The secret drill to being a better paddler

[ updated September 2018 ... with more proof ]

I have the secret...and I am going to share it with YOU.

Secret to better paddling

In the past, I had the privilege of coaching outrigger canoe, and one of my favorite drills would be introduced pretty early. I have also found it to be a drill that has worked for my own paddling. It came in handy when I raced prone paddleboard this past winter, jumped on a surf-ski for the first time (and promptly fell off). This secret drill helped when I took my 1-man canoe down the coast of Southern California, raced with teammates across the Catalina channel and battled a ridiculous headwind on my SUP just trying to get back to where I parked! I actually learned it when my uncle would take me on kayak trips when I was a kid. It is THE most effective drill for any type of paddling, and I would stake my reputation on it.

So, this paddle drill, this secret, that I am here to share with you…it does many things.

  • It increases air flow to your body. Helps flush the lactic acid.
    Imagine helping relieve that dull heavy ache in your shoulders. The feeling that you were just handed a piano. Imagine the secret to rejuvenate your muscle cells with fresh airflow.
  • It improves your form, technique and posture.
    Imagine one little tweak that suddenly triggers a chain reaction to improve every part of your paddle stroke. Every part of your body suddenly snapping into a rhythm that would make your coaches proud.
  • It makes you more photogenic.
    Imagine going from a solid looking paddler to an epic one. The kind of paddler that any of paddling's amazing photographers will snap off a dozen clicks when you pass their lens. (Side note: these folks sure are awesome at feeding our vanity, thank you!)
  • It makes you a better teammate and person to paddle with.
    Imagine doing something that immediately puts you in a better frame of mind. That causes you to share better energy with everyone near you. That makes your teammates improve as well.

So by now, you have to be frustrated that I have not shared the secret yet. Well don’t worry because I will soon enough. In fact, the next paragraphs will likely help you figure it out on your own.

You see, our sport of paddling, regardless of craft, is magical.

A crappy day at work? Paddling will fix it.
Horrible commute to practice? Paddling will fix it.
Personal issues weighing on you? Dancing with the Stars got cancelled? Favorite team lost the Super Bowl? No Chocolate Malted Crunch ice cream at the store? “It’s OK!” because paddling, at least while you are on the water, will magically transport you.

Paddling is that special. And anyone who has entered the water feeling down, can attest to the magical healing powers by the time you finish. If you paddle, you get it! It makes you happy. It makes you… SMILE!

And that folks, is the secret I share with you now. I call it the “smile drill”, and I dare anyone to disprove its effectiveness. Next time you are on your craft, and your concentration overwhelmed by technique, your paddle grip getting too tight, your head is starting to dip, and your eyes are becoming little slits that you can barely see through, smile. Show your teeth, recognize how lucky you are to be paddling, and smile.

Notice how, despite maybe being a little on the silly side, that your hull speed picks up. Your technique improves, your body feels better and you suddenly are in a better space. You are appreciating how lucky you are, and there is no place better at that moment for you to be. Now, aside from the psychological benefits there are physical ones. By opening your mouth to smile you are opening up your most efficient airway. Increased oxygen, better expulsion of CO2 and next thing you know, those slumped shoulders lose their lactic acid. Your posture gets better. Teammates around you will see the new improved posture, and will make subtle corrections on their end as well. Next thing you know, the vibe in the water improved. A good thing just got better!

Trick the Brain

(added Sept 2018) Any endurance athlete will attest that exertion is as much mental as physical. Getting through the barrier of your body wanting to quit if you will. Studies have been done to prove this, and recently the Wall Street Journal (1) did a great article which highlighted a study...

"In a 2014 experiment described in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers led by Dr. Marcora showed cyclists images of smiling faces on a screen in imperceptible 16-millisecond flashes. The exposure boosted cycling performance by 12% over the level recorded with frowning faces projected in the same way. The sight of a smile didn’t lower the subjects’ heart rates or lactate levels, according to Dr. Marcora. Instead, it subtly altered how their brains interpreted those signals, evoking feelings of ease that bled into their perception of how hard they were pedaling."

So really, our brain can be fooled to the point of making it think our body is happy. And the results can lead to a performance increase. World record holder Olympic marathoner Eliud Kipchoge trained himself to do it when running his races (1). So why wouldn't it work on the water as well? Imagine that! A little cue like smiling can cause us to do better.

So, next time you are on the water, give the ole smile drill a shot. Whether you are in a race, on a long grueling solo paddle, or just tooling along with friends looking at the scenery, smile. Flash those pearly whites and show some teeth; and recognize that there is no better place you could be at that moment. The world’s population wishes they could be doing what you are doing. Gliding on top of the water, doing something you love. Smile…yer paddling!

[Addendum] Like all things, paddling and life are parallels, so don’t hesitate to try this drill off the water.

Notes and citations

Photo and Paddler Credits

  • Thank you to Imua Women's Masters crew of Debi Bober (1). Patty Datan (2), Guppy Barbosa (3), Lysanne Sebastian (4), Lynn Cook (5), and Kathie Dunn Jacobsen (6) for showing us how smiles make you fast! (p.s. This crew got second women's master unlimited this day in Marina Del Rey. They must know the secret already).
    Photo credit: Chris and Cody Silvester.
  • Mary Loyd Jamarillo paddling at Stand-Up for the Cure in Newport.
    Photo Credit: Jerry Jaramillo.
  • Clarke Graves paddling traditional paddleboard in Oceanside race -
    Photo credit: Chris and Cody Silvester.
  • Artistic Credit to Team Writer Megs Phillips for your drawings!
  • Thank you to Will Schmidt for the WSJ article and continued inspiration to push through barriers.

Cali Paddler Team Writer Clarke Graves

Team Writer Clarke Graves - If there is water, he will paddle it (regardless of craft). Clarke is a surfer turned paddler who grew up in San Diego but has traveled every corner of California enjoying its beauty and appeal. He has had the privilege of racing SUP, OC6, OC2, OC1, Prone and can't wait to hop into a dragon boat and surf-ski for an extended length of time.

One of Clarke's goals is to paddle as much shoreline in California as he can, with as many paddling friends who are willing to join him. If you have an idea for Clarke to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!

Share this post...
Previous post Next post


  • Alan Romero - September 20, 2018

    Spot on, best advice ever!!!!

  • REbekah - February 03, 2017

    You Nailed it!!!! Bang on ! Love this

  • Rae Ring - August 28, 2015


  • Maggie Adams - June 19, 2015

    Love this Clarke! ?

  • Maria - June 17, 2015

    Best EVER advice from you right before Oceanside9man…“breathe, smile and remember to breathe and smile!”

Leave a comment

Paddle Pledge Non-Profits