As my coaching efforts increase, so does the necessity to be creative with my explanations of what I’m trying to convey. You can only say “Reach, Dammit, Reach” so many times before your student only hears “blah, blah, blah”. So I came up with a simple paddle exercise and a drill that does all the explaining for me, exhibits why reaching is so much more efficient, and helps you build a good reach into your stroke. I named it the Kalama 50/50 because that’s how we’re going to analyze your stroke. Not the most memorable name ever, but hey, at least fifty doesn’t begin with a K.
This exercise is for any kind of paddling, and it’s effective whether you try it in an OC-1, a SUP or even something low performance like a rotomolded kayak.
Use a more traditional Hawaiian style stroke for this exercise. A Tahitian stroke already emphasizes the front part of the stroke so it won’t show reach efficiency as clearly. This is a two part drill to show the effects of reaching versus paddling past your half way point of the stroke. What you are going to do is break the stroke into two parts, the front half and the back half. Then, once your mind wraps around the reality that reach is more important than power, we can work on the second part, making you faster and much, much more efficient.
First, a little prep. Sit in your OC, kayak, or stand on your board in your trimmed position and reach as far as you can. Loosen your grip on the paddle, stack your upper shoulder to the keep the paddle vertical. Push your lower shoulder forward as far as you can and let your upper shoulder move back to balance the movement. Let your top hand come a bit over your head. Strain forward a bit, reaching as far as you can. Mark the spot where the blade would touch your boat or board with contrasting tape so you can see it easily. Get back on the board or boat and try to get past the tape. Move the tape to whatever new spot you come up with. When you have as good a reach as you can do with moderate strain that’s your target. As you learn to use muscle stretch to increase your reach you’ll go well past it, but that’s for another time.
Now stroke a few times with your traditional stroke and see where you’re pulling out the paddle. In a canoe it’s probably somewhere around your waist, on a SUP it might be somewhere around your toes. If it’s past your waist or toes that’s fine, we want your natural stroke. People who paddle well past their feet are the most surprised by how little power that develops. Mark that paddle exit point with contrasting tape.
Now take your tape measure and find the midpoint between the two tape strips. Put a third strip there.
First I want you to just paddle the back half of your stroke for a few hundred feet. Put the paddle in at the mid mark and pull back as far as you want and as hard as you want. Just make sure that when you do the second half of the drill, you exert the same effort. Make a mental note of the speed and acceleration you generate. Now I want you to do only the front half of the stroke for a few hundred feet. Reach as far forward as you can and only pull back to the middle tape mark. Now make a mental note of the speed and acceleration, if you are able to use a GPS in the monitoring of the experiment, even better, but it’s such a big difference that you really won’t need it. I’ll let the results speak for themselves.
Here’s a video that illustrates the drill:
But DON’T just watch the video and say “okay, I’m convinced, I don’t need to do the drill, I’ll reach harder”. There’s a big difference between watching a demonstration and experiencing the feelings. You wouldn’t even think of learning to ride a bicycle by watching a video. Your body needs to be convinced, it needs to know where power comes from. It can’t be just a theory.
Now here’s the second part. Now that you are convinced, I want you to leave the tape in place and concentrate on your reach and SMOOTHNESS for the next few weeks. Do not push to apply power. Adding power to your stroke is the easiest thing you can do, but it covers up all the technical flaws and mistakes in your paddling and it will not make you fast. Watch Danny Ching paddle some day. Sure, the dude has some shoulders, but his reach is huge, his application of catch and pull is so smooth the water just gurgles, and if he’s working hard it doesn’t show. Sure, he has a twenty year head start on you, but he didn’t get great by practicing mistakes, and neither will you.
Focus on reaching the tape with every stroke. Keep your form as clean as you can so your muscle memory for a good stroke will start to embed. Shoulders stacked, relaxed twist, Reach, Dammit, Reach, and then apply power gently and smoothly. Stop applying power as you reach the middle tape and just do the recovery however you’re used to doing it–right now we don’t care much about that piece. We’re focused on reach and smoothness now, don’t add any more complexity, this is tough enough.
Keep your cadence slow and hesitate slightly just before you push the paddle in order to load your upper body to it’s full potential and then unload on the paddle as you drive it down into the water. Some time in the first few hours of practicing this you will suddenly find this magical moment when your stroke merges with your boat or board, and everything flows effortlessly forward. It may not last, but you’ll know what we’re shooting for.
It’s quite a simple drill but it really helps to illustrate what part of the stroke is most important to focus on, and also shows why the Tahitians would spend most of their time focusing on the most effective part of the stroke. Hopefully after you’re convinced about how important reaching is, you’ll be inspired to focus on all the techniques that help you to maximize your reach to get the most out of your effort. I’ll show you more later, but for now, Reach, Dammit, Reach. Have fun.