Posture, Setup, Arms and Blade Mechanics
As a kayaker, you're an athlete. Therefore, you should set up like one. Every sport has a "ready" position. For a football lineman, it's the three-point stance. For the basketball player, it's the triple threat. There's no catchy name for the ready position in kayaking, but there's basically one rule: don't slouch. Slouching in the thoracic (upper) spine is something every kayaker wants to do, and something everyone should avoid. If you slouch in this area, you will have a tendency to paddle with just your arms, failing to rotate your hips and allowing your legs, hips and core to work freely. Additionally, you will likely feel an incredible amount of tension in your upper back and neck, leading to fatigue and injury. Do whatever you can to sit up straight and tall while you paddle, keeping your core active and allowing your hips to rotate freely.
Mental Cues: Imagine you have a hook drilled into the top of your skull, and someone has tied a string to it and is firmly pulling your head and spine into an erect position. Graphic image, but effective.
2. Set Up
The kayak stroke is not a continuous motion, as is the case with riding a bicycle. There is a definitive pause between the left and right stroke, at which point you are able to relax slightly, let the boat glide through the water, and assume position for the next stroke. If you rush your stroke, you will not achieve the maximum amount of boat glide and will only cost yourself valuable energy.
Each stroke should begin and end with a defined set-up. Elite paddlers vary greatly in their set-up position, but there are a few common links. First, the bottom arm (the side you're about to paddle on) should be straight. A straight bottom arm allows for the maximum length in your stroke and provides a stable base from which to apply all your power onto the blade. This bottom arm should stay straight and locked when you take the blade to the water. Second, the top arm should be relaxed, with your hand about ear-height and elbow bent at about a 90-degree angle. Finally, think of pointing the bottom arm slightly downward and straight toward the centerline of the boat. This will allow for the most optimal angle at which to attack the water.
Mental Cue: "Sight the horizon". Between each stroke, think of sighting the horizon through the knuckles of your bottom hand and straight down the centerline of the boat. Also think of paddling "set-up to set-up" to reinforce a proper position and pause between each stroke.
3. The Stroke
The stroke can be broken down into the drive, catch, power phase, and exit. However, for simplicity, its best to just think of the stroke as one dynamic motion. The most important thing to remember in this phase is that the boat is not propelled forward by pulling the blade toward you. The blade actually stays in a fixed position in the water, and the boat moves forward by pulling yourself past the paddle. Therefore, you should think of yourself more like a pole-vaulter, planting the blade in the water and springing yourself forward with each stroke. Bury your blade fully in the water and close to the boat, make sure you have a firm connection with your leg and the footboard, and "vault" yourself forward. Finally, make sure to exit fairly quickly, once your hip passes the blade. This will prevent you from dragging your blade in the water and slowing the boat down.
Mental Cue: "Bury your blade", "Pole-vaulter", and “Quick exit".
-Think set-up to set-up, and sight the horizon between each stroke
-Vault yourself forward, rather than pulling the blade toward you.
About the author: Graham is a writer, coach, and paddler. One of his greatest joys in life is paddling long distances in his home waters of the Puget Sound. He also enjoys traveling and scoping out new and undiscovered paddling locations around the world. Graham is a member of The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team.
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