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3 Ways to Paddle Faster

Bill Dawes is with us again. He’s going to talk about how to make your paddleboard go faster. There are three ways you can paddle faster. Now, this isn’t just about racing; it applies to various scenarios. Whether you have a touring board and want to paddle against the wind, keep up with friends, or simply improve your overall performance, these methods will help.

You don’t need a specialized race board to achieve this. The techniques I’ll share work well on a touring board. In the video clips I’ll show, I’ll be using an all-round recreational touring board. Let’s dive into the three ways to increase your speed. First, we’ll focus on improving your technique. This doesn’t involve exerting more energy; it’s about maximizing your stroke’s efficiency. Secondly, you can increase the number of strokes per minute. Thirdly, you can enhance the power output of each stroke. We’ll break down each of these methods.

Let’s start with refining your technique. It’s crucial to build on a solid foundation of efficient paddling. A common error when attempting to paddle faster is sacrificing technique for speed. People often become sloppy, causing splashes and inefficiency. We need to start with a strong foundation. A proper technique begins with a correct catch. Your catch sets the tone for the rest of the stroke. Check out our video on improving paddling technique for an in-depth guide on this topic.

During the power phase, it’s essential to keep the paddle blade in the positive or neutral zones for as long as possible. As your paddle enters the water and catches, it’s in the positive zone. It remains there until it reaches the neutral position. Avoid moving into the negative angles, as this reduces your stroke’s effectiveness. Many make the mistake of adopting a push-pull stroke when trying to increase speed. Pushing with the top hand and pulling with the bottom hand leads to negative angles. This sacrifices efficiency.

The key is maintaining the paddle blade in the positive or neutral zone for optimal duration. In the video clips, you’ll notice the difference between a push-pull stroke and a stroke that prioritizes positive or neutral angles. The latter proves to be 50% more efficient from a technique standpoint. Next, consider the release phase. A common inefficiency occurs when lifting the paddle out of the water. A poor release slows down your board at the end of each stroke.

There are two valid release techniques. The Hawaiian release involves taking the paddle out to the side. The Tahitian release entails lifting the paddle blade directly out of the water. Both techniques require a clean release that transitions smoothly into the next stroke. Avoid lifting water, as it’s counterproductive. A splashy release wastes energy. Additionally, ensure the release propels the paddle blade directly forward. Body movement should be minimal.

To recap technique, focus on a solid catch, maintain positive or neutral angles during the power phase, and execute a clean release that flows into the next stroke. Mastering these elements forms the foundation for efficient paddling. With your technique refined, let’s move on to increasing performance. This involves boosting your work rate and speed. You can achieve this by either increasing strokes per minute or enhancing the power of each stroke.

More often, a combination of both methods produces the best results. Let’s explore each technique individually. First, let’s tackle increasing your cadence or strokes per minute. There are two ways to achieve this: shortening the stroke or reducing the time between strokes. This may seem complex, highlighting the intricacies of a paddle stroke. Experiment with these methods to find what works best for you.

Start by avoiding a metronome-like stroke, where power and return have a natural tick-tock rhythm. This rhythm wastes time during the return phase. Instead, speed up the return phase, transitioning from tick-tock to tick-top-tick. This maintains the same paddle stroke duration but reduces the time the paddle spends out of the water.

Moving forward, explore increasing your cadence by focusing on these adjustments. Your stroke rate will increase effectively, especially if you prefer the Tahitian release style. By optimizing these techniques, you’re on your way to paddle faster with improved efficiency and power.

It’s a very quick and easy motion, very akin to walking. Your body’s really good at doing this; we’ve had a hundred thousand years to get good at that. So, it’s very natural in your paddling to increase that speed and reduce your “talk time,” for lack of a better word. So, that’s the first place to start for doing more strokes per minute. The other way of increasing your cadence is where we actually start adjusting your stroke itself, and this is a whole different game in terms of technical aspects. You really need to do this with a coach, a really good coach who understands this stuff because it’s complex. What we need to do if we’re going to do that is we’re looking for the parts of your stroke that are not generating much power, and we’re going to shave those out of the stroke. And we’re looking for the parts that do generate the power, and we’ll focus on those.

Many people, the power coming out of their stroke kind of looks like a good, big start, and then it drops off as the paddle goes through. So if we reduce some of that back part of the stroke and take the paddle out of the water earlier, then we can do more strokes per minute that way. But a lot of people actually get the most power out of their stroke in the middle. So, if a paddler is like that, we might look at taking a bit off the back and a bit off the front. Indeed, there are some paddlers who get the most power towards the back of their stroke. Often, that means they’ve got a problem with their catch. But still, the general point is this is really hard stuff to do on your own without a good coach. Good coaches who understand this level of complexity of the paddle stroke are few and far between. But generally, I would suggest that you’re better off if you want to increase your cadence, just simply work on reducing that “talk time.” Just keep your stroke exactly as it was, just reduce the time that the paddle is out of the water.

Next up, we’re going to talk about the other method, which is increasing the power out of each stroke. The thing about increasing your cadence is that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. There’s a lot more body movement going on. It kind of feels like more adrenaline, more stuff. And not everybody is that, shall we say, fast twitch athlete. A lot of people, especially older people, rather than increasing their cadence, are better off actually just looking to get more power out of each stroke. Again, just as with our metronome paddling and stuff, nothing else changes. Our stroke itself, the fundamentals of it, stay exactly the same. We’re just committing a bit more power at various points of the stroke.

The best way to show this is actually on the water. So check out this footage of me. I’m paddling here, relaxed paddling on a nice touring board, doing about four miles an hour. Okay, now here I am. I’ve increased the power slightly, haven’t changed anything else, but I’m now doing about four and a half miles an hour. What are the differences? What can you see? Essentially, it’s just a little bit more commitment all around. I’m pushing the paddle in a little bit deeper, going a little bit further forward. But as you can see, it’s subtle. But I have increased my work rate and probably raised my heart rate by about 10 beats per minute to gain this extra half a mile an hour of speed.

Let’s step it up again. Okay, now up to about five miles an hour. And as you can see, here I am working a bit harder still. I’m still pushing down really hard, but now I’m engaging my core a lot more, engaging my glutes at the back end of the stroke. But it’s still fundamentally looking the same. So, what are your work-ons here? When you’re exploring this, just start by pushing down harder. That’s probably as good a one as any. Have a mess around with that, put more power into the stroke, engage more of the upper body to push down. What I’m talking about here is undeniably a compression stroke. If you’re more of a twist stroke person, then yeah, work on getting more twists. Increasing basically, you’re just increasing the little movements to increase the power. But as you can see, fundamentally I’m not splashing, I’m not flailing. It still looks smooth, it still looks relaxed. The really important part about paddling is that you can’t be tense, you can’t be locked the whole time. That’s just never going to work. You’re going to burn out in two minutes if you try like that.

In other technique videos in this series, I’m talking about the similarity between a paddle stroke and a punch or a golf swing. It’s all about focusing that power into the power phase of the stroke. If you look at how I’m paddling here, even at five miles an hour, you’ll see that as my hand is coming forward, my fingers are open, my upper body is relaxed. I relax, I relax, I relax, and then I put all the power into that power phase of the stroke. And as soon as it’s over, I’m unwinding again. I’m un-tensing. So it’s power on, power off, power on, power off. That’s the only way you can keep it going. Otherwise, as I said, you’re just going to be locked rigid. Rigor mortis will set in quite quickly, and game over.

But as you can see, it’s all about little increments of pushing, engaging a little bit harder. And so much of it just comes from that one point about the fact that I’m pushing down more and just engaging the muscles a bit more. As I get faster, I’m thinking about my breathing very consciously too, bringing that into the game. Any martial artist knows that breathing is a huge part of making it work well, making a punch or whatever work well. And it’s exactly the same in paddling. Experiment to find out how your breathing fits in. So, there’s a bunch of things going on. The problem with trying to generalize like this is that, as I said, it’s different for everybody. And what I’m saying here might not, you know, about the push might not exactly work for you. But hopefully, you can see the point from this that you can get more power out of your stroke without changing anything fundamentally. It still looks like nice, smooth paddling.

So there you have it, three ways to increase your paddling speed. Always, always start with technique first. There is no point trying to throw more fuel into the engine until you’ve actually got your basic technique really good. Once you’ve got your technique good, look at increasing your cadence and power. Remember that cadence may not suit everyone’s style, and some may benefit more from focusing on power. Each individual is unique, and these methods can be adapted accordingly. Keep experimenting and finding what works best for you. Now, get out there, paddle faster, and have fun.

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About the author: Julian Kidd
I have been an avid stand up paddle boarder since 2009. I retired from a decade of professional kiteboarding to focus on SUP. Green Water Sports grew from this love of all things SUP. As well as being a keen paddle boarder, I'm a football fan, closet petrol head, web tinkerer, husband and father.