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Reach, Dammit, Reach

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If you ever spend any time with me or almost any other paddle coach for that matter, you’re going to hear that phrase or something very similar.

The key to any stroke, Tahitian or Hawaiian, stand up or canoe, is to reach. There are a lot of other components to a stroke but I firmly believe that reach is the most important and the hardest to master. First let’s talk about the three reasons why it’s so important.

The first reason is the very simple one that no one seems to think about–we take a lot of strokes going almost anywhere. If you shorten your stroke you have to take a lot more of them. A few lost inches of reach doesn’t seem like much at first, but most people stroke about a thousand times per mile. So a thousand or ten thousand strokes later, it starts to really add up.

Second, muscles are elastic, especially once they are warmed up and working well. The muscles you use to extend your reach are not the ones you’re going to use to put power into the paddle, so it’s a good division of labor. When you reach hard and plant the paddle your muscles spring back some, and you get a little free ride right at the most critical and demanding part of the stroke.

Third, all the methods that extend your reach also ensure that major muscle groups are engaged in your stroke. You can’t get a good reach with just your arms, you need to engage your shoulders, back, torso and hips to really get out there. Once those muscles are engaged they can go to work effectively.

There are essentially three ways to extend your reach. I want you to practice and tune each of these ways independently as well as together. See them as steps that flow together to get the paddle out into a good catch.

One, and perhaps the most obvious, is to completely extend your lower arm forward, even a slight bend in the elbow will rob you of a couple of inches when the paddle enters the water.

Two: Fully extend your lower shoulder forward. The movement is unfamiliar at first, so let’s reverse it into something you are familiar with. Stick your chest out as far as you can. When you lift your chest up high, you must pull your shoulders back in order for your chest to stick out. The movement we’re aiming at is the opposite movement. Collapse your chest and to extend your lower shoulder forward. This movement should account for at least three to four inches of reach and perhaps more if you really accentuate it.

You don’t have to strain to gain reach, just good technique and body position will get your paddle out there with minimal effort.

Three: Upper body twist combined with a slight lean forward. Big gain here. Twist in the direction of your lower hand to at least a forty five degree angle. More is even better. This twist will extend your reach another five to six inches and gets your upper arm into position so you can keep the paddle close to 90 degrees to the board. Throw in a little body lean and your talking even a couple of more inches. Be very careful not to bend in the lower back, but rather bend at the hips. This will keep you from putting any unnecessary strain on your lower back.

Lets add it up, an extended arm will get you two inches, shoulder extension is good for four inches, twist and lean account for eight inches, and all in you should be able to get at least an extra fourteen inches of reach with these simple techniques, as apposed to a simple beginner’s arm reach stroke. If you maximize each portion you will get even more reach.

Remember reason number one? Let’s call our reach gain an even foot to keep the math simple. For a little ten mile paddle (10,000 strokes) that’s ten thousand feet–about two miles. Or thinking about it a different way, that’s two thousand stokes less for the same ten mile distance.

Now here’s the hard part. The real challenge to reach isn’t the technique, it’s the discipline it takes to maintain it as you get tired. Even the best paddlers in the world fight with shortening their stroke as they fatigue. So first get the technique right, then start to really start to work on keeping it right.