The concept of requiring to be in the ‘correct gear’ to achieve maximum power (hence speed) when racing, is covered in the document on ‘Optimum Paddling Cadence’. If you’ve gone to trouble of determining your best paddling cadence by the method suggested here, or any other you prefer, it’s daft not to operate at close to this optimum stroke rate in important competitions.
It is not unheard of for UK sprint paddlers to find themselves racing into strong (occasionally very strong!) headwinds at Nottingham. With no option to ‘lower the gearing’ (by shortening the shaft), typically paddlers either:-
Pull very hard for the first half of the race maintaining their normal technique and stroke rate, and then blow!
‘Short stroke’ to maintain their preferred stroke rate, to the detriment of good paddling.
Maintain the stroke length, pace themselves properly, but operate below their most effective ‘cadence window’.
Think about it, and if you get the opportunity, try it. When your ploughing in to a strong wind in a training session (with other paddlers you know well). Shorten your paddle by 2 cm. The others will try and burn you off initially, to prove you’re wasting your time. Just keep faith in your normal technique, and wait for them to blow!
The ‘Optimum Cadence Document’ is aimed very much at determining a stroke rate ‘window’ for specific sprint distances. But the ability to make gearing adjustment because you feel you need to, is equally relevant to non-sprint situations, whether because you’re getting fitter during the season, race conditions dictate (shallow course, headwind) or whatever. For the non-sprinters it’s just a bit less science, a bit more understanding your own abilities.
(I’ve done a ‘there and back’ surf ski race where ‘there’ was downwind, so obviously ‘back’ wasn’t! After a few minutes of struggling in to the wind on the way back, I stopped for 10 seconds or so and shortened my paddle. I then had 45 minutes of somewhat more comfortable paddling, catching and passing some of my fellow ‘slower paddlers’).