Advanced Paddling Technique

by Marty Grabijas
first appeared in Kayak Touring 2005

A forward stroke is one of paddling’s “gifts.” Your first lesson in how to execute a forward stroke probably sounded something like, “Plant at your feet and pull on the paddle.” While that explanation got you moving forward, it would do little to help you make time to your destination when the sun is getting low and shadows are getting long. Learning a powerful and efficient forward stroke is less about muscle and more about proper technique that must be perfectly practiced until it is automatic. And that perfect practice will keep you going out on the water over and over—hence one of paddling’s gifts—experiencing epic sunsets and sublime moments when other paddlers are at home watching reality television.

While everyone’s body moves and functions differently, efficient and powerful forward strokes carry three universal traits: powerful rotation of the torso, which originates in the hips; a silent and deliberate plant; and applying full force in the first seven to eight inches of the stroke with the paddle shaft as vertical as possible.

    Top indicators for achieving massive torso rotation
  • Here we see that the paddler’s body is fully rotated—so much so that the paddle is almost parallel with the boat’s keel line.
  • Looking at the PFD, you can see that the front zipper is well off to the side, indicating that the rotation is happening deep in the torso and not just in the shoulders.
  • While there is tension in the torso that is ready to be unleashed, the paddler’s arms are relaxed, and the paddle is poised for a powerful plant.
  • When it’s done properly, you should even feel your butt shifting position in your seat as you rotate.
  • Technique tune-up tip: Hold your paddle in the air parallel to the keel and at shoulder-to-eye height between each stroke for 20 strokes when you first get out on the water. Count “one thousand, two thousand” and then plant. Olympic sprint racers call this “air time.” It helps develop rotation, balance, and a powerful plant.
    How to make your paddle plant silent and powerful
  • Your paddle blade should enter the water with just a whisper.
  • The paddle blade should enter the water tight to the boat, and the shaft should be more vertical than you are probably used to.
  • The plant and pulling on the blade are two separate and distinct movements—fully rotate and then submerge the blade with a stabbing motion before pulling.
  • Keeping your grip loose will allow you to extend your plant.
  • Technique tune-up tip: Place a small piece of duct tape on your deck two inches ahead of where you typically plant. Let this be your target. Try to hit it by rotating your torso and relaxing your grip—not by bobbing forward at the waist.
    Unleash the power
  • If you have done everything correctly, your torso will be wound up at the hips, ready to unleash the power that is stored.
  • Visualize lifting your butt off the seat with only your foot connecting to the foot brace and your blade connecting to the water.
  • Stop applying power almost immediately—when the blade reaches your knee or sooner.
  • Technique tune-up tip: Sit up straight and keep your grip loose. Try to lose contact with your cockpit’s back band—this is a good indicator that you are indeed sitting upright and not just in your usual everyday position. A loose grip will keep your body relaxed and poised for powerful and effortless miles.

Like a martial artist practicing a specific sequence for years and striving for fluidity, you should focus your technique work on achieving perfect form. Moving the boat faster with less effort will come as a by-product of proper technique.

Marty Grabijas is an ACA Instructor for Coastal Kayaking and an Instructor Trainer for Whitewater Kayaking.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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