I’ve had two beautiful paddling sessions at Lee Valley this weekend. 30 degrees, sunshine, whitewater and good vibes. It’s a welcome change from the long cold winter. Lee Valley has been my default paddling destination over the last few months. I decided not to go creek boating in Italy this spring, and also passed on a trip to the Malabar Festival in India (have fun Darren, John and gang!). I’ve been to Val Sesia the last few years and although it’s one of my favorite destinations, I felt I needed to prioritize time at work and with my family this time around. Experienced parents will know that children still need attention even when they are supposedly old enough to look after themselves!

I have however managed to get to 4 slaloms so far this year, racing at Lee Valley, Grandtully, Nottingham and Bala, in my first full season in Premier. After a solid winter of training I feel like I’ve moved on and I’m taking on more aggressive lines, especially on the upstream gates. This is progress, and at my best a midfield result is achievable. But at the same time I’ve felt a bit frustrated at a pattern of putting in fast (for me) runs that have been marred by a single costly mistake that has cost me 2 – 5 seconds. Even worse, having had trouble on my first run I’ve not been great at getting it right on the second attempt. Interestingly, these problems have all occurred on downstream offset gate moves.

I think there are a couple of reasons. Over the winter I deliberately focused my technical training on upstream gates. And when paddling in public sessions at Lee Valley the gate positions are pretty much restricted to eddies, so the overall effect is that I spend less time practicing offset stagger sequences. So as well as doing more offset moves in training, I’m now also trying to focus more on getting the moves right first time, rather than doing multiple repeats. Theses are called delivery runs.

I also noticed from watching some video of my runs that my stroke rate seemed a bit slow, and I was aware of hanging on my strokes rather than pulling the blade through the water. Having broken a paddle at Bala a couple of weeks ago (on the aptly named Graveyard section) I thought it was timely to experiment with a different paddle set-up. So I’ve moved to a smaller blade (the Galasport Nada medium) and reduced the length from 202 to just over 200 cm. I’ve got an adjustable ferrule so I can tweak the length and offset angle – this works a treat. The effect has been staggering. I couldn’t stop grinning the first time I tried the new blades, as I was able to get more strokes in and move the boat in a totally different way. Interestingly, the positive effect was most noticeable making short dynamic turns in off-set gates, where I was much more able to move the boat quickly. I also experienced much less muscle soreness after paddling and can maintain a better cadence over a full length run. So it looks like this combination is much better suited to my physical power output. Much as I might like to believe otherwise, blades designed for women and juniors are a better match for me than the ‘normal’ large size! It’s like finding the right gear combination on a bike – it’s no use trying to push a ‘big ring’ if the power is not there.

My new paddle is probably only about 1% different in length and blade area, so this is yet another example of the 1% principle, when the right small change can make a big difference to performance.

What small change in equipment or technique have you made that made a big difference to your paddling performance?

Hope you’re all enjoying your paddling, whether that’s in the northern hemisphere summer or winter down-under.