Stroke Rate, DPS and GPS
The biggest differentiator in canoe racing is going to be the speed at one can paddle. If you look at all of the other variables in racing, your overall speed will most likely be the one of the biggest variables between athletes same as in many other endurance sports. An example of this would be my relative speed to that of Eliud Kipchoge. He can run at 13.1mph for 2 hours and I don't know if could hold that speed for a single minute. Now with that being said there are only 2 very important metrics that we can look at that determine speed in the canoe. These metrics are stroke rate and distance per stroke aka DPS. Now let's dive into these metrics and why it is my opinion that these should be monitored to help one progress in the sport.
To start this conversation off we must first define these 2 metrics. Stroke rate can be easily defined as the amount of strokes that are taken inside of one minute. When talking about stroke rate the most popular ways to discuss will be current stroke rate, lap stroke rate, and average stroke rate. Current stroke rate will be the rate that you are currently holding and if you keep it perfectly uniform for a minute this would be the number of strokes you would complete. Current stroke rate is something that will change frequently and we will not be dealing with in this article but we will discuss it in the future. Lap stroke rate will be the average stroke rate that happened over a set distance inside of a workout. The distance can vary but common lap distances are 500m, 1000m, and 1 mile. I prefer to use 1 mile myself so this metric would be the rate you paddle for 1 mile. This can be a very useful metric when reviewing your workout data as you can evaluate where you decreased or increased your rate throughout the workout and could give you some insight into your performance. The measure that we will be talking today though is average stroke rate. This will be the average of your stroke rate over the entire paddle. We will be talking about this as this will help us discuss your overall speed for an entire race or practice.
The second metric we will be discussing is distance per stroke. This will be defined as the distance that is covered by a single stroke. Just like stroke rate this can be measured as current, lap, or overall average the same way as stroke rate. To keep things simple we will keep this discussion focused on average DPS.
Now lets combine these 2 numbers together to show you how these 2 metrics will determine your speed. There is 5280ft in a single mile. If you are paddling at a stroke rate of 60spm and DPS of 9ft you will cover 540ft per minute. You will also cover 32,400ft in an hour which also means your traveling at 6.136mph (32,400/5280). If we did not change the stroke rate but instead decreased the DPS by 1 foot (roughly the distance of the length of a sheet of paper) you get only 480ft per minute (60spm x 8ft DPS) and a speed of 5.455mph, a separation of .681MPH! as you can see this makes a significant difference and with the distance of a normal race this would create a pretty significant gap. If we kept DPS the same and decreased the stroke rate (55spm x 9ft DPS) this would equate to a speed of 5.625mph.
From this data you can now see that the combination of stroke rate and DPS will determine your speed in the boat. The next question will most likely be what to focus on, DPS or SPM? The short answer is both. Generally, you will find that if you focus on just SPM and increasing this, your DPS will suffer due to deteriorating technique. I have found from my personal experience that this to be the case that my DPS would decrease to the point where I could not paddle with a fast enough stroke rate to increase my speed to that of the really fast guys. This got me thinking of DPS. The issue with soley focusing on DPS is that you will normally end up decreasing your SPM to get better DPS. Now this will not help you in the speed department as you can see from our above examples.
My suggestion would be to work on DPS to a point where you feel confident that you can maintain the same DPS while increasing your SPM. Maybe some reference numbers will help those of us not used to thinking about these metrics. These metrics will be based off of using a USCA C1 as they do change a little bit when you are running a C2 or another hull size/shape. Generally race pace SPM will range anywhere from 55 - 90 SPM. Now this 90spm will only be able to be held for very short amount of time so maybe a more appropriate stroke rate range would be 55-75. From my experience I have noticed that DPS can normally range from 6.5-10ft. Let's also make a note that these are distances based on canal water meaning deep and not a lot of current and averaged from upstream and downstream. Personally when I started to track this information I was only getting a DPS around 7ft when I had a higher stroke rate of 70+. This is when I re-evaluated my technique. Since then I was able to increase my DPS to the 8 and then to 8.5ft range but my stroke rate suffered tremendously. Although my stroke rate was in the low 60s now I noticed that my speed was actually starting to increase! (72spm x 7ft= 5.727mph vs. 62spm x 8.5ft=5.989mph). At this point is when I then determined that it was important for me to maintain a DPS of 8.5ft but try to get my stroke rate back into the 70s as that would put me in the range of all the top pros (72spm x 8.5ft=6.955mph).
Two Sessions with the same SPM but look at the difference in DPS and speed
Until I started tracking this information I was struggling with a plateau as it is commonly said that to paddle faster you need a higher rate. Hopefully my experience will help to change the conversation as you can see now that stroke rate means little if increasing it is going to decrease your DPS.
Now that we have that out of the way you may be asking, that's all great but how do I track SPM and DPS? Well let's dive into it! This is something that I have done a lot of research in for the past 2 years so hopefully what I have found in this process can help you also. This is where the GPS comes into play! Below are some of the options that I am familiar with and my suggestions.
NK Speedcoach OC2
The NK Speedcoach is a GPS unit that mounts directly onto your boat and was developed for primarily for Outrigger canoes but has the same functionality for marathon. The perks to this unit are that the stroke rate and DPS data can be displayed right in front of you in an easy to read unit. I did a more in depth review on this unit on this article https://www.canoeraceworld.com/post/speedcoach-oc2-review
if you would like to purchase a speedcoach OC2 you can go here.
The coxmate GPS is another unit that is very similar to the above noted Speedcoach. This unit was designed to be used for rowing but does have the capability to be used in a canoe. The upside to this unit is that it is cheaper than the Speedcoach but their is a bit of set up and learning curve involved and does not seem to be as accurate as the settings have to be just right for this to work correctly. I did an initial review of this unit on this article.
If you are interested in this unit you can go here
Garmin has a number of watches that will actually track both your stroke rate and DPS. The one major downfall with these watches however is that they usually require you to keep the watch on your wrist so you cannot actually see this information while paddling. With that being said I still feel the Garmin set of watches has the most to offer as the watches that are able to count stroke rate and DPS will also automatically upload your workout data to Garmin Connect, Strava, and Training peaks for post workout analysis. These watches are also very useful if you like to cross train as their capabilities are pretty expansive. Below are links to the watch that I Currently have, and the newer 2 versions.
Garmin Vivoactive HR
Garmin Vivoactive 3
Garmin Vivoactive 4
My inspiration for this article came from reading CRW friend Shawn Burke's latest Science of Paddling article on using a bike cadence sensor to measure stroke rate. This was something I was looking into to see if it could work as I wanted to monitor my stroke rate throughout my sessions. Please visit his site and read the article as it is a great compliment to this one.
Until next time have a fun time out there!
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