Rhythm and Tempo in paddling

When you watch top athletes training or racing there is something in their paddling that feels right. There are characteristics of how champions paddle that seem to be difficult to grasp but are same time obvious to the eyes of any passerby. One of these is rhythm.

In sports, we could define rhythm as movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements. Its the exchange between the relaxation and contraction, between inhaling and exhaling, it is about the timing of movements in the kinetic chain. Rhythm in paddling should be also thought of as the ratio of water and air phases in a stroke cycle (these should stay mostly unchanged and have values of between 60 and 65%). So rhythm results in the ability to carry on a movement pattern unchanged in time and space.

Tempo on the other hand is the speed or pace of the paddling (strokes per minute) and shall be played with as needed to achieve the desired speed (tempo may be diminishing or growing although it is rarely constant in a race). Rhythm is something deeper than the mere tempo of paddling. It should not change with a higher or lower tempo. It is very personal. The internal rhythm is like the athletes signature.

When the rhythm is right the paddlers seem relaxed in their effort, effortless while paddling hard. Rhythmical movements become fluid, sharp and light at the same time. When athletes get the rhythm right the movements become clean and symmetric. There is absence of important technical errors. These are the reasons why rhythm is crucial for achieving both high speed of movement and efficiency.

The ability to set or predict (crew boats) a rhythm is genetically predetermined, but training can improve this ability a lot. As in music also in sports we can impose rhythm and tempo to the athlete by using a metronome. If a beginner or intermediate level paddler is following a metronome in the boat for a few minutes, the technique will suddenly clean up….symmetry, balance and fluidity will appear along with a smile on the paddlers face.

Coaches should try to better understand and teach rhythm. There is a lot to work on:

  • differentiating between various rhythms in stroke executions
  • setting the right rhythm for a particular race already with the first strokes (according to the distance and the conditions)
  • adapting or predicting a rhythm (crew boats)
  • playing with tempo while keeping the rhythm unchanged

Remember that in paddling just as in dancing once you find the rhythm simplicity appears!

Video: Canoe & Kayak

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