While the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss how to actually draft, here are some tips for making the most of your draft train that can make a big difference over a long race like Chattajack:
Relax as much as possible while drafting. Find the sweet spot where it is easiest and your board is moving with the least effort, and do your best to stay there. The ability to do this improves dramatically with practice, so do your homework in training so that your drafting skills are polished and effective on race day.
Pay attention and don’t lose your focus. Sometimes it is easy to let your focus wander when the paddling becomes really easy while drafting for an extended period. This is especially true when you’re getting tired and it’s when you’re prone to make mistakes that can cost you your position in the train. The train can get away from you surprisingly quickly and when it does the only way to get your place back is going to involve paddling uphill which you really want to avoid at all costs.
If you do lose the wash you’re riding it is imperative you get it back as quickly as possible. Make your attempt to get back on the wash emphatic. Sprint to get back in the sweet spot. It is better to go all out for a short period of time that to go easier but be paddling uphill for a longer period of time. Paddling uphill just destroys your muscles. You want to minimize time spent doing it at all costs.
Take your drinks and get your food on the wash. You can usually miss a stroke on the wash to get your drink hose in your mouth or grab a gel off of your board, but be prepared to make the next few strokes hard ones if necessary to re-establish ideal position in the sweet spot of the wash you’re riding. If I need two strokes to grab a gel or get a drink I usually miss one then re-establish myself where I want to be on the wash before missing another. In essence I’m accessing my food in 2 stages.
Be mindful of other waves on the course like motorboat wakes. I strongly suggest that if you’re in a cooperative train you just let these waves go. Grabbing a motorboat wake often involves cranking it up for a few strokes which takes energy. The ride you get from the wake usually only lasts for 20 seconds or so and then the pack is scrambling to re-establish the train, which again often involves sprinting and consumes huge amounts of energy. I’ve seen it happen again and again in long races. You need to understand that if you’re chasing these waves you’re likely wasting energy, especially if you’re doing it early in the race. Even if someone gets some separation from the pack chasing one of these waves, if it is early in the race it is almost certain that the pack is going to catch back up just by working together. When long races are about managing lactic acid build up and energy reserves, going anaerobic and producing lactate needlessly and wasting energy chasing these waves makes no sense. In competitive draft trains it is likely that the paddlers you’re with are going to go for these waves. I still don’t understand why, unless it is in the late stages of the race and paddlers are trying to use these waves to establish position for their finishing kick, but I can almost guarantee it will happen. It happened over and over again at this year’s SEA Paddle starting in the first 5 km of the 40 km race. While it can be a good way to thin out the pack, from my perspective it is all just a needless energy drain. It’s not something I advocate until the last 5 km of the race.
Use your GPS and get to know the pace or speed of the pack with different leaders (including yourself). Knowing the relative speed of everyone in the pack by monitoring the speed of their leads provides valuable information that you’ll need when planning your finish.
Monitor your blood lactate levels for the duration of the race. Remember you no longer are operating from a “zero” lactate position after the start. If you can find a good ride on someone’s wash after your opening 10 to 15 minutes then you’re out of the danger zone with regards to lactate accumulation but not by as much as you were before the start of the race. Your lactate will quickly climb back into the danger zone if you go too hard for too long. Don’t be afraid to sprint when needed, but don’t be reckless. Sprinting to stay in contact with the wash is a good idea if required and it doesn’t take too long, but you can’t go for an extended, indefinite, period of time. Remember wash represents your chance to rest while maintaining speed so if you’re going to sprint, know that you’ve got a rest on the wash lined up within at most a couple of minutes. Jumping from one train to a faster train ahead of you is a time where monitoring blood lactate is especially useful. Understand that you have a window in which you can catch the train in front of you. If you can do it within that window and then get a rest on the wash of the faster train it’s great. But if you take too long to chase down that faster train the window is going to slam shut and you’re going to be in trouble with serious lactate accumulation issues which are going to force you to slow down, possibly to the point where you’re dead in the water.
Don’t feel you always have to lead fast. Sometimes, especially if you’re starting to feel cumulative fatigue and don’t feel fully rested from your last lead when it is time to lead again, it is a good idea to lead slower than you’re capable of paddling and continue to rest (or at the very least conserve energy). This is particularly useful (I’d say even mandatory) if you’re leading in the very late stages of the race when people in the train are starting to consider their finishing kicks.
In cooperative trains don’t make others work to take the lead. You don’t want them making you work to take your turn up front. It’s all about conserving energy and the train is your ticket to saving energy for most of the race. Communicate with the person on your wash and let them know you’re about to turn over the lead and which side you’ll be pulling out on. Then pull out to that side and let the next person in the train take the lead. This is a great time for you to grab a drink or some food because if the train is 3 or 4 people long you’ll have a few seconds where you can sit without paddling while it passes you. Keep your eye on the train and as the last person in the train passes you tuck your board in behind theirs and get in the sweet spot on their wash. Be careful not to rest too long when you’ve given up the lead or you’ll find the train is by you and left you paddling uphill to get back on it which is often hard to do after a long lead.
At Paddle Monster our specific preparation for Chattajack began August 7th with a 12 week training block, periodized to maximize results on October 28th. There’s never a bad time to join Paddle Monster. Paddle training is something you can do all year around. For more information, go to paddlemonster.com
Next Article: Part 5: Planning the Finish when you are in the Draft Train