Flatwater Freestyle: Wise or a Waste?

On September 15th 2019, I boarded the first of many ferries in my campervan, leaving Ireland to explore Europe’s playspots and start training full-time in my kayak. It was a huge lifestyle change that was a long time in the making. I had been considering the idea for 2 years prior. This lifestyle has afforded me countless opportunities for which I am grateful. I’ve been able to move with changing weather and water levels to suit my wants and needs as a freestyle athlete. The reality is that the vast majority of freestyle paddlers out there do not have this luxury. Indeed, for some, whitewater of any description, never mind a quality freestyle feature, is a lengthy drive or even a flight away. If this sounds like you, flatwater freestyle may be the only option you have to consistently train in your freestyle kayak.

Flatwater freestyle training is something with which I am intimately familiar. Before I moved into my van, I would train on the flat 3-4 times per week, in between fortnightly flights to Nottingham. I did this for 2 years. My conclusion is that there are innumerable ways to learn, progress and improve your freestyle kayaking game on flatwater. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at Australian paddler Jack Newland.

In 2019, Jack took his place on the podium at the Sort World Championships, securing a bronze medal in the Junior Men’s K1 class. Jack spent the majority of his time training on flatwater with occasional trips to the surf and Penrith whitewater stadium in Sydney. Knowing this, his performance in 2019 was nothing short of inspiring. He was more than capable of competing with other young men who had regular access to world class freestyle holes. Jack irrevocably proved that you can learn whitewater skills in a flatwater environment. The lessons from flatwater are transferable to moving water.

So, what are the lessons? What stands to be gained from flatwater freestyle training? Let’s talk specifics:

1. Refining Movement Patterns

Obviously, flatwater is much less dynamic than whitewater. It’s a slower, more stable environment. Things like boat positioning or direction, and timing of initiation don’t matter so much on flatwater. This is a good thing when you’re trying to get to grips with a new trick, technique or movement. There are less variables to control. It allows us to focus on the bare bones of the technical point we are looking to rehearse. So, whether you’re trying to get more trunk extension on your loop, get to grips with new combos or just link a few cartwheel ends together, flatwater offers an easier practice environment for the initial phases of learning.

2. Finding your centre of gravity

Supreme balance is an essential skill in freestyle. Balance is essentially knowing where your centre of gravity is and how your movements affect it. Flatwater tricks like bow stalls, stern stalls, pirouettes and cartwheels allow us to explore balance in a slower, more stable setting. There are infinite ways to increase the complexity of these moves. Can you do it with no paddle, with your eyes closed, in different boats, with your heart rated maxed out?

Balance is one of those ‘soft skills’ that operates in the background of any great freestyle performance. If you’re as comfortable on end as you are just sitting in your boat, your freestyle skills will improve much more rapidly. So, get creative on flatwater and challenge your balance. It will certainly increase your rate of learning on moving water.

3. Power training

Power is the lovechild of strength and speed. It’s the ability to generate high amounts of force in as short a time period as possible. Why is this important for freestyle? Well, for most tricks, there are moments when the athlete must quickly move from one specific position to another with very precise timing. These transitions must be completed with a baseline level of force to make the trick work. If they are completed with higher levels of force, while maintaining precision in direction and timing, the moves will go bigger.

Without the force of moving water to assist us, some flatwater moves require more power to be successful in the first place. The more stable, consistent conditions of flatwater also allow us to focus more intently on power production. So, if your goal is increased power in your kayak, flatwater training can be a great place to start.

4. Conditioning

Where does energy come from when athletes compete? Without getting too complicated, energy in the body is generated when a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is converted to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ATP is the currency of energy. This is what we need. So, the question then becomes; how do we get ATP?

ATP can be generated via 3 pathways:

  • Anaerobic Alactic/Phosphagen Pathway

  • Anaerobic Lactic/Glycolytic Pathway

  • Aerobic Pathway

At any given moment, all 3 pathways are contributing to the production of ATP. However, certain activities rely more heavily on one pathway than another depending on its intensity and duration. Appropriate conditioning allows us to maximise the efficiency of these pathways or, more specifically, of the pathways our sport predominantly utilises.

Flatwater provides an ideal environment for extremely sport-specific conditioning. If you wish to increase your anaerobic capacity, you can design a flatwater conditioning program for that. On flatwater, we don’t have to worry about asymmetrical features or flushing off the back. We can target left and right, front and back equally and with sustained intensity. This can be quite difficult to achieve in all but a few whitewater features. Hence, flatwater training can form the backbone of a well-conceived and effective conditioning program.

While there is a great deal of advantages to flatwater freestyle, it comes with some cautionary notes. I mentioned earlier that boat positioning, direction and timing don’t matter so much on flatwater. This can be really helpful when trying to learn something new. However, it can contribute to the development of some bad habits, of which we must be wary.

Moves like splitwheels and tricky woos are defined partly on the degree of rotation that the boat makes relative to a fixed point. In whitewater, this point is directly upstream of the feature – 12 o’clock. Under- or over-rotation of the boat results in you falling on your face, flushing off the feature, or not scoring the move in competition. So, when we train these movements on flatwater, it’s important to know where your ‘upstream marker’ is in order to develop a robust, transferable technique. While this may not be essential at first, once you have gained a basic understanding of a trick’s mechanics, I would strongly encourage it.

One more thing to be wary of on flatwater is rhythm. Flatwater is flat. It’s static and doesn’t move too much. It doesn’t have a rhythm - you control the pace. You can cartwheel slowly or quickly. In whitewater features, there is a rhythm with which you must synchronise the boat. Interestingly, this rhythm varies from one feature to the next. It can even change in the same feature at different water levels. To do well, you must learn to adapt your technique to this. Flatwater is more forgiving in this respect and can mean that you are underprepared for the demands of moving water. To combat this, I would suggest intentionally varying the rhythm in which you complete your flatwater tricks. Do 10 ends in super slow-motion. Then do another 10 as quickly as possible while maintaining good form. This will develop a heightened awareness of changing rhythms and ensure you’re ready for whitewater when the opportunity presents itself.

Ultimately, there will always be a bit of a jump between flatwater and whitewater. However, being aware of their differences helps you prepare for whitewater intelligently and narrows the gap between the two. There are heaps of really valuable lessons to learn on flatwater. So, if you find yourself unable to get to a premium freestyle feature, do not despair. Rejoice! Flatwater is pretty much everywhere. Go take advantage and become a flatwater freestyle ninja!

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