Basic paddling is easy but, if you want to paddle in rapids or race, or even if you plan to spend all day on your board, it’s important to take your stroke beyond the basics. Here are a few simple things you can do to make your stroke better so you can navigate increasingly difficult terrain on your board.
Make Sure Your Paddle is the Right Length
If your paddle is too short or too long, you won’t be able to paddle effectively. Paddle with a paddle that’s too long and you risk burying the blade in the water and losing momentum. Keep it too short and you’ll have to contort yourself just to get started.
Measure your paddle by standing with it next to you. Raise one arm and flop your wrist over so your hand is flat. Keeping the blade on the floor, adjust the handle until it fits comfortably in the palm of your flopped-over hand. You may want it a little bit longer than that but that’s the shortest your paddle should be.
Stand Up Straight
It’s tempting to bend at the waist and stay bent when you’re paddling on a board. While it’s normal to bend during the reach phase of the stroke, you’ll want to straighten up as you pull the paddle back towards yourself. Make sure you end each stroke standing straight up with your feet about shoulder-length apart. This gives your stroke the proper range and keeps your body comfortable, too.
If you’re struggling with this, think about keeping your eyes up. Look at where you want to go, instead of down at the water. When your gaze is up, your body is much more likely to be up, too.
Lose the Death Grip
It’s easy to death-grip your paddle but this takes a lot of extra energy. If you’re gripping the paddle too hard, you’ll wear yourself out too fast. You’ll also tense your neck and shoulders, which will keep you from being able to reach as far or stroke as hard. Loosening your grip will keep you from getting tired and it will help you move faster and more effectively through the water.
Reach Out Farther
Most beginning paddleboarders don’t reach out far enough in front of them when they paddle. This means that there’s not as much power in each stroke so you’ll have to use more strokes to get where you’re going. This wastes energy and it can make it more difficult to maneuver your board.
It’s okay to bend over when you’re reaching, though you likely don’t want to take your torso past 45 degrees. This is an ideal angle for getting power while not compromising your balance or your position on your board.
Extend the Blade Behind You
Look at where your stroke stops and make sure you don’t bring your paddle out of the water until the blade is behind you. It may feel more natural to take it out when it’s about even with you but this isn’t maximally effective. In fact, you can lose an important foot or two of stroke distance this way.
While you probably don’t want to try to look behind yourself while you’re paddling (unless you like swimming…) you may want to have someone else watch you. Your partner can tell you when to take your paddle out of the water which each stroke until you’re used to doing it the new way.
Take Some Video
The best way to get a feel for how you stroke is to have someone take a video of you paddling. Make sure they get the video in good light and that it is zoomed in enough for you to see your stroke in detail. If you’re trying to improve your stroke under certain conditions, like in rapids, on waves, or around obstacles, film yourself doing those things. Watch your film, compare it to films of great paddlers, and see if you can improve your stroke.
Learn Different Ways to Turn
If you’ve been in a canoe or a kayak, backpaddling is usually the most natural way to turn. This technique involves paddling backward, instead of forward, until your board turns. It’s the first way that most of us learn to turn and it’s definitely effective.
However, backpaddling can cause you to lose major momentum. If you’re wanting to race, catch waves, or follow a river, learn to turn with a wide stroke, too. To do this, move your paddle in a wide arc through the water on one side of your board, rather than in a straight line from front to back. The wider the arc, the more effectively you’ll turn. If you want to turn left, wide stroke on the right side. If you want to turn right, wide stroke on the left.
You can make gradual turns by paddling a whole bunch on one side of the board, but this is the most inefficient way to turn. It can work well if you’re following a wide bend in a lazy river or just trying to come ashore in a certain place, but it’s not the best way to turn your board.
A few minor changes can make paddling so much easier! Figure out what you need to change today, then try it the next time you’re out on the water. Before long, you’ll have a powerful stroke to help you meet all of your SUP goals.