How to kayak with the right paddling technique

The basic step to getting started in basic paddling strokes is to hold the paddle appropriately. Paddlers’ hold over the paddle largely affects the kayaking performance. Hence, it is vital to employ the right paddling techniques for effective kayaking.

Grabbing the paddle also has to be done methodically. In order to paddle effectually, it is necessary to make sure you have a comfortable grasp over the paddle shaft. If you grab your shaft too tightly, or if you place your hands too close to each other, paddling will be a strenuous task. You should be able to hold the paddle in two easy steps.

  1. First grab the paddle with your control grip.
  2. Then lay your other hand at a distance that is a bit more than your shoulder width. To ensure if this is correct, raise your hands above your head while holding on to the paddle. If your elbows make an angle of 90 degrees, then you have correctly held the paddle.


The primary stroke for propelling a kayak forward with a paddle:

  1. Sit up straight. Slouching forward or backwards limits your upper body's ability to move. You can get more power by using your upper body than by using just your arms.
  2. Don't apply power to the paddle until the paddle blade is completely under the water. Don't use just the tip of the blade. If the paddle is making gurgling/bubbling noises, you are wasting effort. If you are pulling a lot of air down into the water you are also wasting your effort.
  3. Push with your upper arm at the same time you pull with your lower arm. Rotate your torso to follow the paddle. You should feel like you are pulling the boat past the paddle. You may push your upper hand across the centerline of the boat.
  4. Don't pull your lower hand past your hip. If you rotate your torso, this point may be a little farther back than if you don't rotate.
  5. Don't lift water at the end of the stroke. If you are splashing a lot, you are wasting your effort.


Body strength and pure power rowing won't take you far

k1paddleinwater.jpg picture by streetrally

Efficient paddling doesn't require a great deal of upper body strength. Rather than thinking about pulling the paddle through the water, the professionals think of the paddle as almost stationary and tries to pull the kayak past the paddle. The long kayak paddle is used as a lever to move the boat forward. Using leverage to pull the kayak past the paddle allows the experienced paddler to employ every major muscle group including the lower back, abdominal muscles, and thighs in moving the kayak forward. For a really powerful stroke, forget about paddling through a liquid. Think of the water as viscous mud. If you pretend that you are levering yourself along through a sea of mud when you paddle, you'll have the elements of a power stroke.

This is also known as torso twisting (body movement), it utilises all the major muscle group of your body and drive the energy down to every stroke of paddle you pull. Basically, less arm strength and power are used as the twisting or rotating momentum of your body helps to guide every stroke of the paddle into and out of the water. This is the proper paddling technique to achieve in order to go further in distance coverage and arms strength itself is not enough to last you through out the whole journey or race.

flatwater kayaking racing sprinting techniques marathon k1

Torso rotation means basically that you rotate your body from the waist. However, sprint and marathon paddlers rotate below the waist. They rotate on the seat using leg push on the active paddle side and often sit on a rotating seat. Almost all but the well trained sprint and marathon k-1 paddlers DO NOT rotate no matter how much they think they do. It's easy to fool yourself, but if you are not spinning back and forth on the seat you are not rotating in the method that delivers a real power to the stroke that comes from the legs. Push the boat forward via the bottoms of one foot at a time and not from the seat of your butt. The reason for using torso rotation is that the torso muscles are large. These are capable of working for long periods of time generating large amounts of work.

Arm muscles, on the other hand, are smaller and are better suited to lower levels of output for shorter periods of time. However, arms can be moved faster and at very high stroke rates. If you watch a top sprinter at a race start, you will see that they are all arms for the first few strokes till they get their boat up and out of the hole, and moving at higher speed where they transition into full rotation using the legs and back and abs via rotation. If you try to paddle using only your arms, you will limit your speed an endurance.

One problem that some paddlers have is that they strive for torso rotation but actually perform only shoulder rotation. That is, they are rotating their torso somewhat but the major portion of the motion and work is coming from the arms rotating at the shoulders. While stronger and having more endurance than just the arm muscles, shoulders do not have the power that the torso has.


Observe the torso twisting/rotation action in the picture below:

Try planting the paddle in the water as far forward as you can reach with a slight forward lean. Push forward with your upper arm at jaw height until the pushing arm is almost straight.

Use your lower arm as a fulcrum. This increases the leverage in your paddle stroke and prevents you from pulling too far back with your lower arm. Keep your feet on the kayak's footbraces while you paddle. You need something to push against so you can pull the kayak along with you. Near the end of your arm extension, a little torso twist combined with a forward thrust of the shoulder adds extra power to this stroke. End your stroke with your arm upper nearly straight and level with your shoulder. Your fist should be at chin level, and your thumb should be at the centerline of the kayak deck.

k1women.jpg picture by streetrally

Keep a relaxed grip on the paddle. When you grip the paddle too tightly you feel tense, your forearms tire and cramp and you promote tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. If your hand falls asleep during or after paddling, or your wrist and forearm are swollen and sore from paddling, you're probably gripping the paddle too tightly. If you are using a feathered paddle, and you think you are developing carpal tunnel problems, try adjusting your grip on the paddle shaft so that very little wrist movement is needed to feather the blade. Always try to keep your wrist, forearm, and shoulder in a straight line for the pushing part of the stroke. Try stretching tight forearms by bending your wrist while pulling your fingertips towards your elbow.