Zen and the Art of Paddling

So much of what we do on a day-to-day basis in modern life is done on mindless autopilot. We work, eat, sleep, and live out our lives with so little conscious engagement that we risk becoming the zombies we find so ceaselessly entertaining on TV. And this mindlessness often carries over to the way we surf, or more specifically, to the way we paddle. We focus so much time and energy on developing a smoother pop-up, video ourselves smacking lip after lip, talk endlessly about fin setups and board dimensions, dissecting everything but the one thing we spend the most time doing in any given surf session: paddling.

Yet we are surprised when we suddenly experience shoulder, neck, or back pain. We shrug our bum shoulders and blame advancing age for symptoms more likely related to the posture we take and the strokes we make over a lifetime of surfing. Paddling is the basis of everything we do on a surfboard. Without paddling, there is no surfing. If you spend any significant amount of time in the water, you owe it to yourself (and your rotator cuffs) to take a moment to reflect and be mindful of the stroke responsible for your stoke.

Much of what we know about proper paddling form comes from the sport of swimming. But in our discussion below we will be departing from certain tenants of swim doctrine due to two major differences between paddling a surfboard and swimming: the elevation of the body above the waterline and the limited potential to rotate the body while lying prone on the surfboard. Having taken these two factors into consideration, let’s break the surf paddle stroke up into four parts for ease of discussion: the catch, the pull, the follow-through, and the recovery.


The catch describes the moment in the stroke when your hand first enters the water, inclusive also of the first few inches of downward movement. Obviously, the width of your board will somewhat dictate the width of your paddling stroke, but as a general rule, if you were to reach up for a hypothetical bar to perform a pull-up, that’s approximately how wide you want your hands to be while paddling. It’s your position of greatest strength. Your goal with the catch is to be smooth and relaxed, a common theme you’ll see repeated throughout our discussion of the stroke. But there’s no need to be overly gentle with the water entry, a relaxed splash somewhere between silent and a smack is a good start. Your hand should be loose but flat, fingers naturally apart, wrist relatively straight. I liken this to using your hand to catch air while you’re cruising down Highway 1, listening to CCR. Don’t cup your hand, it will only add tension to your arm and fatigue you more quickly. After your hand has entered the water, a short pause and a slight reach will allow water to gather under your palm and give your opposing arm time to finish its follow-through and exit the water smoothly.


As you initiate the pull downward through the water, I want you to imagine your arm as an oar or paddle, with your wrist, and not your hand, as the blade. This simple mental picture will help keep your hand relaxed and initiate the engagement of your lats. Remember that the power of each stroke comes not from the muscles of your forearm or hands, but rather from the big muscles that surround your shoulder joint. Allow your elbow to bend naturally through the pull but don’t let your elbow drop faster than your hand. Take the stroke relatively straight from start to finish. Even with a flexing elbow, your hand should not cross significantly under your board. Focus most of your energy and effort on this front half of the stroke, from when your arm first begins to pull to when it is oriented perpendicularly to your body/board and pointing straight down towards the bottom of the ocean.


At this point, the pulling becomes a pushing and the majority of the work has been completed. Think of the remaining portion of the stroke as a follow-through. The movement is still crucial, but much less effort is required. Many beginning surfers look to move as much water as possible while paddling, straining and pushing with a nearly straight-arm stroke from start to finish, flicking their hands out of the water at the finish. This is ill-advised and counterproductive. Look to have your hand exit the water much earlier than you think, around the level of your hip. Think about leading with a relaxed/bent elbow as your arm surfaces. This will encourage an early exit, allow more force to be directed rearward rather than up and out, and will put your arm in an ideal position for the final part of the stroke, the recovery.


As its name implies, the recovery portion of the stroke should be effortless. Nothing that you do in this portion of the stroke is moving you forward, so the best thing you can do is recover to prepare yourself for the next catch and pull. So relax. Relax your hand, your wrist, and your elbow. Imagine a puppet string attached to that relaxed elbow of yours, pulling just high enough for your fingers to clear the surface of the water. There is no need to force your hand to stay close to the board or travel in a straight line. As long as your arm and elbow are relaxed, allow a natural arc/recovery path to occur based on your own individual flexibility/mobility limitations. Performing this correctly will reduce the stress imposed on your musculoskeletal system by allowing the muscles in your back to do their job, retracting and posteriorly tilting your scapula, ultimately freeing up space for your humerus to move without impinging yourself on every stroke.

A few final notes:
- An effective paddler will utilize his/her entire body when paddling. While we don’t want flappy legs, if your legs aren’t moving even a little while you are paddling, you are likely overworking your arms and not using your body as efficiently or effectively as you could be.
- Keep your stroke rate down. Focus instead on your form and technique. This will drive efficiency and make you a faster, more effective paddler in the long run. Windmilling your arms as fast as you can only works in cartoons.

After all that talk on technique, the truth of the matter is that there are as many different strokes and recoveries as there are individual surfers. Ultimately there is no "perfect" paddling form, just as there is no "perfect" human body. We are all blessed and cursed with different gifts and handicaps. But hopefully our discussion here has prompted you to think critically about the way that YOU paddle and the way that YOU recover. I promise that your mindfulness and minor investment of time in this oft-ignored aspect of surfing will pay increasing dividends over the course of your surfing career: less shoulder/neck pain, increased paddling stamina, higher wave counts, longer sessions, and ultimately greater longevity as a surfer.

Caleb Chiu