RM Paddle: Knee Paddling Fundamentals

Part III: Lost at Sea - Paddleboarding Lessons Without Actually Getting Lost

Lost at Sea - Paddleboarding Lessons Without Actually Getting Lost

Part III - Knee Paddling Techniques

For those patient readers following along with the Lost at Sea Paddleboard Series, you should own a nice board by now and have had a chance to get wet and get some of the basic prone paddling techniques under your belt (if not, see Part IPart I: Choosing the Right Paddleboard.  In Part II (Prone Paddling Fundamentals) we focussed on the essentials of paddling - the prone stroke.  Most of you caught on and said to yourself, “yeah, I got this, now tell me how to be like the cool kids and knee paddle,” right?  Well I may surprise you by telling you that if you have a good grasp on the prone techniques, you have enough information to go out and win the Molokai to Oahu race and the Catalina Classic this summer.  I can name quite a few folks that won either race by paddling only prone for 32 miles.  The first one that comes to mind is big wave charger, Keoni Watson, who is one of the few people to win both Molokai and Catalina in the same summer; that’s two 32-mile races only 4 weeks apart.  That’s about the equivalent of winning two Ironman triathlons in the same time period.  Keoni did it on a stock board in 2007 joining the elite company of Tim Gair (1998), Jamie Mitchell (2002), Kanesa Duncan (2002), Zeb Walsh (2013) and Carter Graves (2014).  Despite the incredible feat of the “prone drones,” the focus of this installment is on knee paddling technique.

A Little History  Paddling in the US was primarily dominated by prone paddling well into the 1990’s.  In Hawaii, long distance knee paddling was so rare, that the majority of the boards through the late 1990’s had domed decks.  On the mainland the case was similar.  Knee paddling was limited to a few bursts during a race.  I caught up with the Catalina Classic record holder Tim Gair and asked him about his percentage of knee paddling to prone paddling when he set the record in 1998 and then again in 1999 and he thought it was close to 65% prone and 35% knee paddling.  This was the case for years until Hennessey’s held the first International Paddleboard Championships in Noosa, Australia in 2002.  It was there that we saw paddling legend Zane Holmes, Jamie Mitchell, and Tim Gair duke it out for 25k to a finish of less than a minute between the top 3 spots (Zane took second on a stock board!).  The conditions were crap - side wash and solid surf on the down and back course.  Most of us on the US Team were struggling on our bellies while Holmes and Mitchell were able to hold their own on their knees.  In fact, they pretty much only dropped to their bellies to drink and rest.   Anyway, after a solid shellacking by the Aussies, who were masters on their knees from years of surf racing training, it became clear that knee paddling was the better way to race once you mastered the skill.  For me, it took about 3 more years to really get it.  For guys like Gair, it didn’t take you that long in a race to realize he was one of the true masters and was so efficient it only took about 35% of his race on his knees to break decades old records - well done, Tim!

Because knee paddling builds on the fundamentals of the prone paddle stroke, it is essential that you understand the principles of the reach, catch, and recovery used in prone paddling.  These same general principles apply directly to knee paddling. What makes knee paddling more advanced is that you will need to add the element of greater balance and strength, as well as timing to your double arm paddle stroke.  

Advantages  The advantages of knee paddling are many but when compared to prone paddling, they come at greater costs.  The advantages include the following: greater power, faster acceleration, longer glide, and more “pull” through the water.  But all these things come with the expense of more energy, less stability, and more strain on your muscles.  Like prone paddling, I have broken instruction down into three parts: the Reach, the Catch, and the Recovery.  If you don’t fully understand the idea of these, please refer to Part II in the serious to review these concepts. 

Getting to your Knees  This seems like a pretty basic idea - you are paddling on your belly and you decide you want to pop up onto your knees - until you try it for the first time.  Maybe you are lucky and you’re a natural.  For mere mortals like me, this process took months to master.  Not that I’m trying to discourage you, but do start out with a healthy serving of patience the first time you try to go up onto your knees.  Like all things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to transition from prone to knee paddling.  It all starts with speed.  Unless you are on a completely still body of water or a very wide and stable board (which probably will not be what you will want to race on), getting to your knees without forward momentum is very difficult.  As mentioned in Part II, I like to take about 5 double arm prone strokes before I attempt to “pop” to my knees.  The purpose of this is to get my board going a little faster so that my momentum is moving forward as I push-up with my torso and slide my knees under my body.  Not only should this be done with speed, but it should also be timed to avoid major chop, wakes or even waves (although later this may actually serve as an advantage once you master knee paddling).  Once you are up on your knees and before you do anything else, START PADDLING.  If you pop and stop, you will drop.  Okay, that’s a little overkill, but you get the idea - you need to keep your momentum moving forward.  I typically take 10 quick double arm strokes before I try to adjust my position on the board.  If you are having trouble balancing, I credit Craig Lockwood with telling me to focus on the one stationary place on the ocean - the horizon (note: if it’s really big and you can’t see the horizon, you shouldn’t be reading this article for pointers).  Just like in yoga when you trying to do a standing pose that requires lots of balance, focus on one point and get your mind into balancing on your knees.  As for proper position on the board, find a spot where you don’t feel like you are pushing or pearling the nose of the board underwater and not too far back that you are doing a wheelie.  Most of the boards today have nice deep knee wells that will help you find the right place to dig in and knee paddle.  Finally, once you are balanced, in the right position, and moving forward, you can settle into your stoke.

Different styles of the reach.

Reaching on your Knees  Just like prone paddling, the stroke begins when you draw your arms out of the water, keeping elbows high, and reaching forward along the rail of the board - this is called the Reach.  Hand position is going to be similar to prone as well, pinky finger down or relaxed, hands close to the deck of the board as you draw them forward, arms as relaxed as possible with your lats and deltoids thrusting your arms forward.  Now what’s going to be largely different is that you now have a new platform created by your lower legs and feet to launch your upper body forward with each reach.  I like to layer my big toes over one another to form a triangle with my lower legs.  This also helps keep my butt high when I reach forward.  As you reach forward, the ideal body position should be butt up, chin down, with your back as flat as possible.  This will allow you to rock forward on your legs and knees and maximize your forward reach with your arms.  Your legs, hip flexors, and core muscles will allow you to push forward and extend your upper body out over your board until your arms enter the water.  The motion should be powerful, but fluid.  Using your legs and core to support the reach will allow you to more efficiently use your entire body in your stroke as opposed to limiting the power to your upper body in prone paddling. Unfortunately, this position tends to put a lot of strain on your neck, so you won’t be able to sustain your effort like this for too long.  Pick a target on your board to extend to that will challenge you but not throw you off balance.  I like to put a mark or a sticker there because not only do I look cool and feel more like a pro-surfer or NASCAR racer, but it gives me a target with each reach.

Catching  When your hands touches 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 goal is to maximize the amount of water you are catching and using to propel you forward.  You arms should follow a direct path under your body as you pull through the water with your elbows slightly bent, your hands pointed toward the bottom of the ocean, and with your arms gradually straightening as you reach the end of your stroke near your hips.  Your butt should remain high, your chin low but not resting on the board, and your arms not only pulling through the water but also acting as a point to gain leverage as you begin your stroke recovery.  Remember to engage your lats in the lower-rear area of your shoulder as well as your triceps.  This will help reduce fatigue and strain in the smaller muscles near the top of your shoulder and neck.

Recovery  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 arms get to the bottom of your stroke, you begin to exit the water leading with your elbows, lifting with your lats and triceps.  As your hands leave the water, take care not to fling water with your fingertips.  The final motion in the recovery is to move your upper body forward, returning to the reach, using your legs and core to drive you forward.  An alternative to launching your body forward into the next stroke is to “recover” and sit back on your feet as your board glides forward.  Having spent many races chasing Tim Gair and Jamie Mitchell, I was always amazed at the efficiency of their knee paddling technique.  In one Rock-to-Rock, I remember watching Gair take 3 strokes on his knees to my 5 and seeing him put more distance on me with every stroke.  As your knee paddling becomes more powerful and efficient, experiment with the cadence and amount of rest you can gain in between stroke bursts.  This rest will become more useful in downwind paddles as your long sustained effort turns more into a collection of 50 yard sprints.

Putting it all together

Transitioning to Prone  My favorite time in a close race is when a competitor is getting ready to switch from knees to prone.  80% of your competition will do the most ungraceful dismount complete with legs splashing into the water and the board nearly coming to a complete stop.  At this point the paddler resumes prone paddling and if you’re smart, you just gained a board length on them.  DON’T BE THIS GUY! (I’m just going to go out on a limb and assume it’s always a guy because the ladies out there paddling always have much more grace and style than us neanderthals).  When you are done with your knee paddling interval, take 3 hard strokes to help keep your board speed up, and gently slide your legs back on your pad until you are in a prone position.  This is more flow yoga than a wrestling move.  Pay close attention to your fellow paddlers transition in your next group paddle or race - it’ll blow your mind.  If your pad is too rough to slide back without ripping all the skin off your knees and feet, find a smoother pad or try and sand yours down to a finer surface.

Timing/Cadence  As I mentioned earlier, up until roughly 2002, most paddlers could get away with paddling a race 80% prone, 20% knees.  For me it became a challenge to flip the numbers.  I eventually worked up to five minute rotations of 4 minutes knees, and one minute prone for the length of a race.  From there I break the 4 minutes into different intervals depending on the conditions, the distance of the race, and how tight the pack is.  I typically like to hammer out 60 long strokes, followed by 2 sets of 30 strokes, and then 6 sets of 20 strokes, with a chance to sit back on my feet between each interval.  This worked out to almost exactly 4 minutes of knee paddling and by that time I was ready to transition to my belly.  In order to keep track of these intervals you are basically going to be counting all your strokes.  For some reason this worked for me, but I know for many this may drive you insane.  So instead I recommend experimenting with the concept of perceived effort.  Try and see how long you can paddle on your knees before you naturally want to sit back for a second to glide.  Then see how long you can comfortably stay on your knees before it becomes increasingly harder for you to transition from belly to knees on your next interval.  This could take several weeks and a couple shorter races to figure out what works best for you, but once you dial it in, I recommend coming up with an interval and cadence that you can sustain for several hours and sticking to it.  The problem with going entirely off of feel is that you will likely lose perspective on how long you’ve been on your knees before it’s too late.  Eventually you’ll start cramping and find it harder and harder to get back to your knees after each prone interval and that will be the end of your knee paddling down the stretch.

More Tips  Once you’ve mastered the basics of knee paddling and have a good idea of what pace and interval works for you, it’s time to start taking your training to different conditions.  My favorite condition outside of riding a sprint board in the surf is going downwind.  If you are training for Molokai then you should be doing 50% or more of your distance training going downwind, but if you’re just getting started, taking advantage of windy afternoons will help get you accustomed to catching bumps and railroading.  As I mentioned before, riding bumps requires the effort of multiple sprints to get your speed up enough to plane on top of the wave as opposed to letting it pass under and through your board.  In these conditions I throw out the set intervals and just go off of time.  One wave may take 20 strokes and the next 30 so being set in a rhythm is a sure way to get frustrated.  Instead, get the feel of the crest and trough of each passing chop and try and get into a chain of railroading from one bump to another, giving yourself a rest when you drop into one and prepare to hammer out several quick strokes to get into the next one.  Ideally you can get a few buddies together (or a generous significant other who will drop you off) and park a couple vehicles at the start and finish of the run so you don’t waste too much effort paddling directly into the chop.  If you don’t have the time or resources, It’s always fun to paddle 10-30 minutes directly into the wind and see how much time it takes to ride back to the beach.  You can turn this into interval drills by tracking how fast each run is compared to the last.

Cross-Training  Because knee paddling is heavily reliant on leg and core strength, it is nearly impossible to develop into a great knee paddler without doing some cross training.  Many of you reading this probably run or ride bikes so you should have a good base to work with.  For those that don’t, it’s time to start mixing in a couple runs or rides each week, especially in the early season.  In addition to flat out running and riding, I like to do hill or stair repeats to simulate the burn of knee paddle intervals.  As for core strength, there are dozens of ways to improve in this area.  I strongly recommend making an appointment with a good physical therapist or experienced trainer to identify areas where you are weak and can improve your core.  Near the end of my competitive career, I took to doing Pilates and had awesome results and never felt better.  Another fun drill you can do at home is getting a small or medium sized balance ball and see how long you can stay on your knees while balancing.  If it’s hard at first, use a couch or soft piece of furniture to help you balance.  If that doesn’t work, let a little air out of the ball and slowly fill it as you improve.

Review  Remember, build your paddling strength by mastering your prone technique and start to increase the amount of time you spend knee paddling.  Pay close attention to good form - butt up, chin down - from the beginning.  When I was first improving my knee technique from a hunchback to a flatback, I was constantly falling in..  My good friend and paddling partner, Mike Inscore, used to always help me keep count of how many times I fell in during a workout.  While it was annoying at first, I eventually was so determined to not fall in that it helped speed up the learning curve.  I think we eventually started making bets for breakfast if I could stay on my board the entire workout.  Once you master the form, see what cadence and interval works best for you and time yourself on a set course, ideally in a harbor or another area with markers and landmarks.  Finally, find someone better than you and learn from them.  Get their feedback on form and then test it by doing some interval training in a group to see how you match up.  Don’t forget this is supposed to be fun - laugh at yourself when you fall off, and get back on your board and try again.  Good Luck!

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