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The Kayak Stroke: Finesse over Power

What makes kayaking so accessible to women is that it's really about finesse and not so much about strength. You don't have to be a big ball of muscle to enjoy kayaking. Paddlers with good technique look and feel effortless on the water.


The key to finesse is to understand and dispel two misconceptions about kayaking. The first being that the most important muscles used for kayaking are in your arms. And the second being that you have to plant and pull your paddle through the water. It may look like kayakers are using mostly their arms to paddle. But the strength of paddlers, with good technique, comes from their core. In other words, you should use your core muscles, every time you take a stroke.

Your arms act as an extension of your core, but they are not doing all of the work on their own. This is an important concept, not only to achieve graceful and efficient paddle strokes. But also, to help protect your shoulders and to keep you from tiring out, too soon. To get the feel for proper torso rotation, you'll want to sit up nice and straight. Put your hands on your belly button and imagine that your head is fused to your upper body, so you can't move it independently of your belly button. From here, you'll want to rotate, leading with the belly button, to the left. And then, rotate leading with the belly button, to the right. Keep doing this, nice and slow, so you get the feel for it. This is what I mean by good torso rotation. It's moving from the core.

The second misconception about paddling is that you want to plant your paddle in the water and pull it through. Instead, you want to imagine that the water is something solid, maybe like cement. And if you planted your paddle in cement, you wouldn't be able to just pull it through. You would have to use your core, to move your boat. To get the feel for this, try sitting in your kayak, close to the beach. Hold your paddle normally, as if you were going to take a paddle stroke and stick your paddle blade in the sand or mud. Once the blade is firmly stuck in the sand, move the bow of your kayak back and forth, toward and away from the paddle that is stuck in the sand.

This is only a drill that will help you get the feel for how to engage your core and good torso rotation. This drill is easier to do in a rec boat, because rec kayaks are shorter and more responsive. But you'll get the idea in a touring kayak, as well. You'll feel yourself working from the core, out to your arms. Instead of working just with your arms. This concept I like to call, "plant and rotate."

These insights of torso rotation and plant and rotate are very important, basic skills that are very helpful for every single paddle stroke that you'll learn. Remember, that when you have good technique, kayaking looks and feels effortless. I've already mentioned, that it's important to sit upright in your kayak, with your backrest supporting you. Lift your chest and keep your head up and your gaze ahead.

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