What your sneakers are telling you about how you should be paddling

Understanding what you should be trying to accomplish with the paddle to move your board forward with optimal efficiency, and then visualizing the blade actually doing it, is an incredibly powerful way to increase the chances of paddling with effective technique.

Larry Cain Nike Swoosh

I find that one of the most useful things I can do when paddling is to visualize the path of the paddle in the water.  Understanding what you should be trying to accomplish with the paddle to move your board forward with optimal efficiency, and then visualizing the blade actually doing it, is an incredibly powerful way to increase the chances of paddling with effective technique.  Where do your sneakers come into it?  Well, keep reading and you’ll find out.

Set the blade and pull yourself by the paddle

Before we can talk about the path the paddle blade should take in the water we need to revisit the most fundamental truth of paddling – you don’t pull the paddle through the water but rather yourself past the paddle. 

To move a board forward we need to gather water on the face of the blade as it enters the water and hold it there to effectively set the blade in place. The more water we can gather and hold, the better the blade is set and the better “connection” we have through the stroke.  The blade is less likely to slip as we engage our big muscles and body weight.  The better the connection, the more effectively we’re able to pull ourselves past the paddle. 

Understanding the role of the blade tip

The tip of the paddle blade is the most important thing to consider when establishing effective connection.  Using it correctly can enhance your connection and help you gather more water and better secure your blade in place.

The first thing to consider is the path of the blade tip at the entry.  In order to maximize the water that we can gather on our blade, we need to ensure the blade gets buried quickly and we don’t miss an opportunity to work with a positive blade angle.  In order to do that, it is imperative that we try to get the blade tip to actually be moving forward as it enters the water.

The key is to try to make the paddle an extension of our hands and actually “feel” the water loading onto the paddle blade as it enters the water.  What your blade should be doing as it enters is not unlike what your hand is doing if you’re sinking it into a giant tub of popcorn and trying to pull out as many kernels as possible.  If you just scratch the surface of the popcorn in the tub you’ll end up with a few measly kernels while your kids get it all.  However, if you probe forward and downward with your open hand into the popcorn tub, reaching deep and gathering as many kernels as you can you’ll end up with such a big handful of popcorn when you take your hand out that you’ll actually need to hold some of that popcorn against your forearm while you move your hand to your lap so you can pick at the popcorn with your other hand. 

If you can make your paddle blade probe into the water in a similar fashion it will find lots of water it can gather on the face of the blade, just like your hand found lots of popcorn.  Pulling the blade backwards as it’s entering the water is similar to scratching the surface of the popcorn.  It’s ineffective and you won’t end up with much water held on your blade.  But probing forward and downward as you bury your blade gathers lots of water.  The blade tip enters the water first and is most active in probing and searching for water to gather onto the paddle, just like your finger tips that pull popcorn into your hand.  If you use your blade tip effectively, you’ll actually feel the water gathering on the blade in the fingers of your bottom hand as the connection builds.  In this sense you’re actually making the paddle an extension of your hand.

Use the water column

Once your blade is in the water and the tip is actively searching for water to secure the blade against, there’s an interesting dynamic that occurs. 

Consider that the water beneath your board is composed of water molecules.  They are free to move around in any direction.  Now, imagine that these extremely tiny molecules are stacked in a column from the water’s surface to the bottom.  For argument’s sake, imagine there is a seemingly infinite number of infinitesimally thin layers of water molecules in that water column. 

When your blade probes into the water, it immediately interacts with the molecules in the uppermost layer. Momentarily it finds support and connection against those molecules, however since there is pressure exerted against the water molecules as we’re gathering them against the blade face, the area immediately in front of the blade face becomes an area of slightly higher density as these water molecules are pushed into those surrounding them.  Meanwhile, the area on the back of blade becomes an area of lower density as space is created where the water molecules now on the front of the blade used to be.  The result is that some of that momentary connection your blade tip establishes against the water is lost as water molecules slide off the face of the blade, moving as things in nature always do from an area of higher density to an area of lower density on the back of the blade.  You can see this occurring any time you pull a stroke that is only half buried.  You’ll see some of the water swirling around your blade from the front to the back, filling in the area of lower density on the back of the blade. 

So, if some of the connection the blade tip establishes with the first layer of water molecules is only momentary before it is lost, what can we do to re-establish full connection?  Go deeper.  If the blade tip probes deeper it will establish connection against a new layer of as yet undisturbed water molecules before some of those molecules move from the high-density area on the blade face to the lower density area on the back of the blade, causing reduced connection in the process.

This process repeats itself again and again as the blade tip probes deeper into the water.  Connection is gained, then some of it is lost, before new connection is established as the tip works against new, undisturbed layers of water. 

Eventually, the blade can’t go any deeper and it begins to rise through the water column.  In this instance the shoulders of the blade behave in the same way as the tip did during the entry and first part of the stroke, finding undisturbed water to work against as the blade rises through the water column

It’s better for the blade to follow a curved path through the water than being pulled straight back

If we consider the interaction of the blade with the water column as described above, we can see that a blade that follows a somewhat curved path, first probing deeper into the water and then becoming shallower is better than one pulled directly back at uniform depth. 

A blade that is pulled straight back without any depth variance will see too much slippage of water off the blade face.  It negates the advantages that the blade tip provides if used properly in the first half of the stroke. 

Remember the importance of using body weight and a positive blade angle when we paddle

Two other fundamental truths of paddling are that we should use body weight to our advantage as much as possible and that we should do as much as we can with a positive to vertical blade angle.  Of course, positive to vertical blade angle is really just another way of saying the first half of the stroke.

When the blade is buried and establishes effective connection it will support a surprising amount of our body weight.  Getting weight on our paddle means we’re taking that weight off of our board which allows it to sit a little higher in the water with less wetted surface, and therefore slightly less resistance to forward movement. 

So, if getting body weight off the board and onto the blade is good, why not do it as early as possible in the stroke?  Not only does establishing really good connection early in the stroke allow us to begin to really pull ourselves by the paddle early, it allows us to get more weight off of our board which in turn makes pulling ourselves by the paddle even easier. 

In terms of blade angle, if we’re getting the blade buried and connected early in the stroke we’ll be ensuring that there is more connected stroke taken with a positive angle.  This means there will be more connection with blade angles that provide rapidly increasing amounts of acceleration to the board up to maximal acceleration as the blade approaches vertical. The more connection we can establish at this stage in the stroke, the better we’re using the most important part of the stroke.   In a previous post titled “The Two Most Common Errors in SUP Technique” I discussed one of the biggest and most common errors that people make – taking too long to get the blade buried.  Even if they enter with a positive blade angle, many paddlers find their blades traveling backwards far too much while burying.  Many will reach a point where their blades is only fully buried when the blade is approaching vertical.  This is hopelessly late and prevents them from using the most useful part of the stroke to full advantage.  Of course, the remedy for this is to get the blade buried more quickly by having it move forward rather than backward as it initially moves downward into the water.

The second half of the stroke and the exit

In order to get the blade tip deeper into the water as we’ve been describing, we need to move our body is a few ways.  Bending at the waist, dropping the paddling side shoulder and bending our legs through the stroke all help us get the blade deeper in the water.  In coming posts we’ll look at all of the movements needed to help create the paddle path we’re discussing here.  For now, it is enough to state that once you have executed the body movements needed to get the blade as deep as it’s going to go, it’s immediately time to start making movements that help it exit.  Basically, as soon as you’re finished loading up body weight and muscle onto the blade you’ve got to start unloading.  This helps ensure that you don’t end up pulling the blade too far back where, with an increasingly negative angle, it provides rapidly diminishing amounts of acceleration to the board. 

This unloading should see the blade tip rising through the water column and nearing the surface before exiting the water somewhere near or just past your feet.  Thus, another reason for getting the blade buried and deepest in the water early emerges: If you wait too late to finish fully loading your blade you’ll end up starting your exit too late and pulling the blade through too far.  The further in front of you that you can get the blade tip its deepest, the sooner you can begin the process of unloading and exiting the water, reducing the likelihood of doing too much with a negative blade angle, dragging the paddle at the exit, and getting stuck spending too much time in the part of the stroke that yields the least benefit. 

We’re almost done so let’s do a quick recap:

  1. We’re always trying to pull ourselves by the paddle rather than our paddle through the water.
  2. Finding “connection” helps us do that.  The better the connection, the further we can move our board each stroke.
  3. Gathering water and holding it on our blade is what gives us connection.
  4. The blade tip is critical in establishing connection. It needs to move a tiny bit forward as it is entering downward into the water, and then deeper, engaging with undisturbed water that it can secure maximal connection against. 
  5. The blade tip should trace a curved path through the water that should be deepest as early as possible to maximize the effect of body weight and the ability to work with a positive blade angle. 
  6. The blade taking our body weight and finding increasing connection by going deeper is what we call “loading”.
  7. Once we’ve finished loading and the blade is its deepest we immediately want to begin “unloading”, bringing the blade tip up through the water column to a point where it exits near or just past our feet.

Back to your sneakers

Okay, so you’ve been patiently waiting to find out what your sneakers have to do with all of this.  Find a photo of someone on a SUP board in the set-up position, with their blade tip just above the water (see figure 1).

Larry Cain Paddle Monster
Figure 1

Now, get a sharpie and carefully reread the recap above.  On the photo, draw the path it describes for the tip of the paddle.  It should closely resemble the corporate logo of a fairly well-known shoe/sports apparel company (see figure 2)


If you consider the concept of gears in paddling (see the post “Understanding Gears and Paddling”) you’ll know that the difference between a heavy gear and a lighter, more sustainable one is simply the amount of load or connection you find with your blade.  Whether you’re using a really heavily loaded, extremely connected gear or a lighter gear in which there is a little less water gathered on the blade the technique required to find the connection shouldn’t change.  The only thing that should be different is the depth of the blade’s arc through the water, not the shape of it. 

If we consider the green line in figure 2 to represent a really heavily loaded stroke we can draw a lighter, less loaded stroke in yellow above it (figure 3).  You’ll see the shape of the blade’s path is the same, it’s just the depth that is different.  And now we have our complete Nike Swoosh.  (Please note, I am not sponsored by Nike).

Larry Cain Paddle Monster
Figure 2
Larry Cain Paddle Monster
Figure 3

Stay tuned for more posts to come that will address more of the “how to” side of finding and maintaining connection.

Happy paddling!

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