By Ian Adamson
The term "flatwater paddling" is something of a misnomer, since water is rarely flat and paddling mostly refers to small children splashing around in the shallows. What we really mean by flatwater paddling is kayaking, canoeing or rafting -- yes, we have had to paddle rafts on lakes in more than one adventure race -- on water that is not moving.
Efficiency in flatwater paddling really boils down to technique. Fitness and strength play an obvious role, but good form can save you a whole lot of effort. Follow these six steps to improve your paddling.
1) Train in rough conditions. Paddling on warm, windless days is great, but what happens in a race when you are caught out at night with a ferocious wind and a nasty chop developing? You need to be ready for unexpected conditions, especially when you are already tired, hungry and fed up.
2) Train in a fast, unstable boat. Doing your workouts in an unstable boat develops your motor skills, kinesthetic sense and proprioception (your body's feedback mechanisms). This will develop your reactions and associated musculature to cope with difficult conditions. Faster boats increase your paddling cadence, which promote vascularization of your muscles (similar to spinning on a bike), making your paddling physiologically more efficient.
3) Use your arms correctly. Most people make the mistake of flexing their arms when they paddle. This is the intrinsically correct thing to do but is also very inefficient. Considering 70 percent of the muscles above your waist are not in your arms, you should be using all that other useful physique. The power from a good paddle stroke comes from your obliques, abdominals, erectors, lats, and to a small extent, your legs.
4) Rotation is the key. Most people inevitably think they are developing a nice efficient rotation when they paddle but in actuality are often still doing the windmill with their arms. As an exercise, sit in your boat (or on the floor) and place your paddle horizontally across the top of your chest. Rotate so that the paddle points at 90 degrees from your neutral sitting position. This is what you should do (and feel) when paddling. Make sure you don't cheat by shrugging your shoulders or flexing your arms more than about 15 degrees.
5) Use a wing-bladed paddle. Wing blades are extremely efficient, which can save you energy and boost your speed. The main difference between using a wing and a conventional blade is that the wing will only track one way. They feel "slow" through the water because they don't lose fluid around the sides of the blade, water flows across the blade surface like air across an airplane wing (hence the name). An added advantage of wing blades is they "catch" much more water than a flat blade, and as a result are very good in white water or waves.
6) Train like a cyclist. Physical training is similar to cycling since the low impact of paddling means you can churn out immense distances with little risk of injury. Try to get in at least one session each per week of endurance, intervals, strength and skills. You can hit the weight room for strength or substitute Nordic skate skiing (similar muscles) in the winter for any of the above.
Adventure Sports senior contributing editor Ian Adamson is a three-time winner of the Eco-Challenge and world-record endurance paddler. He believes that if you find yourself going through hell, keep going.
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