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Improving During the Pandemic - Stroke Rate and DPS

Although some racing has started to come back this year, almost every major canoe race has been cancelled this year. Some smaller races have been held and some are still on the schedule but without many big events to focus on it can be hard to maintain the motivation needed to keep training. With that being said, I think this is a good opportunity to dive in the second additions of this series and discuss how you can use a newer GPS watch that has stroke rate data to help you improve your paddling economy in this year with much less racing potential.

For today's discussion we are going to assume that you have a GPS watch with stroke rate data. Most of the Garmin watches that have come out in the past 3 or so years will have it. Examples of popular Garmin watches that have this are the vivoactive series such as the HR, 3, and 4 and the Fenix series. There are other devices such as NK Speedcoach GPS unit you can also use and I am sure other brands might have stroke rate data but I am just not familiar with.

The basics are pretty simple, go out and record a session on your watch, look at the data and evaluate how you have done and try to improve it going forward. This can be similar to trying to improve a time on a time trial course and if it was that easy, I wouldn't be writing this article. Now we will go over what you should be looking at, and what are some basic numbers for you to compare to so that you can understand this a bit more.

One more note before we dive into this, the numbers and examples in this article are based on canal waters with not that much current on out and back courses. Current will play a huge role and will effect your data so try not to get to concerned with lower DPS numbers in upstream current.

The 4 above photos are from 4 different paddlers on a time time trial course at the same time. Take a look at the average moving pace, stroke rate, and distance per stroke (DPS) values for each of them. You can see how they vary quite a bit. I want to explain how you can look at them to evaluate who has the best paddling economy.

As you can see, the first 2 paddlers went almost the exact same speed, but they had a difference of 3 strokes per minute or 180 strokes per HOUR! These extra strokes did not help the 2nd paddler achieve a faster time. That is because this paddler had worse paddling economy. This is a great representation that just increasing your stroke rate might not make you any faster. This is what happened to myself and I see it happen to a lot of paddlers that are trying their hardest to improve but not getting much out of their efforts.

If you look at the average stroke distance the second paddler was losing over 8 inches each stroke and that is the reason the slower rate of the first paddler could match speed. This is a prime example that if you only increase your distance per stroke and maintain your current stroke rate, your speed will increase. The issue you will most likely find that to increase your distance per stroke you will need to increase your effective power and that will make it much more difficult to maintain that stroke rate. The good news is, that if you work on your technique, you might be able to find some extra distance per stroke with very little extra effort. One way to do that would be to work on your catch (the longer the catch takes, the less length you will have in an effective power range which is one way to increase DPS). Another thing to note if your technique is perfect (spoiler, almost no one has perfect technique) and you do need to just increase effective power, you can train yourself back up to a higher stroke rate over time.

If you look back at the 4 paddlers above and you see the one on the far right was clearly the fastest paddler out there you will also note that this paddler has the largest DPS number, but not the fastest stroke rate. This shows that this paddlers "paddle economy" was the best on this day. The corresponding stroke rate was still fast enough with the high DPS number to provide the overall faster speed.

I am going to give you some general guidelines that I have seen from analyzing a number of different paddlers to help give you some direction when analyzing your own data so you can find the best combination of of DPS and stroke rate to make you faster next season. These numbers are based on C1 paddling in deep water with limited current and on an out and back average, so make adjustments where needed for shallow water and high current situations. If you find your distance per stroke is 9ft or more, then you need to start working on your cadence. If you average 9ft per stroke and your stroke rate is 64 your average speed would be 6.55mph which would be fast enough to be competing at any pro race. Most of us will not be able to combine a 9ft DPS with a stroke rate of 64 or higher for long stretches of time. Most of us will most likely need to start working on our DPS prior to stroke rate. If your stroke rate is over 70spm, then you will probably need to work on your DPS unless your placing in the top 3 of a pro race. Hypothetically, if you held 70spm at 7.5ft DPS, you would be traveling at an average speed of 5.97mph. This would not be a speed that would compete at a professional level race although that is a high stroke rate. This paddler would get much better economy if they took some time and worked on DPS.

Once you have worked on increasing your DPS, you will find that your stroke rate will slow down but you should end up increasing your speed slightly. After working for a while to maximize your personal DPS, you can then go back to working on increasing your stroke rate. This will now help you become much faster than you were before when you are able to get your stroke rate closer to your old rate but with higher DPS.

This advise really comes from personal experience. In 2017 I was holding cadences in the low 70s but with poor DPS, only giving me low 6mph average speeds, for the next couple of years I have worked my way up to right around 9ft DPS and can maintain speeds above 6.5mph, even though I cannot hold a stroke rate in the 70's in a C1 anymore. I hope the information in this article helps some of you out there, especially the self coached athletes like myself, and I would love to hear your feedback.


Side Note: If you like this article you will definitley want to check out the latest installment from The Science of Paddling HERE. This article covers the science behind some of the discussion above. He breaks down speed into 3 variables, unfortunately, current watches and consumer electronic products will not have the capabilities to measure all 3 of these variables so we have to use what we have! Enjoy!

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