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How To Perfect Your Paddle Technique

Minimising Resistance + Maximising Propulsion= Optimal Paddling Technique.

Surfing better starts with paddling better. Learning the proper paddling technique is one of the most crucial elements to your surf progression. Why? It helps dramatically accelerate your speed and wave count in the water. The better your paddle, the more waves you catch, the quicker you progress.

Access the full Paddle Technique Online Course.

Do you feel genuinely confident in your paddling technique? Surf coaching and technique training weren’t once as dialled down as they are today. It’s clear that not all surf schools offer the same foundation for teaching, meaning everyone learns different ways of doing things. Paddling is a technique that beginner and intermediate-level surfers can often overlook. The feedback we’ve received from surfers on our retreats is that paddling isn’t generally something they have been taught or focused on previously in their experience.

Paddle Technique- Learn how to perfect your paddle technique


Sound familiar? If this resonates with you, we’re here to help. It can be challenging to eliminate old habits you may have picked up along the way. It can also be difficult if you’re starting from scratch and have never actually given much thought to how you paddle. Surfers missing these core progression steps have led to a culture of blissful ignorance regarding paddling. We have to emphasise the fact that having a proper paddling technique matters! It is how we move through the water, get past the impact zone and paddle onto waves. It translates into faster positioning in the water and an increased wave count in an average session. So, how do we get there? Two main concepts; minimising resistance (“drag”) and maximising propulsion.

What is “Drag”?

Paddle Technique- Drag

So what do we mean when we use the term “drag”? Drag is fluid resistance, the force that decreases your speed when moving forward. The goal here is to minimize drag as much as you can. The idea is to streamline to cut through the water with the least resistance possible. To minimize drag is to “glide efficiently” on the water with minimum elements “resisting” your propulsion forward. Even if you’ve never surfed before, you’ve felt this force before swimming.

Paddle Technique- Minimising drag

For example, as you take a stroke, you gain momentum forward, but your body is pushing against water, and your speed is quickly lost unless you keep swimming. Whilst there are different types of drag, the most important one for surfers is labelled as “form drag.” This is caused by the shape and position of the swimmer (or surfer) as they move forward.

What is “propulsion”?

Paddle technique- Propulsion

Propulsion is all about how much water you can push backwards and how much forward momentum you can gain. The goal here is to maximise the surface area that pushes water underneath. Remember- minor technical adjustments can significantly impact how much water you push backwards, ultimately accelerating your paddle speed.

1. Minimize Resistance (or Drag)

Paddle Technique- Minimise Drag

Minimizing resistance is about minimizing how much “drag” you have in the water. How? By finding your “sweet spot” on the surfboard. This is a common concept used to describe a surfer laying down on the surfboard at precisely the right spot, vertically and horizontally. The goal is to have your body and board move in the water with as little resistance as possible. The optimal paddle technique requires a surfer to be centred and balanced on their surfboard.

Vertical Body Position

Paddle Technique- Vertical Body Position

The “Sweet Spot”=

  • Correct vertical body position
  • Surfboard lying flat in the water
  • Arched back
  • Surfboard’s nose slightly out of the water
  • Head up and looking forward
  • Legs together

Common Mistake #1:

  • Too far back on the surfboard
  • The nose is more than a foot out of the water

Common Mistake #2:

  • Too far up on the surfboard
  • The nose is underwater

Horizontal Body Position

Paddle Technique- Horizontal Body Position

A horizontal body position means you’re centred and balanced on your board. To see what’s happening in front of you, you must always keep your head up. A test to see if you’re centred is to lift your hands out of the water simultaneously. If you sink on either side, you are not centred on your board. Remember- your head weighs about 20kg. By bringing it up, your nose will come out of the water drastically. You are in the sweet spot if your surfboard is laying so flat that by putting your chin down, the nose would go underwater, and by leaning very far back in a cobra pose, your nose would pop out of the water by more than 2 cm.

Paddle Technique- Body Positioning

Tip: Imagine a soccer ball under your chin. Why? So that your head stays up, you maintain an arch in your back and glide with as little resistance as possible.

Correct Body Positioning

Paddle Technique- Common Mistakes

Another way to maintain a horizontal body position is to keep your feet together. We want long, full-range motion strokes from the front to the back. A common mistake we see from beginners is to try to stabilize their board with their legs when they’re in an uncentred position. Result? Slower paddle speed and more drag.

Paddle Technique Drag

Paddle Technique- Paddle Drag

There’s more to your paddle technique than just being positioned correctly on your surfboard. Your paddle technique also needs to be on point to avoid unnecessary drag. When your hand enters the water, ensure your fingertips are first to enter, followed by your wrist and elbow. We want to avoid splashing water! This creates drag and slows you down. The more silent the paddle, the better. Smooth and powerful strokes are key. Keeping your head up and not rocking from side to side will also minimise drag and keep your position on the board stable and centred.

2. Maximizing Propulsion

Maximising Propulsion is all about how much water you can push backwards and how much forward momentum you can gain. For us surfers, this is achieved via learning the proper paddling technique. The best place for us to start and help clarify techniques is to divide surfers’ paddling motion into 4 phases:

1. The Catch

Paddle technique- The Catch

The catch= the slowest phase.
This phase begins after penetrating your hand underwater and extending your arm. The main goal here is to get into a position that maximizes the surface area that pushes water backward, giving you greater forward propulsion during the next phase. Imagine you are wrapping your arm around an imaginary log. As you slide your fingers downwards and have your arm wrap around the imaginary log, you get into an “EVF” position: early vertical forearm. In this position, you want a high elbow and your fingertips pointing downwards.

Note: You don’t want to force this phase as it could create shoulder injuries. If you were to draw a line from your hand to your shoulder, your elbow should be above that line.

2. The Pull

Paddle Technique- The Pull

The pull= pulling water backwards to gain forward momentum.
This phase is all about pulling water backwards to accelerate. An essential element here is to ensure that your hand and forearm stay aligned and perpendicular to the bottom during your stroke and that your elbow stays high. Not keeping the elbow high and forward is hands down one of the most common and critical mistakes we see among our students. 

You also want to avoid bending or unbending the wrist or “cupping” your hand. If you do so, you will pull less water backwards than you would by using your hand and forearm together, as a straight paddle blade would. The idea is to keep your elbow bent until the end of your paddle stroke, continuously pulling water backwards. What happens if you lock your shoulder and extend your arm? Instead of pulling water backwards, you will pull water upwards. This will create a problematic recovery when you begin another stroke. Keep a relaxed straight hand with a slight separation between the fingers, including your thumb. Remember, it’s all about maximising propulsion.

3. The Recovery

Paddle Technique- The Recovery

The recovery= the exit phase.
This phase should feel smooth and effortless. During the first half of the recovery mode, the elbow leads the movement. After the pull, you bring your arm out of the water after the paddle stroke. Bringing your hand forward and in front of your head, you want the elbow exiting the water first. Lift your elbow up and forwards as if a string was pulling it. Once you reach the midpoint of your recovery and your hand is at level with your shoulder, you can start leading with the hand and prepare to enter the water again.

Note: This should naturally happen if you keep your elbow bent and do not fully straighten your arm at the end of your underwater pull.

4. The Hand Entry

Paddle Technique- Hand Entry

Hand Entry= final phase.

  1. Your hand should enter well in front of your head and shoulder, depending on your surfboard size. If riding a big, wide surfboard, your hand should penetrate the water next to the rail.
  2. Make sure your fingertips enter the water first. Why? To reduce drag. Your wrist should be higher than your fingertips, and your elbow should be higher than your wrist.
  3. Ensure your paddle strokes are next to your surfboard’s rails. Why? If you paddle wider than the rails, it will be less effective. You will be overusing more of your shoulder muscles. This isn’t ideal as your back muscles are stronger and could result in a higher injury risk. This will result in your forearm not being as deep underwater. 

Three practice tips to help you maximize your propulsion:

#1 High Elbow

Paddle technique- high elbow

Focus and remember to keep your elbow high! This needs to happen at two precise moments; when your fingertips penetrate the water and when you initiate the Pull. 

#2 The Fist Drill

Paddle technique- The fist drill

This drill involves paddling with your hands in a fist. It forces you to focus on pulling water with your forearm instead. This drastically reduces the surface area of your hands and is a classic freestyle training recommended by swim coaches to help students focus on their early vertical forearm (EVF).

#3 Feel the Resistance

Paddle Technique- Feel the resistance

If you’re doing the technique correctly, you should feel the resistance underwater on your hand and forearm as you paddle. How do I know if I am doing the technique correctly? Put simply; you want to imagine you are pulling yourself forward by pushing water backwards. An indication if you’re doing it wrong is if you feel your arms are moving backwards underwater at a much higher speed than you are moving forward. This means that you are slipping too much. Your technique needs to be adjusted so that your hand and forearm hold more water.

Equipment Drag

Paddle technique- Equipment Drag

It is no surprise that the surfboard you choose to ride will tremendously impact how much drag you create when paddling. If you have your paddling technique down pat yet don’t feel like you’re gaining speed in the water, there’s a high chance this could be related to your surfing equipment. 

Our online course Surfboards for Intermediates provides a detailed breakdown of surfboard construction, materials, features and equipment. However, we have simplified factors that can create drag below. If you would like to get familiar with the basics, keep reading…

Volume

  • Volume= the overall size and amount of area (in litres) contained in a surfboard, calculated by its length, width and thickness.
  • More volume in a surfboard= more flotation.
  • More flotation= faster paddle power + less drag. Explore more of the pros, cons and factors that determine volume here.

Rocker

  • The surfboard’s rocker= the curve (the “banana shape”) of a surfboard, from its nose to its tail.
  • A surfboard’s rocker dramatically affects how the board reacts on the water: how fast it glides, how easy it turns, etc.
  • More rocker= more maneuverability. The compromise? It also slows you down, which creates drag. 
    Our free article Understand The Surfboard’s Rocker dives deeper behind the logic for further explanation.

Bottom Contour

  • The bottom contour= the surfboard design that controls how much water flows underneath.
  • The bottom contour impacts drag, paddle speed and how much water flows around your surfboard.
    Our online course on Surfboards For Intermediates breaks down the details of the bottom contour of a surfboard in further detail. 

Fins & Leash

Paddle Technique- fins and leash
  • Fins and leash= surfing equipment.
    The size of both can create drag when paddling. Although these are minimal and generate smaller amounts of drag, your fin and leash choice can undoubtedly have an impact. This being said, surfers that ride small boards in small-to-medium waves can reduce the amount of drag by choosing shorter, thinner leashes.

Sprinting & Kicking

Paddle Technique- Sprinting and kicking

Sprinting and kicking! It’s where experienced surfers get their final burst of speed, accelerating to try and catch the wave. Don’t be mistaken- sprinting and kicking aren’t always necessary. It usually happens at the final stages of catching a wave, when the surfer feels they need that extra speed to make it onto the wave. This occurs when 1. the surfer’s stroke rate increases and 2. they start kicking their feet.

Sprinting

Sprinting= more acceleration through stronger, faster paddle strokes. To accelerate at the final stages of catching a wave, you must pull as much water backward as possible. Be aware- your technique should stay the same during this process. The main difference comes down to the frequency of the paddle strokes. When sprinting, these will increase the closer you get to catching the wave.

Kicking

Kicking= adds propulsion + reduces drag.
Kicking water downwards will lift your body slightly higher on the wave. However, is always kicking necessary? Will you make the wave if you don’t kick? No. Kicking is only usually necessary if you find yourself in a critical situation, such as struggling to get onto a wave. 

“Should I kick with my feet or not”?

Paddling technique-kicking

The answer to this question will depend on a few factors. You can only really kick if you ride a surfboard that is small enough, as your feet need to be floating behind the tail of the surfboard. Kicking requires a lot of energy for limited propulsion and is generally only needed in critical situations, such as getting into a wave that may be difficult to catch or avoiding getting caught on the inside.

The main reason kicking is a rarity comes down to conserving our energy. If we look at the ratio between energy spent versus momentum gained, kicking is a last resort, the last spur of energy-option. It only makes sense to do this in specific situations when needed. Don’t stop paddling and start kicking. You need to be doing both at the same time to add propulsion and reduce drag.

Three keys for an efficient kicking technique

Paddle Technique- Kicking

#1. Short & fast kicks
The first efficient kicking technique focuses on speed and keeping your legs together. We want to avoid big scissor kicks with wide legs. This creates more drag and can put you off balance.

#2. Kick from the hips
Secondly, you want the kicking motion to start from the hips. Don’t just bend the knees and slap the water. Like swimming, the movement comes from the hips first.

#3. Toes pointed backwards
Lastly, take note of what your toes are doing. Try not to flex the foot, keeping your toes backwards to maximise the surface area pushing water.

Quick Tips

  • The Optimal Vertical Position: Keep your nose 2 – 5 cm out of the water. There should be about 2 – 5 cm (1 or 2 inches) of space between your surfboard’s nose and the water’s surface while your back is arched. You will need to adjust your positioning on the board depending on how far up or down your nose is.
  • Keep Your Head Up & Still: You’ve probably heard us mention this before, but it’s a great idea to pretend there’s a soccer ball in between your chin & your surfboard. This will help keep your head up by arching your back, helping you see waves further out.
  • Keep Your Body Centred on the Surfboard: If your board doesn’t already have a stringer, imagine a line in the middle of your surfboard. This line should run in the middle of your body so that you don’t create drag by leaning down to the right or left.
  • Keep Your Feet Together: This is a small adjustment, yet so effective at the same time! Keeping both feet together when paddling will reduce drag.
  • Lift Both Hands Out of the water before you start paddling. Are you balanced? You will sink on either side if not properly centred. Adjust your body position and make sure you are balanced before paddling.
  • Make Sure Your Fingertips Enter The Water First: To reduce drag, make sure your fingertips enter the water first. Your wrist should be higher than your fingertips, and your elbow should be higher than your wrist.
  • Keep Your Elbows High at Hand Entry: Never forget to keep your elbow high at hand entry. Ensure your forearm is vertical for an extended amount of time underwater. This will result in more propulsion.
  • Remember EVF: Early Vertical Forearm (around a log): To give yourself greater forward propulsion and maximise the surface area that pushes the water backwards, imagine you are wrapping your arm around an imaginary log. This will get you into the EVF position and help increase your paddle power and speed.
  • Don’t Forget The Pull: Arm & Forearm Perpendicular to Bottom: Ensure that your hand and forearm stay aligned and perpendicular to the bottom during your stroke with your elbow staying high. Keep this position for as long as possible while you push water backwards.
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Common Mistakes

  • Don’t splash water when penetrating, do a smooth quiet entry. Fingertips are what enter the water first.
  • Do not put your hands in a “cupped” position. This reduces the surface area your hands push underwater, limiting your propulsion. Do not put excessive tension in your hands, this is a waste of energy. Keep your hands straight and relaxed underwater.
  • Don’t paddle two arms at the same time. The best way to keep your energy and to surf for many hours is to paddle one arm at a time, keeping a good rhythm.
  • Don’t paddle wide. You should bend your arms when paddling. Your arms should be close to the surfboard’s rails, not going wide on each side.
  • Don’t rest your head on the surfboard. Avoid moving your head up and down, it will “rock” your surfboard and create drag. Always pretend there’s a soccer ball under your chin. Keeping your head up gives you more stability, mobility and visibility of the waves in front of you.
  • Don’t roll your shoulders too much on each side when paddling. You don’t want to throw weight on each side of the surfboard, rocking from side to side and creating drag.
  • Do not drop the elbow. Do not lead backwards with your elbow while you paddle. You will not be pulling nearly as much water this way.

Articles - Tutorials Video Banner
Learn to surf
Online.
  1. tutorials for beginners & intermediates
  2. community & forums
  3. clear, simple instructions
  4. get rid of bad habits
PlayPlay
Articles - Retreat Video Banner
Surf Coaching
Retreats.
  1. tailored surf coaching
  2. 6 coaches for 12 students
  3. only the best surf spots for your level
  4. most consistent locations on earth
PlayPlay
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