What is Paddling – Part 4

Power Phase and Recovery Phase

The basic stroke can be broken down into several phases described by terms such as “catch”, “stroke”, “acceleration”, “exit”, “recovery”, etc. In this article we will look a little more closely at the various phases of the stroke and then how the execution of those phases generate what is known as “rhythm”.

1. The “Set Up”

Before the “catch” is made, and after the “recovery”, is a moment in time where we “set up” the paddle/blade in preparation to make the “catch”.

The “set up” is a body position and a paddle position.

The body is at full rotation forward on the paddling side, with the knee on the paddling side drawn forward, the hip a little forward, the waist turned forward, the back turned forward, and the shoulder on the paddling side relaxed and forward. The bottom arm is fully extended (the bottom arm/hand is the one holding the paddle nearest to the blade and the arm that is closest to the water), but relaxed.

On the other side of the body the hip is a little turned back (hip movements should be done “inside the skin” as much as possible to minimise the effect of body movement on the canoe), the waist turned back, the back and shoulder turned back, with the top hand just on, or slightly above, eye height.

If the top arm is held fairly “open”, that is with a slight bend at the elbow, with the hand about 30 – 40 cm away from the face, with the bottom arm fully extended, the paddle angle will be about right. When the top hand is too close to the head, the paddle angle is too shallow and the effect is to push down on the water at entry. If the top hand is too far away from the head, then the paddle angle will be too steep and the effect will be to enter the water blade tip first which will lessen the effective blade surface.

In this “set up” position the head should be in a neutral position (remember the pole that goes on through your head and out through the seat that will rip your brains out if you wiggle your head???), jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed (no tension), shoulders down, arms relaxed, body rotated fully, legs set up ready to drive.



Checklist for the “set up” position:

– paddling side leg and hip, drawn a little forward

– back and shoulder on the paddling side drawn forward

– bottom arm extended but relaxed

– other leg and hip turned a little back

– other waist and shoulder turned back

– top hand about eye height and about 30-40 cm away from the head, slightly bent

– everything relaxed but wound up ready to drive!

2. The “Catch”

The “catch” is the point where the blade is fully buried and locked onto the water. In this article we will describe the entry of the blade as part of the catch process.

From the “set up” position, we need to drop the paddle into the water with minimal unwinding of the body. Several things are going on to achieve this, and there are some useful ways of thinking about this action:

Firstly, the boat is moving through the water. It is easy to just drop the paddle in, however, that usually takes about 6 inches off the front of the stroke! The paddle needs to be dropped in the water out in front of the feet. To achieve that you normally have to think about “going forward to the water” as you drop the paddle down. (Most people begin to pull the paddle back as they drop it down).

When you are in the “set up” position, there is a bit of water right under your paddle – but only for a moment. As the boat runs through the water, that bit of water quickly disappears behind you! So you need to aim for a bit of water that is still out in front of you! This piece of water will come to you as the boat moves forward so there is no need to reach for it with your body. The “reaching” is more mental than physical (except for not unwinding the rotation too soon!). This little mental reach – or aiming for the water that is not quite under your paddle just yet – is one of the vital keys to getting maximum boat run, separation between strokes, and a predictable rhythm that is easy to follow!

Once the paddle begins to enter this little piece of water that was out in front of you, you aim to drop ALL of the blade through the same hole in the water made by the tip of the blade as it began the entry. The boat will move up to it as the blade is going to the water and into this little hole you just made with the tip of the paddle. Imagine there is a letter box laying face up in the water. You can see the slot where the letter (your blade) has to go, but it is out in front of you. As the boat moves up to that spot, the tip of the paddle begins to go into the slot for the letter. As you get closer, the whole blade can be slipped into the letter box slot very cleanly. Just like dropping a letter into the letter box!

During all phases of the stroke the paddle, and blade, should be kept low and close to the water. So, the “set up” position is also low to the water. The action required to take the paddle to the water for the catch is then a minimal movement. Just drop it in, with a mental reach for the bit of water that is coming to you as the boat moves up to it, and drop it cleanly through the letter box slot!

It is natural, and required, that the stroke begin as you begin to put the paddle into the water. You will naturally begin to pull on the paddle and begin to apply pressure to the water with the blade, even before the blade is fully buried. SO, it is important to “bury the blade” relatively quickly. The paddle should not “float” down to the water. Drop that letter into the letter box, and mean it!

Achieve the above actions and you will achieve the “catch”. We want the catch to be made as far in front of you as possible. Since ALL of the stroke is in front, and never behind you body, the more in front of you that the paddle gets fully buried and makes the “catch” the longer stroke you will have!

On the other side of all of this is a catch that is too aggressive, and a rotation and reach that is too exaggerated. Rotation comes from the hip movement, a movement that runs like a parallelogram, that is parallel with the water and synchronized with the forward movement of the boat.

All rotation and force to move anything with the human body comes from the pelvis (ask a golfer about their pelvis!), and the torso has to connect it “as one” to the upper body. The hip movement in the canoe needs to be small – bum kept on the seat, back and forward movements of the hips and leg drive kept inside the skin, and everything kept parallel to the water (not up and down and not side to side, nor rocking forward and back).

The moral is that you do not need to overdo the rotation, the reach, or the effort to make the catch! Keep your “effort” for the work in the water!

There are a couple of extra elements about the catch to be aware of:

– the blade should be square to the water – that is, with the blade face 90 degrees to the direction of the boat

– the blade should be fully buried – that means to the part of paddle where the blade joins the shaft. many people put the paddle too far in the water (more later) and some don’t bury the blade enough.

– if the blade is “open” – that is, facing away from the side of the canoe, the effect is to turn the boat away from the paddle, push your body off the stroke (this means that you will lean away from the paddling side, and therefore minimise the power you have available for the stroke), and to disturb the run of the boat.

– if the blade is too “closed” – that is , facing in towards the canoe, the main effect is to slip water, minimising the power going into the stroke.

3. The “Pull”

Now the paddle is fully buried in the water, the phase of the stroke turns into the pulling phase.

Remember, the boat is already moving through the water so if you just put your paddle in the water and do nothing it will look as though you took a stroke anyway! In an OC6 it is certainly possible to dip your paddle into the water and not contribute to the acceleration and drive of the boat at all!

In the pulling phase you lock onto the water with your paddle and lever yourself (and the canoe) up to the paddle. The drive begins at the foot, travels up the leg and into the hips, then the waist, back and shoulders. You minimise the amount of “paddling” done from the arms. The lower in your body you can get your paddling power, the stronger you will be, and the greater your endurance, since you will be activating larger muscles, and muscles that have a greater aerobic capacity (calf, leg and bum muscle contains more mitochondria than arm muscles per bulk of muscle fibre, even if an athlete is highly trained in upper body endurance exercise).

The arms simply hold onto the paddle and make a strong connecting bridge between you and the paddle in the water. This idea of the arms just making a strong connecting bridge between you and the paddle and you and the boat, can be thought of as a “frame”. The frame pretty much maintains the same shape throughout the entire pulling phase. The frame moves as one piece. From the legs up, the frame moves in one piece!

You can also think of this frame like an old fashioned coil spring. At the set up it is coiled up ready to release its energy. As the stroke progresses you can see the legs move, the frame rotate and the coil unwind. The power for the pulling phase comes from the legs, hips and torso, NOT the arms. It starts low and unwinds, like a coil spring, through the legs, hips, waist, lats and then finally the paddle.

Many outrigger paddlers substitute rocking back and forward for rotation. They reach by leaning forward, and pull by using the small muscles of their lower back and small muscles of their arms as they rock back. The body weight shift of forward to back gives a false idea of power. It is not biomechanically sound, and will lead to injury, or at least, wear and tear!

4. “Acceleration”

As mentioned in previous articles, once the blade “grips” the water and presses on it, the body of water behind the blade will begin to move. To maintain the grip on the water, the paddler needs to increase the pressure, incrementally, on this body of water.

This action is called “acceleration”. Without acceleration, the blade is not just “dead” in the water but it could also be offering drag, rather than any kind of pull!

Once the boat, particularly a big boat like an OC6, is moving, it is easy to put the paddle in the water and allow the boat to move over it. The various capacities of people to “move the boat” can be summed up by their ability to accelerate the blade in appropriate amounts.

The converse of this is the ability of the paddler to apply just the right amount of pressure to accelerate the paddle just enough to keep the boat running at a steady speed. In this manner the boat runs smooth and the paddler conserves energy.

Over pulling can result in:

– cavitation of the blade in the water

– disruption of the run of the boat

– difficulties for the steerer

– waste of energy!

A good team boat paddler will find the feeling of the boat and settle into it, rather than try to force the boat to do his/her wishes!

Acceleration is a bit like Kellogs “Just Right” – not too heavy and not too light! It’s Just Right! Of course this requires water feel. Water feel is one of things that cannot be taught, only learned. Things to keep in mind are ideas like:

– 1% pressure throughout the pulling phase

– thinking of the “varooom” sound of a rowing ergo and increasing pressure in the same feeling as the sound of the fan accelerating on the rowing stroke

– the pulling phase is “on” while the recovery phase is “off”

How do you know if the water has been accelerated, or if the paddle is just sitting in the water?

By the whirlpools! Theoretically the paddle does not move in the water. However, due to the fact that the water behind the paddle beings to move, the paddle must move and accelerate, to keep hold of the water. This action will create a “bubble”, or “lump” of water behind the blade. On each side of this bubble, are streaming whirlpools, or vortexes, where the edges of the bubble are spilling off the edge of the blade.

Mostly, the size of the bubble of water corresponds to the power with which the water was accelerated.

Acceleration occurs right through to the exit!

5. The “Exit”

The stroke finishes when the blade in the water is level with the hips. Some strong men can take the paddle back a little further than the hip, and keep it vertical, and keep the power on it, but these men are few and far between, and probably have an Olympic class paddling background behind them!

So, lets keep the idea that the stroke finishes at the hip as the standard! If the paddle goes behind the hip, it begins to drag rather than pull, and only the rare paddler can push the boat with the paddle behind them!

Taking the paddle out of the water is not at all complicated. Just take it out! The boat is running over the paddle and the moment it reaches just past vertical it must come out or else we are dragging the paddle. At this point, when it must come out, it will “pop out” of the water with very little effort!

Since we have taken the stroke with the body rather than the arms, and the arms have merely been a bridge, or frame, from the body to the paddle, we find that at the end of the stroke the bottom arm is still fairly straight! At this point we simply lift the hand up and let the paddle blade pop out of the water.

Acceleration occurs right through to the exit! Until the paddle is out of the water.

6. The “Recovery”

The recovery phase is the part of the stroke where the paddle is out of the water and the paddle and body are returning back to the front ready for the next stroke.

At the exit the leg drive is fully finished, the waist is turned back and the shoulder is turned back, and the opposite side is  now rotated to the front. The top hand should still be in the same spot it was through the whole stroke.

As the paddle exists, the bottom hand lifts a little, as does the top hand. The recovery of the body should be executed as freely and easily as possible. People often refer to the action as “swing”. It’s as if someone else is turning you from waist/lats area and you don’t have to do anything to get your body back to the set up position.

While you are returning to the set up position, you are “off” (the stroke is “on”), so relax, breath, chest up, and allow the recovery to be easy. If you feel the recovery from low down in your body, and as if someone else has done it for you, you will naturally begin to get the rhythm of off and on, with separation in the strokes, that we are looking for.

As always, keep the hands quiet, and the body quiet. Keep the hand heights simple, and the paddle close to the side of the boat (no need to swing the paddle out sideways) and no need to “feather” at the exit – too complicated!

7. The “Rhythm”

Rhythm is essential and often people who are musical feel the rhythm more than those who are not – it really is a tempo, a beat, with highs and lows, just like music. When music is just 1, 2, 1, 2,…. it tends to be boring! When paddling is just 1, 2, 1, 2, it actually doesn’t go!

Each stroke has highlights and shadows, ons that build and offs that swing! Different shades and different rhythms. The “on” is on and the “off” is off.

Acceleration is one of the factors that makes the rhythm of each stroke more complex than just 1, 2, 1, 2. Additionally, the “frame” is drawing an oblong, rather than a circle, in the air, so the movement is not circular as you might think of a wheel going around. 1, 2, 1, 2, is flat, or even black and white, while the rhythm of paddling is like a sampling from an artist palette with every colour you can imagine. This multi colour palette is one that give the paddler infinite choice of “how” to apply the power in “this” stroke by feel rather than by rote.

From the catch the stroke builds, through acceleration, and you can hear/feel the “varoom”. At the exit there is a release of tension and a relax, but at the same time an easy swing forward. At the set up position as the paddle goes to the water there is a mental “reach” as you wait for a fraction of a second for the water that is a head of you to come under your paddle, and you slip the paddle through the letter box! This is rhythm!

8. “Timing”

In an OC6 the number one important technical element is timing! If the timing is out it doesn’t matter how good individual techniques are! A crew with shocking technique but with perfect timing can beat a crew of good paddlers with bad timing. Timing, timing, timing!

Number one has to have a good rhythm, one that is consistent, that doesn’t change from side to side, and doesn’t alter during changes. They have to be able to hold the rhythm through any water conditions, be able to reach for the water when they can, but keep the rhythm. They have to be predictable and they have to know how to let the boat run between strokes without making an obvious pause between strokes.

That having been said, everyone else HAS to follow number one exactly! In together, out together. No exceptions! If your number one is doing something other than the job they are supposed to do, everyone else has to follow them exactly. Number two can quietly encourage them for more length, more rating, snappier action, etc. But beyond that, everyone follows.