Tweak my Technique

by Wes Kisting

With a little practice, almost anyone can climb into a kayak and move it around skillfully, with little effort. What really distinguishes the expert paddler from the novice is the thousand tiny little refinements the expert makes to his (or her) paddling stroke. At a glance, these refinements may be impossible to detect, but let the expert and the novice paddle side-by-side for several hours, and the difference in their performance can be quite remarkable. Why? Because, over time, all those tiny refinements add up to a big difference in speed, control, and endurance.

So how can you get started on the path to paddling greatness? Begin with these five effective ways to tweak your stroke. Practice them diligently, and you’ll find yourself paddling faster, straighter, and easier than ever before.

Rotate Your Torso

The single biggest misconception about paddling is that it’s an “arms only” exercise. The best paddlers know that about 75% of their paddling power comes from their torso. The muscles in your torso are far more powerful than the wimpy bicepts and tricepts that propel your arms. They can generate much greater force, for much longer periods of time, with less fatigue. If you incorporate these muscles into your paddling stroke, your endurance level will double or triple compared to paddling with your arms alone.

So how exactly do you tap the power of your core? Here’s an excellent paddling drill for learning to incorporate torso rotation into your stroke:

1) Get into your kayak and pick up the paddle.
2) Fully extend your arms (holding the paddle as far out in front of you as possible) and lock your elbows.
3) Without bending your elbows, begin paddling.
4) Continue paddling this way for at least fifteen minutes.

This paddling drill forces you to do two very important things: First, it prevents you from using your arms to paddle. Since your elbows are immobilized, the only thing your arms can do is raise or lower the paddle blades to make them enter or exit the water. (Don’t cheat and try to pull with your shoulders.) Second, it forces you to rotate your torso. Without the power of your arms, torso rotation becomes the only source of propulsion. The more you rotate your torso, the more power you will get out of each stroke.

Obviously, you wouldn’t want to paddle this way permanently. It’s only a skill-building drill. By locking out your elbows, you exaggerate the need for torso rotation, forcing you to develop your torso’s “muscle memory” so that it can be incorporated into your normal stroke. Try the paddling drill for at least fifteen minutes so you can get a feel for the movement and the power of good torso rotation. It may feel awkward at first, but the longer you practice, the more natural it will become to rotate your torso, and the better you will be able to tap the power of your core during your normal stroke.

Push and Pull

Most people understand that to propel a kayak forward, you need to dip the paddle blade into the water and pull back on the paddle shaft. But did you know that you can push on the shaft at the same time to generate even greater power? It’s true! A kayak paddle is constantly pivoting around two alternating pivot points: your two hands. As one paddle blade dips into the water, your lower hand (nearest to the dipping blade) must pull on the shaft (with the help of your rotating torso, not arm strength). At the same time, however, your upper hand (nearest to the airborne blade) should push forward (again, with the help of your rotating torso, not arm strength). By pushing with your upper hand, you exert tremendous forward leverage on the shaft. Your lower hand becomes the pivot point for this leverage, transfering the power into rearward paddle propulsion that drives the kayak forward. Many kayakers refer to this as the “push-pull” technique. The first time you incorporate the push-pull into your stroke (pushing with the upper hand while pulling with the lower), you will be delighted to find that you can generate far more power using the push-pull than you ever could by pulling alone. Make it a regular part of your stroke, and you’ll paddle faster, for longer, with less fatigue.

Minimize Stroke Lag

Most people try to paddle “faster” by increasing how much strength they apply to the paddle blades. While this method generally yields greater speed, it comes at the high cost of rapid exhaustion. But what if I told you there is a better way to increase speed, without increasing effort? It’s true! The secret is not to pull harder on the paddle, but to minimize the lag time between strokes. Your paddle stroke should be one, continuous, fluid motion, not unlike the movement of legs pedaling a bicycle. As one paddle blade is getting ready to exit the water (just as it pulls past your hip at the end of your stroke), the opposite paddle blade should already be extended far forward, ready to enter the water and begin the next stroke. At the same time you lift the exiting blade out of the water, you should already be planting the opposite blade (sharply but smoothly) into the water and starting to pull. Don’t think of these movements as separate actions. They shouldn’t be. Keep the paddle constantly moving to minimize the lag between strokes, and you’ll find your kayak traveling faster without any extra effort on your part.

The elements of an effective paddling stroke. Increase Your Angle

Your “paddling angle” refers to how upright you hold the paddle during each stroke. If you hands stay relatively low throughout the paddling movement (never rising above your chest or collar), and your paddle shaft never angles more than 45 degrees off of true horizontal, then you are a “low angle” paddler. Low angle paddlers are fairly common since paddling at a low angle saves your shoulders from doing as much work to raise and lower the shaft. If, on the other hand, your hands regularly rise higher than your face during the paddling movement, and the paddle shaft approaches near-vertical during each stroke, you are a “high angle” paddler. Why does this matter? Because the angle at which you paddle can have a big impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of your stroke.

High angle paddling initially feels more taxing on your shoulders because it takes more shoulder action to raise your arms higher and hold the paddle shaft closer to vertical throughout the stroke. The payoff, however, is that the paddle blades pass closer to the boat during each stroke (ideally, right next to the hull). By paddling closer to the boat, you generate more straight-forward power and less turning leverage, resulting in a straighter, faster pace overall. Even a slight increase in your paddling angle can make a noticeable difference in tracking and speed, especially when crossing a long distance. If you’re a low-angle paddler by nature (most people are), you don’t have to convert to extreme high-angle paddling to get good performance, but you should experiment with your paddling angle (increasing it by moderate amounts) to see what a higher-angle paddling style can do for you. The real pay-off is in endurance. A higher paddling angle engages a slightly different set of muscles during the stroke, granting temporary relief to your low angle paddling muscles. Once you add a high-angle stroke to your repertoire of skills, you can switch back and forth between a high or low style to extend your long-distance stamina.

Relax Your Grip

Most new paddlers (and even some experienced paddlers) grip their paddle shaft much too tightly. Perhaps they’re nervous by nature, or perhaps they’re afraid their paddle will sink if they drop it. (It shouldn’t—paddles are supposed to float.) Whatever the cause, a tight grip can lead to all kinds of trouble: tendonitis, joint pain, wrist and elbow injuries, forearm cramps, quicker fatigue, and so on. Experienced paddlers know that it’s vital to maintain a relaxed grip, especially during long-distance paddling.

When you grip the paddle shaft, grip it loosely. Don’t exert any gripping pressure. Just curl your fingers lightly around the shaft and use light pressure with your thumb to keep the shaft from dropping out of your hand. When you pull on the shaft, pull with your curled fingers, but don’t grip any tighter with your thumb. When you push on the shaft, push with your palm. A good way to practice a looser grip is to place your thumbs on top of the paddle shaft (on the same side as your fingers) rather than allowing your thumb to curl under to form a solid grip. It will feel a little awkward at first without the help of your thumbs, but soon you’ll learn that your fingers can hold the shaft securely on their own. You’ll also discover that the shaft pivots in your hands much more freely, exerting less rotational stress on your wrists, when your thumbs are not allowed to maintain a tight grip. Best of all, you’ll find that your forearms feel much better (less burn, greater stamina) as you paddle.

by Wes Kisting