Improving During the Pandemic
Since the Coronavirus Pandemic came about in the past couple of months it has really changed what this years racing will look like. At the current moment New York state is still "on pause" until at least May 15th. At that point they will attempt to start to re-open the state but who knows when racing will actually be back on the calendar. I know this news is hard to take but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I suggest looking at this in the perspective that this allows you to work on improving areas of your paddling that you might not otherwise get the chance to do. With that thought in mind, I have the following recommendations on things you can work on during this time that will pay dividends once we are able to get back to actually racing. I will try to add to this article in the coming weeks so you can have something to look forward to.
C1 is the King
Because of social distancing, this will be the time to really focus on improving your C1 skills. Shawn Burke just recently posted an article on The Science of Paddling about aerosol transport in a C2 which basically shows how aerosols can be transmitted from Bow to stern. Its a good read that you can check out HERE. For most of us that do not have others in the house that also paddle this means that we need to stick to the C1. This can definitely work to our advantage though as there are so many things we can improve with our paddling in a C1 and help us be faster once we get back into the C2. Today we will look into improving our forward stroke technique.
Technique - Forward Stroke
Basics, basics, basics. Any professional athlete will tell you, you must absolutely master the basics, and they all work on their fundamentals every day. That is why we will spend some significant time discussing the easiest stroke in concept, but the hardest stroke in execution. Improvements in forward stroke technique will allow you to paddle faster with less effort and will ultimately increase what we call "paddling economy" or your ability to use energy to move the boat in a forward direction. The more economical you are, the less effort you need to maintain a certain speed. When looking to improve our technique and thus our economy with the forward stroke I like to break this up into these areas, the catch, power phase, exit, recovery, stroke rate, and distance per stroke. I know that might seem like a lot but it is the concert of these elements when in balance will produce the best paddling economy. No worries as we will now breakdown these each.
I personally define the catch as the time right before the blade enters the water until it is fully buried so the application of power that will move the boat forward can be applied. How you go about performing the catch will have one of the biggest impacts on almost all of the other aspects of the forward stroke. If your catch takes too long, you lose time and distance that you can apply power which reduces your distance per stroke and it doesn't help you improve your stroke rate. The smoother and faster you can get your blade buried to the point where you can apply power will mean that the paddle will have more time for the power phase, which will increase your distance per stroke, and decreases the overall time per stroke which will also help you increase your stroke rate. A slow catch can occur when someone over-reaches to the point where they cannot bury the blade at the beginning, and they start to pull back before the blade is fully buried which takes even longer until you can then apply power that moves you forward. You can also start pulling the blade back before the blade is buried without over-reaching, but it seems like these are commonly go together as most of us are actually trying to get the most reach possible and don't realize we are making our effective stroke shorter in the process. To fix this my suggestion would be drills, basically work on setting the blade in and taking it out without performing the rest of the stroke. When trying to focus on the catch during normal paddling it seems to help me to think about setting the blade down and forward. That needs to happen prior to application of force. When the thought is forward and down at the catch you will be basically sliding the blade into the water at the positive angle that we hope to accomplish. If you can video yourself this will definitely help in improving this part of the stroke.
Now that you blade is full buried early well in front of you, you can now apply power. How you apply this power will affect the run of the boat or the length and speed the boat moves from exit until entry of the next stroke. The goal is to accelerate the boat so that it will get that nice glide once you are finished with the power phase. This requires that the production of power starts very early in the stroke. This goes back to the catch, if your catch is slow, you cannot apply effective force early, making you have to try and "make up" for it on what should be the second half of the power phase. This will tend to make the boat bob as you are doing more work while the blade is at a negative angle(I will go into blade angles in another article). This will also kill any glide or run of the boat that you were trying to create. This in effect makes you work harder for less return. The power phase should be smooth and even and you want to limit creating a "punch" at the end of the stroke. One way that I found to work on this is to work from a very slow pace and slowly increase speed while focusing on even pressure throughout the power phase. I would start from a complete stop and instead of accelerating the boat up to a normal cruising speed I will take much longer in bringing up the speed of the boat. Over this time the stroke rate will start very slow and gradually increase with the more speed the boat has. This is ensuring the length of the power phase is staying consistent.
Now that we have a super clean and early catch along with a smooth and even power phase we must exit the blade out of the water. This is the exit. With the exit we want to get the blade out of the water without killing any of that forward momentum we created. There are multiple ways to exit the blade so I will discuss my preferred method. I believe the most efficient way to exit the blade is to use gravity and drop the top hand. When you exit in this fashion you create a fulcrum point at your bottom hand similar to a teeter totter that we played on as kids. Since the top hand is dropping, the blade on the other end of the fulcrum lifts out of the water. Exiting the blade in this fashion requires little if any energy as you are using gravity from your top hand. If you ever watch Andy Triebold, he does an exaggerated form of this as his top hand actually goes lower than his top hand while his blade is out of the water. There are 2 more reasons why I choose this exit strategy. This allows my bottom hand to do less work as all it has to do now is go right back to the catch and it also helps prevent me from raising both hands too much during recovery. When the hands become too high on the recovery of the stroke it not only wastes energy but causes a new set of issues. To practice the exit you can either start with a very slow stroke rate and just focus on the exit or you can practice it while staying still and just entering the blade into the water then take it out by letting the bottom hand drop and come towards your body's centerline. I even sometimes practice on dry land looking in a mirror just so I can have a better visual of what is actually happening through the stroke.
The last part of the stroke that also sets up the next stroke is the recovery. The recovery is the only time during the stroke that the blade should be out of the water. There is one pure simple goal with the recovery and that is to get the paddle back to the catch position. To do this your bottom hand simply has to push forward toward the position that it will be in for the catch. The top hand shouldn't be doing much until the very end of this phase when it starts to lift basically in opposition of the exit to help drop the blade for the next catch. The biggest thing to focus on is to not let the arms get too high during recovery trying to over-reach. When I am working on my recovery I basically watch my top hand. If it stays below my eye level and I am not unnecessarily lifting my bottom arm I should be in a decent position. Drilling the recovery when you are working with a really slow tempo can help to correct some of the bad habits that occur overtime. It is very hard to noticeable improve this section of the stroke at full tempo from my experience.
In the next installment I will try to do my best to explain the relationship of stroke rate and distance per stroke and how you can use data that you can get from todays GPS sport watches to help you find your personal best "paddling economy"