessary feel for the paddle on the water, and develop the coordination to do it equally on both sides. I know that I still have a long way to go with this. Over the years I have developed a very strong left side brace, but my right side is weak. This has become very apparent as I’ve started spending time training in a K1. Which leads to another common trait among the top paddlers. Almost all of them have grown up paddling K1 and still do continue to train in K1 sprint boats. In my brief experience, the K1 really forces a clean, symmetrical and well balanced stroke. Anything less and you will be either fighting stability or struggling to hold a straight line.
Hopefully these points have been helpful. I’m excited to continue offering more insightful and educational podcasts on the Peak Paddle Performance Podcast.
Paddle strong, never stop learning, go fast, get fit, surf waves