5 min read
23 Sep

A friend of mine just told me he tried to convince someone that there is some validity and benefits of using zero feather angle in surfski paddling (read as: Open water paddling). He mentioned he didn't even take a hard stand on the issue:

"It appears you are right about [name of the person] dismissal and misunderstanding of zero feather. I was pretty sure I could convince him that neutral wrists and good catch is possible with zero feather, but not that it had any advantage for sprinting."  

This article is not about zero feather angle (if you would like to read about zero feather click here). This article is about how disconnected form reality someone's advice could be when that advice is based on an Olympic discipline that looks deceivingly similar and yet it is vastly different from open water and more specifically downwind surfski paddling. 

Why write this article?

I strongly believe that listening to such a misguided "expert's" advice could possibly have many negative consequences to your surfski paddling and especially the part of longevity and injury prevention, which is hardly ever discussed when people debate or try to copy elite level athletes for their recreational sport. 

Are you saying that all advice coming from Olympians is bad?

I am not saying that at all. There are many things you could learn from someone who has competed at the highest level in the paddling sport. But just like everything else you need to judge the claims, being made, on their merit and not based on an argument of authority - "I am an Olympian and I know better than you".

Here are three basic facts to consider (I will expand further below):

  1. The ideal environment in Olympic paddling is not a factor in the performance outcome. In surfski paddling the ideal environment is the biggest factor in the performance. 
  2. Olympic sprint lasts 30 seconds to about 3:30 minutes. In surfski you may not even have crossed the shore break in 3:30 minutes. 
  3. Elite sport is very often about winning at all cost, which unfortunately also includes long term health sacrifices. For most people surfski paddling is all about taking a break and having fun. 

Just by listing these three facts you could already sense how vastly different the priorities should be when making decisions related to Olympic training vs. recreational surfski paddling. 

It is almost like a Formula 1 driver giving a talk on how to win the Gran Prix to a bunch of dudes who simply need an advice how to pack their vans for their next surfing trip. 

The disconnect is unbelievable!

What is the ideal environment in Olympic kayaking?

Flat water, no wind, no waves - this doesn't always happen but when it does, it provides the perfect level playing field. The fittest and strongest wins. I am not discounting the paddling technique from the list and it is important to note that tiny details in the stroke technique could give an edge at an Olympic final. 

Hand position, recovery, perfect timing of the leg drive, posture etc etc. The compounding effect of tiny technical changes can make the difference between winning the gold or staying at home and watching the Olympic games on the TV. 

How much time do elite paddlers have to dedicate to those technical details? 100s and 100s of hours repeating the same movement under the close supervision of a coach with constant feedback. Besides coaching also involving multiple professionals from a physiotherapist, fitness trainer etc. 

In the mean time you are in Tarifa (a shameless plug!), the wind is blowing 30 knots from the East (Levante baby!!). You have had a hard business quarter at work and you finally managed to take a few days off to travel, All you want is to slow down, relax and catch some waves. 

Yes, your technique is generally important (mainly for stability and some basic acceleration/ speed) but the scrutiny and the level of technical details comes nowhere near to the demands of the elite Olympic training. 

You take a few strokes, which could be generally described by an elite Olympian as "the s#@ttiest technique I have ever seen"  (a fair assessment from the perspective of an elite athlete)  

Never the less you catch a wave, take a gentle brace and you are surfing with a huge grin on your face at a speed a few elites can achieve on the flat. Nothing can beat that! 

And maybe at that moment when you are effortlessly surfing the wave a km out at sea all you need is to take a gentle brace, nudge the rudder, lean forward and link your ride to another wave still going at 25 km/h. Where is this exact skill applicable in Olympic paddling? 

How is feather angle set at exactly 68.751 degrees Left going to benefit you at that exact moment compared to zero feather? 

It won't and this is the point!

Should the technique you use for 2 hours downwind be an exact match to the one of an elite sprinter who only has to do it for 30 seconds?

The very short answer is a very loud and resounding: NO!

In fact, your technique will never be the same as an elite level sprinter. It is simply not possible. 

I have to admit, I don't even consider myself a paddler. I had never paddled at a young age. I only started when I was 24 years old and there is a lot I don't know about paddling and I will probably never know. 

I was a swimmer. Trained since 7 years old and raced until I was 24. Now I am helping the local swimming club in Tarifa as a coach. Bare with me, I will be talking swimming for a while but I promise it will make sense even if you never swam competitively.

My first point is that swimming as a sport is far more technical compared to kayaking. (I expect some push back on this statement but I believe this to be correct). In swimming you have to be 3 things in 1 compared to kayaking. You have to be the boat, the paddle and the paddler all at once and you have to deal with the high density of the water. 

Naturally, the main principle in swimming is to reduce drag and from there to improve propulsion. This principle is exactly the same for elite and recreational swimmers but...

No recreational open water swimmer will ever be able to swim with the same technique you will see the elite swimming at the 50 m free Olympic final (now in 2023 not back in 1908). 

I will repeat again, no recreational swimmer will ever be able to swim with the same technique as a current 50 m free Olympic finalist. 

The simplest example in 50 free is - no breathing! Are you going to copy that for your hour long swim in the ocean?

No breathing means lower resistance and faster speed but 50 free lasts 21 seconds...not an hour! a compromise is inevitable. 

The harsh reality is, if you start swimming at 24 (my age when I started paddling) you stand no chance to come anywhere near resemblance of a competitive swimmer. You could make huge improvements in your technique of course (compared to a complete beginner). If you spend considerable amount of time practicing, you could glide quite effortlessly at a long distance pace in open water etc but the refined technique of an elite sprinter is a whole different game.

The intricate details, the mobility, the coordination, strength ... the list goes on and being a professional swimmer is literally a full time job. But you would do the same by starting in your 40s (some paddlers start surfski in their 50s and even 60s) and swimming twice per week without a coach? 

Does that mean that an elite swimming coach should be dismissive to an open water recreational swimming instructor based on the premise that "You will never see an Olympic finalist swimming this way! I have won medals at the Olympics and I know a lot better than you."?

Does such an approach make any sense at all?

If I have to accept this elitist approach then the logical conclusion is that if you are not an elite paddler then you should either give up paddling right now or you should give up paddling a bit later when you realise that the elite sprinting technique is not achievable.

Here is my approach: You need a simplified version of the technique, which helps prevent injuries and helps you catch waves downwind in open water. And this touches on the third point

Elite sport is not always considered a healthy activity

Sometime ago I watched a heartbreaking documentary about Ronny Coleman, 8 x Mr. Olympia consecutively from 1998 to 2005. A hard working man dedicated to his sport and putting more work into it than anyone else at his time. What price did he pay for that? Not being able to move freely, couldn't walk without support, couldn't run nor play with his young daughter, many surgeries and excruciating pain, which never goes away.   

Would you make the same sacrifice with your health to be the best you could be in your sport?

I am not suggesting that no one at elite level cares about their health and longevity. The reality is that very often elites pay a heavy price because they pushed themselves to the limit in order to be the best. 

How is that related to you?

Well, if you were doing bodybuilding in the early 2000s it cold be tempting to read and implement what Ronny Coleman was doing. You would be inspired by his physique, his hard working attitude and genuine personality. You may have decided to follow some of his training programs without knowing that in 20 years time his health would severely deteriorate because of many of the same things you were copying. 

So should I not listen to elite paddlers at all?

Listen, be curious.

Ask very specific questions (examples):

  1. How exactly is this technical detail going to benefit me?
  2. Can you quantify the exact benefit for me? Am I going to be 2 km/h  or 0.02 km/h faster doing this?
  3. Are there any negative sides to using this technique? What are they?
  4. How easy would it be to implement this in my paddling?
  5. How much time do you think it would take to make that change?

You should always think about how given information would benefit you. Be realistic about who you are as a paddler and what you may or may not be able to implement without supervision by a coach. 

Personally for myself I prefer to use "information filter". 

At the Surfski Center we follow LESS formula when it comes to filtering information. 

LESS stands for: 





When I am presented with new information I see if this would help me improve on one or more of the points in LESS. 

If someone is talking about power, speed, force, I would be generally curious and I am much more likely to discard the information as risky to implement unless it could be related to LESS. 

If the ideas are related to improving Stability, Efficiency and Injury prevention I would be all ears. Of course I would need to study, test and understand and if I am happy with the findings I would implement the new knowledge. 

Final thoughts

I had an exchange online with the same person my friend spoke about at the beginning. He was debating my zero angle setup making all sort of claims of existing studies how zero angle did't work. 

I asked specifically to show me the studies and more importantly to quantify the stated paddling benefits for me.

I was dismissed as someone who doesn't know anything and at the same time was given no answer and shown no studies.

I admit my surfski paddling technique looks like someone hit me with a heavy object in the head and I lost all my coordination. I get that, especially from an elite paddler's perspective but look at this and tell me, do I really need much more for what I do in the video?

This is why I paddle...

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