When out kayaking, it is important to try to maintain a relaxed grip on your paddle. I have seen far too many paddlers using a death grip on the shaft of their paddles. Unfortunately, too many people are unaware of the many benefits of holding the paddle in a more loose and relaxed manner. What follows are the 3 most important reasons to use a relaxed grip when holding a kayak paddle.
1. A relaxed grip will prevent blisters on the hands. Many kayakers experience blisters when paddling, especially at the base of the thumbs. Instead of seeking out gloves, foam pads on your shaft, or lotions and salves, just relax your grip on the paddle. When holding a paddle properly, there should be lots of space between your hands and the shaft. The ability of air to circulate between your skin and the paddle reduces the heat and friction that causes blisters. It is rarely necessary to hold your paddle tightly unless you are experiencing strong winds or strong currents that are threatening to rip the paddle from your hands. If you can’t hang on to your paddle in normal conditions using a relaxed grip, your paddle is probably too heavy and you need to replace it with something lighter.
2. Relaxing your grip on the paddle relaxes all the muscles through the arms and across the back of the shoulders and neck. This relaxing of the muscles will help you to paddle farther with less fatigue and reduce soreness across the back of the shoulders and neck.
3. Using a relaxed grip keeps your wrists and forearms in a more anatomically beneficial alignment. Death gripping a straight shaft paddle puts a significant sideways bend in your wrists. In addition, as you take strokes and move the paddle back and forth between the right and left sides of your kayak, you are actually bending your wrists back and forth from side to side. This repetitive motion can cause problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis of the wrists and elbows. By relaxing the grip, the paddle shaft is able to move back and forth without the hands having to bend. The hands, wrists, and forearms can stay in a straight alignment throughout the stroke. Using a bent shaft paddle can also help to reduce this side to side motion, but you will pay considerably more for a bent shaft paddle than for a comparable straight shaft paddle and the bent shaft will weigh slightly more. Bent shaft paddles do have some other potential benefits, so you may still want to consider one, but I am not a strong advocate of the bent shaft as a way to reduce wrist and elbow problems.
When you are first getting started in kayaking, or whenever you are concentrating on learning a new skill, it is likely that your will find yourself gripping your paddle more tightly. This is perfectly normal. However, as you get more comfortable with the sport and the skills become second nature, you should not need to continue using a death grip. When paddlers find themselves in situations and conditions that are beyond their comfort zone, this is also a time when they may notice a tense grip. It is especially important to remind yourself to relax at these moments since relaxation is critical to paddling in waves and rough water. If your hands and arms are tense, chances are your waist and hips are tense as well.