Paddling for efficiency

Being able to move around on your board confidently opens up your paddling options from catching waves, improving your turns or even just being more stable in choppy conditions.

Words & pics: Scott Warren

For anyone who has pushed themselves when paddling or in other sports, ending your session early through injury or running low on energy is a frustrating feeling.

Being an efficient paddler isn’t easy to achieve; it takes work, time and experience. It’s something that can be coached, but a large part of it is having an understanding so you can feel where you are wasting energy and manage your efficiency better.

Through this article, I hope to give you some understanding and knowledge about being efficient and improving your paddling, whether you are a novice or experienced paddler.

So what is efficiency?
It’s easy to think that efficiency only applies to racers or experienced paddlers. However, it is a fundamental element of your paddling. Being efficient can help prevent injuries, prolong your session, progress your paddling, and help you make the most of the conditions.

In a nutshell, efficiency is how we understand our energy usage when paddling. This is straightforward enough, but the more complex task is to know where we are wasting it.

Whilst many of us go out and practise our padding by working on our technique and skills, it’s not very often I see paddlers working on their efficiency. This applies to paddlers of all levels, and a great example is seeing someone pound out the distance mile after mile at their local water without changing anything. While you’re sure to gain fitness this way, you may well be constantly fatiguing yourself and risking injury if you are not paddling efficiently. 

Wasting energy
The most apparent signs of inefficiency are usually very obvious visual clues. The big pull and splash out the back at the end of the stroke is a classic indicator of wasted energy. Inefficiencies, however, get trickier to pinpoint as paddlers progress and begin to iron out these obvious signs.

The more subtle signs of wasting energy can come from many sources, such as a paddle that’s too short, long or the wrong blade size. It could be using a board which isn’t suited to you or the conditions. It could be clothing, hydration, over paddling; the list goes on. The trick here is to constantly evaluate your paddling and learn to feel and spot these inefficiencies so you can manage them or remove them if possible. Videos and photos can help, but they can also draw the eye to the ‘hero shot’, which doesn’t always tell the complete picture. Paddling is a fluid movement and should be a constant motion with efficiency throughout the whole cycle of a stroke.

It also helps to get regular coaching, and I don’t mean weekly, but every 4-6 months is a good shout. A good coach will be able to spot the smallest details and help you improve in ways you hadn’t even thought about. If you go down this route, ask plenty of questions to understand why they recommend something and make sure they are the right coach for you.

So how can you become more efficient?
Here are a few key areas to keep an eye on in your paddling to see how efficient you are and where you can make improvements.

Find the glide
Letting the board glide is a crucial component to being more efficient. Whilst all boards glide, a longer board will naturally have more glide potential than a shorter board. This is especially true with longer boards designed for touring or racing, where optimising glide is a part of the design process. However, if you put an inefficient paddler on any board, they will struggle to get the most out of it. 

I get asked all the time why that person is so quick at SUP races. It’s a great example as whilst fitness and technique play a huge part, more often than not, there is a very efficient paddler on the board as well. An excellent looking technique doesn’t always lead to good glide; however, over-paddling and getting more speed can often stop glide. The same comes from an inefficient catch that kills the glide as paddlers tend to pull later towards their feet.

A great way to visualise good glide on a SUP is by watching rowing sculls and how they move through the water. You will see the front of the boat rise slightly as the crew apply power, but the trick is that they don’t let the front dip back down before starting their next stroke. This keeps the boat on the glide up in the water, therefore, reducing surface drag. 

Chasing power and speed
As you start to progress your paddling, a fundamental need will be more power and speed. Being able to paddle quicker and accelerate the board faster will help you catch waves easier, paddle into headwinds better, beat your friends and so on. However, if you don’t build efficient habits during your progression, it can lead to poor technique and inefficiency throughout.

So what happens when we chase power and speed? The first thing we tend to do is to try and pull harder on the paddle. When we do this, we tend to over-paddle, giving us short bursts of speed but can quickly fatigue us. Usually, this leads to forearm cramps, straining the shoulders, and leaving us short of energy on longer paddles.

There are several ways you can pick up speed and increase your power whilst staying efficient. Try using your legs to generate speed and power. They are big muscles used to doing lots of work so learn to use them in your paddling. This works especially well in windy conditions. Also, use your body weight when putting the paddle in the water. Trust the force and energy you’re applying to the paddle will keep you upright, and you will have a free energy source to use in gravity as you ‘fall’ onto the paddle. 

Don’t fight the conditions
If there is one area that can test us when paddling, it’s dealing with less than perfect conditions. Strong winds, currents, waves or even bright sunshine can all wear you down quicker than you might expect. If you look at any good paddler, especially those in ocean conditions, you will notice how effortless they make it look.

It’s as though it’s a calm day when it’s blowing a rate of knots. Whilst a lot of experience goes with it, being a good paddler in a range of conditions comes down to using what’s on offer, not fighting it. If it’s windy, for example, and you try to power your way upwind, it can be a fine edge between being efficient, getting to your goal or burning out. If you take yourself beyond the threshold line, it can affect your recovery for the next leg upwind as you cannot recover enough in time.

The same goes for hot summer days and not managing your effort to the conditions. Building up too much heat and losing lots of sweat isn’t just about drinking more water. You can lose precious other elements you need to sustain energy, and if they are not replaced will drain your stores quicker than you might expect.

It’s worth taking the time to understand where your limits are in exhaustion and effort. Where the delicate balance between having enough in reserve and going that little bit over your threshold. Listen to your body and feel when you are working that little bit too much. Experiment with hydration and nutrition to figure out what works for you. You don’t have to complicate things with energy gels and specialist supplements. Just think about your output versus input and what you usually have when you jump on the water. If you train or paddle regularly on porridge, try adding something extra to your bowl like fruit or peanut butter. The same goes for drinks. If you need a boost, look at a powder that goes into your water to boost your electrolytes, for example.

Gripping the paddle
If you have ever done short bursts when paddling, you might well be familiar with the feeling that your arms are about to fall off at the end. Most likely, you have an arm pump, where your forearm muscles have been overworked and feel tight and pumped up. Once at this point, it usually is impossible to get your arms relaxed again without proper rest, and the biggest culprit is likely how you are gripping your paddle. Having a good grip will reduce the chances of arm pump by keeping the forearm muscles relaxed and spreading the load into the bigger muscles in your body and legs.

So what is a proper grip? Well, you have two main things to consider. How tightly you grip with the bottom hand and how far apart your hands are on the paddle.

Starting with the bottom hand, you want a firm but relaxed grip. Whilst that might seem an odd statement at first, consider having just enough grip to hold the paddle without getting white knuckles. Think about your bottom hand as a connector to the paddle rather than a wrap-around vice grip, and this will keep your forearms relaxed. You can also change how you grip the paddle to help manage fatigue on longer paddles.

When it comes to hand placement on the paddle, if you have your hands too close together, this puts the strain into your arms and shoulders, so you are more likely to get arm pump or shoulder pain. A good rule of thumb is to have your arms bent at 90 degrees when you lift your paddle over your head, then bring your bottom hand up one hand’s width for added comfort. A good indicator is this position should feel like a solid connection between you and the paddle, not like your overstraining one particular muscle.

To sum it all up
Your progression in SUP is a never-ending journey. You will learn new ways of doing things through your paddling, heading out with others, coaching and taking on new challenges. Don’t allow yourself to become stagnant in your paddling, and you will find it a constant source of amazement as you try new things and reach new goals. Whilst it is important not to overthink everything in your paddling, dedicating 20 minutes or so a week to focus on a specific skill to make it more efficient is a great way to get into the habit of healthy self-evaluation. I often have clients who over analyse the smallest detail, but this is sometimes a great skill to have; it usually means they miss the thing that will make the most significant difference.

To give you an example, I tend to do two things in my paddling. Firstly I think back to previous paddles and remember what I was doing at that time, what the effects were, and how it felt. This gives me a clear picture when I put myself back in that scenario mentally and think how would I do that now. It’s not what I would do differently; instead, it’s visualising what you know now and how that would play out in the situation. 

The second thing is running drills on a particular skill to repeat the steps or movement and hone it to be more efficient. I think about how the paddle works, my energy usage, and its effect on the board. These consistent reference points then allow me to judge the improvements I’m making within that session and when I do it again later. 

Check out for details on Scott’s SUP Coaching, Events and Training business, and you can follow him on Facebook & Instagram @SUPScotty.

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1 Comment on Paddling for efficiency

  1. Suzanne Nairn // May 14, 2022 at 8:56 am // Reply

    I’ve been trying to stand up now for 3 years on my board and still can’t! Help!!

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