Preparing for the Paddle
Adventure racing (AR) is an awesome multi-sport, combining endurance with travel on foot, mountain bike, and watercraft. It is also a team sport, where the team stays together for the duration of the race while navigating to control points (CPs) using nothing more than a map and compass. This added dimension of teamwork and navigation in beautiful back country is what won me over from triathlon. Of all the different legs, the paddle is usually what people who are new to the sport of AR have the least experience with, and the leg that experienced racers spend the least amount of time training for. Like the triathlon swim, the paddle leg usually does not have a big impact on the success of race, whereas the strong runner will create a larger lead over an average runner and a strong biker that can create an even larger lead over an average biker. With that being said, paddling can make up a third of an adventure race and should be taken seriously so you don’t give your race away. There are things that I’ve learned over the years that have given me a better understanding of what goes into a paddle leg in adventure racing and maybe given my team an edge to get off the water sooner and more relaxed, and onto the other legs. I’d like to share some of these ideas with you here.
Different Type of Watercraft
Almost any kind of human powered water craft are fair game in AR. Event organizers usually supply the boat, personal flotation device (PFD), and paddle. Canoes are most often used since there are many outfitters available with large fleets and can accommodate up to 3 racers. Kayaks are used for solo racers, while tandem kayaks may be used if available and water conditions require them. Rubber rafts and stand up paddle boards are also possibilities.
Depending on your race venue, you will encounter different water conditions and will be racing in the appropriate type of water craft. If you are on a dammed reservoir, you’d likely be paddling on flat water. You could be along the coast and your course may take you through tidal waters, back bays, and even out into the ocean. High mountain lakes can lead to raging whitewater. In general, solo racers will be given a kayak to paddle while most races use canoes that accommodate up to 3 racers. Tandem kayaks are sometimes used if the race organization can find a fleet of these available. In cases where your team has 2 boats, it’s possible to tie up where one boat can assist the second boat so the team can stay together. This is only good when you don’t have to navigate rocks and different water courses or eddys. If you’re paddling down class III, IV rapids, you’d most likely be in rubber rafts, and for the higher class whitewater, accompanied by a river guide. Some events are known to surprise racers by requiring them to carry their PFD on foot and bike legs, only to use them later for full immersion water crossings or “swims”. The best is white water boogie boarding!
Navigation on the water can be tricky. In general, if you’re trying to find a CP or landmark and you haven’t come to it, most times you haven’t traveled far enough. This is a phenomenon of thinking you’re traveling much faster than you actually are and patience is the name of the game here. This is especially true at night where your senses are limited and things become surreal, especially on the water. It’s very difficult to tell the distance you’ve traveled on a flowing river in the dark and how many bends have you serpentined through. Navigating across a large lake or open bay offers no landmarks to base your progress. All you may have is a compass bearing to guide your crossing, and having a rough idea of your pace, can estimate the time it should take to cover that distance.
Position in a Boat
The person in the back, or stern of a boat, has the primary responsibility to steer the course. This person usually has more experience with boat handling and reading the water. The racer in the front, or bow of the boat, is considered the engine and is usually the stronger, steadier paddler and sets the overall cadence for the team. If there is a third racer in a boat, the middle seat is usually the least effective position mostly due to the fact that the boat is widest (wide beam) in that middle position and the paddler there needs to reach further for each stroke. The other major issues are that there is not usually a fixed seat so you need to provide something to sit on (such as a padded milk crate or a removable middle seat) which is usually not as secure or strong base from which to paddle. Also, the middle seat must time their stroke and cadence with the paddler in the bow (or risk hitting paddles) and frequently strokes are dropped awaiting the right time to jump into the stroke (lost strokes are never gained back). The middle seat is an ideal position to hold and read the course map as the bow and stern have primary paddling responsibilities. In the absence of a middle seat, the bow position can hold the map and navigate so the paddler astern never allows the boat to drift off course.
Cadence and Stroke
A well-trimmed boat will travel faster and track on course. The best way to achieve this is have everyone in the boat paddle in synchrony. It’s a beautiful sight to watch a canoe with three racers steaming across the water with paddles moving identically with precision timing. This is reminiscent of an 8-man rowing shell speeding down a race course. By staying in balance and on-course, the helmsman doesn’t need to spend time and energy away from the forward paddle or slow the boat down by a course correction. Unlike an 8-man shell, it should be the paddler in the bow that sets the tempo/cadence (paddle rhythm) with the middle and stern paddlers matching the stroke. The helmsman can do subtle course corrections by either a series of stronger pulls to one side or lightening up for several strokes on the other side. For severe course changes (say at a sharp bend in a stream), orders for 10 hard left (or right) strokes can be given, counting up with the option to add if needed.
For longer paddle legs, a more relaxed stroke works well. This is more of a “touring” mentality, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you drop the cadence (you are still in a race). The more horizontal stroke means that you’re not pulling as hard and presumably gives you the ability to paddle further. This is analogous to settling in on a run pace that you can maintain for a long distance (say 70-85% effort) rather than an all-out pace (90-110% effort) from which you may burn out and bonk before you reach the end of the leg. Paddling can be deceiving in that you may have the same cadence as your partner, but pulling with different forces so it is important to recognize the level of effort at which your teammates are racing. It may not be the best way to spend your energy paddling at 90% effort levels if your partners are only at 70% as you will run out of gas later. It may be better to back off and match your partners’ level of output and spend the saved energy elsewhere on the course.
Most adventure racers choose to use kayak paddles, even in canoes. A person who is adept with a canoe paddle (single blade) can arguably out-paddle a person with a kayak paddle (double blade). In reality, most of us are not that good with a canoe paddle and so opt for the kayak paddle where there is symmetry to your stroke and can achieve a higher cadence over longer distances. The catch, pull and exit of one kayak blade puts the other blade in position for its catch while the canoe paddle requires the same blade to recover back to the catch position which takes time. Single blade paddles also require time out from paddling to change sides for steering purposes as well as prevent overuse fatigue. Single blades are also used at a much higher hand position, analogous to the more aggressive vertical stroke of a kayak paddle. For longer paddle sections, racers usually adopt a more relaxed stroke, lower hand position, but try to maintain a moderate to high cadence, something that can be maintained over the duration of a long leg. The lower hand position is not an option for single blade paddles and so can be more tiring on longer paddle legs.
Most paddles that are supplied by an outfitter for the race organization have aluminum shafts and plastic blades. These are durable but heavy. For this reason, races frequently allow racers to bring their own paddles. These come in many flavors and prices! The more carbon material the lighter the paddle but more expensive. There are paddles with varying amounts and quality of carbon offering high value for the price. Paddle shape is also something that you learn about and get into as you grow in the sport. Entry level kayak paddles have a flat cross section. These will move you through the water but won’t allow you to maximize your stroke. Paddles with a spoon cross section are an advancement, adding stability and control over your stroke. The majority of racers who use their own paddles, use paddles with a dihedral cross section. These work very well for the most racing conditions as the shape reduces fluttering of the blade as it is pulled through the water making for a more efficient stroke. Finally the winged paddle which was developed for elite level sprint kayaking, is the current state of the art paddle shape. These blades require precise form but offer better dynamics in each phase of the stroke and so can deliver efficient power.
All paddlers should strive for good paddle form. This is more energy efficient, produces more power, and reduces the risk of injury. Think of good swimming form and how your body rotates around the axis of your spine during the swim stroke. This engages the power of your core muscles. Most beginner swimmers and paddlers engage much more use of their arms while their core remains passive. To maximize power, efficiency, and endurance in both the swim and paddle stroke, the catch is made with shoulders rotated towards the side of the catch, then the pull is initiated with the body rotating the torso and shoulders, following the hand or paddle through the power phase. Frequently the lower arm is kept relatively straight through the stroke. It’s this rhythmic rotation of the core (45-90 degree shoulder rotation) that creates the power in the stroke, not pulling with the arms which can lead to overuse and cramping of forearms on hot, long paddles. High angle form with the paddle more vertical (hands chest high or above) in the water generates power but also requires more energy. A lower angle (hands waist to chest high) paddle stroke is more of a gentle sweeping motion and allows the paddler to paddle longer. This is analogous to soft pedaling or spinning on bike at a high cadence rather than mashing in a high gear.
When looking at how to go faster in the water, a racer should do some introspection and understand that it is the engine and form that has the most impact on how fast a racer will go and not necessarily using a high tech paddle. Same thing on bike. The speed you can buy is not as much as you can gain by better training.
Learning how to use a feathered shaft and how to set your feather are skills that become more useful as your level and commitment to racing goes up. If you are required to carry your paddles on foot or bike (ie. in a longer expedition style race), you may consider investing in a 4-piece paddle so it stows in your pack and not catch bushes or fallen trees.
The PFDs supplied by outfitters are generic and may be ill fitting vests or over the head models. For racers who plan to stay with the AR sport, a PFD is something worth investing in. Your own PFD ensures it fits your needs from size, shape, pockets, and flexibility/freedom to paddle. You will also be sure that the straps are ready for you with no adjustment needed. As long as the PFD is a type III device, there are many models that fit this criterion.
A few last thoughts….
Don’t be afraid to get out and portage your boat over land to take a shortcut to your next point. Make sure to use high quality dry bags in your pack to keep valuables, electronics, food, and clothing dry as boats always take on water and fill the bottom of the boat where your pack is sitting sometimes for hours. Keep you pack accessible to drink from your bladder or water bottle. Secure your gear to the boat in case you capsize, you don’t want to watch your gear float downstream. Always remind each other to eat, drink, and…Have fun!
Bruce Kuo, Ph. D., is the team captain for Team GOALS ARA, a nationally ranked adventure racing team that competes across the country. Bruce has been adventure racing since 2004 and enjoys all forms of outdoor activity, especially with his wife Sheryl. Dr. Kuo is a Graduate School Professor and Basic Medical Researcher.