As a paddlesports coach I find myself often working with paddlers who seem to have common elements of their performance that they would like to improve. Often they feel their issues revolve around one or more of the following
· Not being able to punch through stoppers
· Not being able to hit the top of the eddy when breaking out
· Waves/features pushing their boat off course
· Bow dropping when trying to boof
· Struggling with boat control/direction when entering or exiting the flow
Simple changes can make a big difference
Whilst many of the moves we do on the river have different technical components, they also have a lot in common too. When working with a paddler who has issues with the previously mentioned techniques I often start with the fundamentals
I know it sounds simple, but sit up straight, don’t slouch. In whitewater we are more often than not getting our weight forwards. When we are trying to clear a stopper/wave or make a boof, we get our weight forwards to keep our momentum going. Try pushing your bum back in your seat and rolling your hips forwards, this will allow you to engage your core muscles more and be more effective with you paddling.
Spend some time getting your boat set up so that you are connected effectively. This means a well positioned footrest that you are not straining to reach, thigh braces that touch your thighs and not just your knee caps! Hip pads that don’t let you slide from side to side and a seat that is at the correct height and angle for your body. The seat height is the issue I see most commonly with paddlers who are having issues driving their boat. A reference point I use is to raise my seat so that the tops of my hips are level with my cockpit rim. This reference point might not work for all paddlers, but for me having a shorter body it allows me to effectively move my weight to where I need it. Some paddlers might find raising their seat causes the boat to be a bit unstable, but persevere with it as you might find that you can make more dynamic moves and that you can move your boat around with greater efficiency.
If we are more connected to our kayak with can potentially transfer our power more effectively. So much of our power is transferred to our boat by having a strong core and pushing with our feet, if we rotate our trunk too it only helps to make this more effective. When generating our power and pulling hard on our paddled, make sure you are pushing with your feet and transferring the power to the boat. I find that many paddlers know they should push with their feet, but often many don’t actually do it, the harder you paddle the hard youpush.
Experiment with pushing with your feet when you generate your power with your forwards strokes. There seems to be a range of opinions as to whether you push the foot on the same side as you are paddling on, or whether you push the opposite. Either way you are transferring power to your kayak and I personally push on the side of the boat that I have my weight on (which usually is the side I am paddling on)
A key component of our fundamentals is the “feel” of our kayak. This is essentially feedback given by the boat and our environment and allows us to effectively anticipate what the boat is going to do. This means we can more effectively predict our movements and often comes from our experience on the water and potentially a little trial and error. The feel of our boat is a recognition and understanding of components such as
· changes in speed of the water under our boat
· effectiveness of edging on the boat
· changes in angle, direction, height and momentum
· The relationship of body position on the effectiveness of the boat’s movement
Through experience we can begin to understand what these changes to our boats “feel” mean and it allows us to not have to visually inspect our boat to see if it is doing what we want it to do. This ultimately allows us to focus on where we are going with our kayak rather than looking at where it is now. The idea of looking towards “future water” is a key concept in paddle sport and helps us break in/out more effectively as well as be more dynamic on the water.
One thing I hear over and over again is that the paddler feels like they don’t generate much speed and can’t make their boat go fast.
Speed vs Momentum
With many modern kayaks/canoe becoming more aimed at downriver speed, with directional performance being favoured over turning ability, you would be forgiven for thinking that you can jump in the latest boat and instantly be able to go “fast”. Often I find paddlers confusing speed for momentum, assuming that putting more and more effort in will make their boat go faster and faster, when in fact it is the quality of our boat control and timing of our strokes and moves that help us to maintain our top end speed. Of course being able to sprint effectively (and maintain that performance level) will give us a higher top end speed but for most recreational paddlers 100% sustained effort will not increase their speed.
Most whitewater boats are up to top flatwater speed within 4 – 6 strokes. This means that once we have put the required effort in to get our boat up to its top end speed, we can often ease off our sprint and just focus on keeping our momentum with minimal loss of top end speed.
Try it out……
Have a race with a friend on flatwater and both sprint as fast as you can for about 6 strokes from a standing start. Ask your friend to keep going as fast as they can to the finish line, but after your 6 strokes you ease off from 100% effort to about 75% and see what you find out. You might be surprised to see that there really wont be a dramatic difference in your finish times!
So why are some paddlers consistently faster?
Gerd Serrasolses? David Bain? Joe Morley? All these paddlers are consistently faster in whitewater races than their peers, so how do they do it? These paddlers are combining a high level of sprint performance with high levels of boat control and have an integral understanding of how to keep their momentum going. They know when to put the power on, when to time their strokes and how to keep momentum through whitewater features.
If we understand what slows us down, we can understand when to put the power on
Stoppers, waves, drops, rocks, changes in flow direction can all slow us down, but they can also be where we can keep our momentum going if we deal with them effectively. We are looking for the path of least resistance and we are also looking to keep our bow dry. When water piles up onto our boat it slows us down which reduces our momentum, meaning that we are less likely to escape the stopper and that the wave is more likely to move us off our intended course. When we are dealing with these features this is where we apply our top end 4-6 strokes, simply paddling towards them as fast as you can wont give you much advantage but deliberately changing pace and gathering momentum will.
For example lets look at using 6 strokes in total to clear/punch a stopper, the key here is that the first 3 (or 4) are before the drop and the remaining 2 (or 3) strokes are to keep your momentum coming out of the stopper. This change of pace, created by some vertical strokes to drive the boat and some positive body posture when exiting the stopper will really help to clear the feature and keep your momentum going.
Top tips (these link directly back to our fundamentals!)
· When we line up our paddle to pull our keystroke which will take us off the drop, over wave or through the stopper, aim for this to be vertical as it will have the most driving force which will help to keep up the speed you have generated leading up to the drop.
· Once you have pulled your keystroke to help you clear that stopper, think about punching it with your top hand. This lines your paddle and your body up better to make less resistance against any water that might be coming over your boat. It also means that you are getting your body wound up for the next stroke after the feature.
· Imagine that you are trying to headbutt the stopper/wave when you are punching through it. This encourages us get our weight forwards which will help to keep us moving through the recirculating whitewater.
· Finally try pushing your feet too as if you are trying to poke your toes through the stopper. This will help to transfer your power effectively and keep you driving the boat
Some exercises to develop these techniques
When we initially get on the water, this is the perfect time to spend 5 or 10 minutes continuing our warm up and working on a few drills to help improve our technique.
Think of your boat as having 4 forwards paddling gears
· Slow floating speed (hardly paddling)
· Low gear (slow continual paddling)
· High gear (Moving fast and generating consistent power)
· Top 4 strokes (4 of your hardest strokes to really make your boat move)
Practice changing up and down between these so you work on changing your pace while you are paddling. You could even have someone else shouting what gear you need to use from the bank. A common error I find is that most boater have 2 speeds, vey slow and as fast as they can! (Remember once you have done your top 4 strokes, change back down to a lower gear immediately)
Paddling figure of 8s encourages us to use our edges and our body position to encourage our boat to carve. We want to try and use forward strokes to keep our momentum going rather than sweeps. Let the edges and your body posture do the turning of the boat and your paddle just keeps the boat moving. Once you feel like you can do this, see if you can just paddle on the inside of the turn.
This is an evolution of the Figure 8’s which focuses on the direction change which occurs in the middle of the figure of 8. Essentially you are only paddling on the inside of the turn for 3 or 4 strokes before changing direction to the other side. This exercise works on our ability to change direction and has direct connection to breaking in and out.
Get a friend to help
It goes without saying that getting a friend to help with all of this really does work. Take turns to be the coach and give some feedback to help each other. If its possible use a video camera, tablet or phone to get some footage that you can review later. Often what we think we do, isn’t actually what we do!