Race intelligence – a snapshot analysis from the Head of the Dart SUP race 2017

Pics: Bryce Dyer, HOTD SUP Challenge

‘Mr Analytics’ (Prof Bryce Dyer) gives us a breakdown of performance following the first race of the UK 2017’s competitive SUP season. Over to Bryce for the insights.

Performance analysis in sport is the objective assessment of tactics, behaviour and equipment – whether it’s picking the most effective set up for motorsport, laying out the best fielding strategy in cricket or assessing how to run a world record marathon. As far as SUP goes, you probably don’t associate the appliance of science to a competitive sport that is young in years and big on personality. This said, there are interesting titbits we can glean from a decent sized race if you have the time. I had the time (or rather the lunch break) to have a quick look. With sandwich in hand, let’s take a look at the recent ‘Head of the Dart’. This popular 8 mile point-to-point distance race is probably one of the largest SUP races currently held in the UK.

First things first, let’s get some data for you to look at. For the example here, I’ve looked mainly at the finishing times from the men’s 14ft class. I’ve picked this one as it has relatively stable number of entrants each year of around 30 paddlers. I’ll mention the other ladies classes separately in a bit. On this subject, it’s actually worth mentioning that the main source of growth wasn’t in any of the elite classes at all – it’s actually in the leisure/cruising classes. This suggests that the events success is really helped by following the mentality also used successfully by cycling (with sportifs), running (with park runs) and triathlon (with SUP bike run). Offering a non-competitive (but challenging) event is the way to get entrance numbers to increase in the sport. Food for thought. Either way, let me show you a plot of a graph of the top 20 of the men’s 14ft class and their finishing time from 2014-2017.

The yellow line of the 2014 event shows a steady upward tracking line with reasonably consistent spacing’s between each paddler. However, things get interesting in both the 2015 and 2016 events (and to a lesser extent in 2017). If you look carefully, you’ll see a ‘stepped’ pattern in the shape of the graph traces. This illustrates smaller groups of paddlers being being close together by the end. This likely shows that paddlers were (or had been) in draft trains of around 3-4 paddlers. How well they would be working together in each group can’t be ascertained here but it does highlight that if you want to do well, the paddlers at the pointy end of business are in draft trains. Plus, if I quickly plot the range of the top 5, top 10 and top 20 paddlers, you get a graph that looks like this:

Not only can we see that draft trains are prevalent but we can also see that the standard of the typical paddler in the top 10 is compacting with just a 5 minute spread this year from 1st to 10th. Their ability is becoming more similar. I also calculated the statistical variability of these groups and this is also falling year on year. On the other hand, the top 5 in particular is levelling out. This might be something to do with who is winning the race and how they are doing it. For example, we can see in our first and second graphs that the leader is not really being closed down by the field year on year – even as the general standard directly behind them is compacting year on year. The winner in 3 of the 4 events here is Ryan James (and the only one he didn’t win was lost in a sprint finish to Pete Holliday last year). The time gap that Ryan/Pete have is very large and demonstrates a bigger paddler-to-paddler gap than even those seen behind. This gap could only be established by getting a lead early on and building on this incrementally over the ensuing 8 miles. It’s fundamentally an exercise in superior horsepower. The ability for you to increase the speed of a typical board once you go north of around 8.5kph requires exponentially larger and larger amounts of power, so if you leave it late to break clear, it’s likely you won’t win by huge margins like this as the power demand is too great. For us mortals, if you are more Sid James than Ryan James, how can you change this outcome ? The only way is to either see other paddlers emerge to beat them man to man or to see a draft train established behind whereby the group works together. This would see the head of the train able to perform a paddling velocity that exceeds the leaders in front. If the leaders are winning based on aerobic grunt (like here at the Dart), the only reasonable way to do this is to have a draft train behind whereby the head of the train works anaerobically (whereby their oxygen supply is being exceeded by their oxygen demand). Each member of the train, takes the lead, works well above their average pace, pulls off, slots on the back (or the side) of the train, gets some rest in the draft and then repeats. However, unlike a sport such as cycling (whereby this is typical behaviour known as ‘through and off’), the greater density of water (and the slow passing time of boards) would mean that this work rate needs to be long enough to offset the damage of the board length lost as each leader of the train peels off vs the ability to physiologically produce enough velocity to make it worthwhile (yet then be able to recover). I’d guess the balance of these two factors is going to be somewhere around 3-5 minute pulls by the train leader and the hope that the current emergence of trains isn’t hiding a different issue that technically good drafters are merely being towed around by stronger paddlers.

By the way, take a look at 2015. See how fragmented the field was that year ? That was the year the course was changed due to severe weather. It’s not uncommon in many sports that hard weather exposes the weaknesses in athlete’s abilities and power output and ultimately sorts the wheat from the chaff. If you start having chop or high winds, technique is going to be more critical and the aerodynamics may matter – particularly if a headwind goes north of 10-15mph.

Finally, what about the ladies? Actually, this shows how different genders might actually need to train differently in the UK. The ladies field sizes are smaller and the 12’6 is slightly more popular than the 14 footers. However, both classes are seeing the same characteristic here – i.e. big gaps between paddlers of around 2-3 minutes in length. In such cases then, drafting will only do so much and the fields are being broken up probably as soon as the gun is fired. In which case then, these female athletes can really only close such gaps down through maximising their fitness whereas the men can limit some damage just by being able to sprint to close gaps to the next paddler (who probably won’t be too far away) and then recover in the subsequent draft. The men might be able to improve by training using very high intensity and short recovery intervals but the women may need to be focused more on paddling for a longer duration with sustained hard efforts. All of this depends of course depends on what a paddler is doing now, their age, experience and event choices. Both genders can shortcut either issue to a certain extent by ensuring their paddling technique is the best it can be. It’s no good paddling like a champ for the first 2 minutes and then swinging like a drunk for the rest.

The one thing I didn’t mention was that of equipment. It’s worth nothing that in the male 14ft fleet in particular this year, most paddlers in the top 10 are now using boards that were 21-24 inches wide. In fact the first guy really much bigger than that was myself on a 26 wide board in 12th. In addition, the only person ahead of myself not using a flatwater specific board was Mo Guy in 4th. Does this mean I made a mistake in board choice ? Well, I’d planned my choice for this event as far back as last winter. I’d seen that the course was reversed this year meaning a lot of paddlers crammed into a tight space at Totnes and so there would probably be a lot of chop at the start. Finishing in the estuary at Dartmouth would mean the finish would likely be very choppy at the end too so I planned accordingly and opted for an all water board that provided confidence and flexibility. Yep, I’d lose out in straight-line speed in the calm sections but at least I would have no problem jockeying for position in the first 10 minutes (which as I’ve already shown) was crucial. I had a good day out and knowing the guys in front meant I knew it was an honest result. No kit change on my part would have changed that outcome. The important thing was that nobody was sending out search parties by the time I came in.

So what are the take home points for other paddlers looking to improve their racing here ? I’d suggest the following:

  • Developing skills to operate and move between draft trains is not only desirable, it’s essential if you want to place high up a male racing field in the UK.
  • Cooperative draft trains (or club/team tactics) may well be the future.
  • Training should be tailored to the event but also to the athlete. Male and female racing isn’t the same and might not be the same between different board classes either.
  • Equipment choice is important but matching the equipment to yourself is more critical. Don’t be intimidated by the choices of others and it always pay to research the event before you do it.

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