Belly paddling - the foundation of all paddling technique and how you can do it better

Lost at Sea - Paddleboarding Lessons Without Actually Getting Lost

Part II - Prone Paddling Techniques, by Kyle Daniels

Hopefully you are now the proud owner of the right paddleboard and you have had a chance to get it wet.  If not, please refer to the first article in this series. Part I: Boards, Attire, and Other Comfort Gear.  Since the goal of this series is to both introduce you to the sport and help you become a more efficient paddler, we are going to build up your paddling skills from the ground up.  The focus of this installment is Prone or Belly paddling technique.

Prone paddling is the foundation of all paddling technique.  As we discussed in Part 1, when I speak of prone paddling, I’m talking about actual belly paddling vs. knee paddling, not “prone” vs. SUP.  Belly paddling is the basic paddle stroke.  Similar to freestyle swimming, the paddler moves each arm forward to grab the water and pull through the water and down the side of the paddleboard.  This can be done in two ways, single arm or double arm intervals.  The advantages of prone paddling are many and when compared to knee paddling, include the following: efficient, stable, lower heart rate, low profile in windy and choppy conditions, and it is much easier to fuel and keep moving while paddling prone.  Before we talk strokes, body position on the board is essential to strong paddling.  When you first lie down on your board, try and place your chest in a position so that you can maximize your reach when paddling, without pushing the nose of the board down into the water.  If you are back too far, you’ll get the opposite effect with the nose “wheelying” through the water.  If you are paddling with a friend, have them give you feedback on your position and remember it may be different with different boards, so don’t be afraid to adjust as you go.

Single Arm Prone Paddling  With single arm paddling, the paddler alternates from left to right strokes in a fluid, orderly motion similar to a freestyle or forward crawl swim technique.  This stroke can be broken into three parts, the Reach, the Catch, and the Recovery.  The stroke begins when you draw your arm out of the water, keeping elbows high, and reaching forward along the rail of the board - this is called the Reach.  As your arm reaches full extension, it is helpful to keep your hand tilted with the pinky finger side closer to the water.  By keeping your hand in this more relaxed position, it reduces the stress on your shoulder joint (as opposed to having your thumb side down), slightly extends your reach, and your hand will naturally correct to a neutral position as you grab the water when you pull through the stroke.  As your fingers begin to reach into the water, try and keep your hand relaxed with fingers close, but not necessarily tightly closed together, with your wrist slightly above your fingers at the entry point.  It’s important to remember that in the reach, your arm should be kept as close to the rail of the board and the water so as to eliminate wasted movement.  A wide swinging stroke will not only require more effort over the duration of your paddle, but it will also make you more vulnerable to hitting chop or even the wake of another paddler’s board.

After you have completed the reach by extending your arm as far forward as is comfortably possible, you begin the Catch portion of your stroke.  When your hand reaches the water at the top of your stroke, you will begin to “catch” the water and pull along the length of your board and through your body.  The pulling motion should seem familiar to your freestyle swim stroke in that you will be using your hand and forearm to gain leverage in the water.  The goal is to maximize the amount of water you are catching and using to propel you forward.  You should follow a direct path as you pull your arm through the water with your elbow slightly bent, your hand pointed toward the bottom of the ocean, with your arm gradually straightening as you reach the end of your stroke near your hips.  Remember to engage your latissimus dorsi muscle in the lower-rear area of your shoulder as well as your tricep.  This will help reduce fatigue and strain in the smaller muscles near the top of your shoulder and neck.

As the Catch portion of your stroke reaches your hips, you will begin the final part of the stroke - the Recovery.  As with the rest of your stroke, you should attempt to keep your motion fluid and as relaxed as possible to reduce excess muscle and energy use with each stroke.  When your arm reaches the bottom of your stroke, you begin to exit the water leading with your elbow, lifting with your lat and tricep.  As your hand leave the water, take care not to fling water with your fingertips.  This is unnecessary motion and does little to propel you forward.  The final motion in the recovery is to move your arm forward, returning to the reach, using as little effort as possible.  Because you are alternating left-right-left-right and so on, the idea is to start one stroke as you finish the other to keep a steady and constant rate of forward motion.  The cadence is approximately 60 strokes a minute. 


Coach Walls showing us the basics after 28 miles in the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race

Double Arm Prone Paddling  The mechanics of a double arm stroke are similar to a single arm stroke except you are doubling the effort with both arms going through the motion in a parallel movement.  The advantage of a  double arm or butterfly stroke is obvious - you have the power of two arms pulling you forward at the same time.  As you might expect, double the power typically means double the effort, and the double arm stroke requires more energy than a single arm stroke.  As we will discuss more in Part III, like knee paddling, the double arm stroke can be very useful in specific situations.  The former holder of both the Stock and Unlimited records in the Catalina Classic, Gene Rink, taught me years ago to use the double arm stroke prior to transitioning from my belly to my knees.  By taking about 5 butterfly strokes, you increase your speed to compensate for the brief stroke delay as you pull yourself up to your knees.  This keeps the momentum of your board moving forward making it easier to get up to your knees as well as avoiding slowing down and having to increase your effort to get your board planing again.  Another great place to work in double arm paddling is on downwind runs or catching bumps.  Because waves and chop are typically moving across the water at a higher speed than your board’s cruising speed, it may be necessary to quickly increase your speed to catch the wave as picks up the tail of your board.  By quickly throwing in a few butterfly paddles, you will cause your board to surge and help you get up to speed to “railroad” or ride the swell as it passes under you.  Finally, when the pack is tight and you need a quick surge, double arm paddling will give you the extra power to try and lose the pack.  Keep in mind though, the extra effort required is going to tax your breathing and muscles quickly, so timing is key when using the double arm to surge.

Review and Quick Tips  The best way to learn anything is practice, practice, practice.  I want to leave you with some of the different ways to work on your stroke when you have some time to work on your mechanics.  Take it slow - One way to improve your prone paddling technique, is to practice by paddling slowly and becoming aware of how it feels to pull through the water.  Take 10 minutes before a longer paddle and experiment with different pulling motions and different paddling cadences.  Pay close attention to your hand position and experiment with how tight to hold your fingers together.  Remember, unless you’re doing a quick surf sprint, the name of the game is efficiency - try to eliminate any unnecessary muscle effort.  Eliminate useless movement - Along with hand position, consider what the rest of your body is doing.  As mentioned earlier, prone paddling requires less overall energy compared to knee paddling, but this can be quickly undone with wasted movement.  While kicking and swinging your legs back and forth may give you some additional momentum, it will also burn energy a lot faster.  Try and learn to paddle while keeping your legs relaxed.  Extra leverage - If you do want to use your legs for some extra leverage, Mark Levy - an underground South Bay paddling genius, used to put strips of deck pads at different points on his board near his feet.  When he really needed to dig in and push, he would lock his toes into one of the pads to keep his body forward on the board.  The same goes for your hips and chest.  It won’t take you too long to know if you have excess motion in these areas because you’ll have a nice rash to show for it.  Some rotation is good, but too much and you’ll be wasting forward momentum by moving side to side.  

Swim some laps - Another great way to work on your paddling stroke is to ditch the board and swim some laps in a pool.  It’s no wonder some of the best all-time paddlers, such as Tim Gair, Gene Rink, Jamie Mitchell, Gary Fortune, Sean Richardson, and Zane Holmes of Australia, are all incredible swimmers.  Swimming in the off-season is a great way to improve your stroke technique and build strength for the board season in the summer.  Mix it up - Finally, don’t be afraid to mix it up and try new things.  See how long you can double arm paddle until you can’t take the burn in your shoulders any longer.  See how long you can glide after one stroke before your board speed drops.  There are no hard set rules to paddling fast so get out there and see what works best for you.  Oh yeah, don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun!

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